The Egyptians and Syrians advanced during the first 24–48 hours, after which momentum began to swing in Israel's favor. By the second week of the war, the Syrians had been pushed out of the Golan Heights. In the Sinai to the south, the Israelis struck at the seam between two invading Egyptian armies, crossed the Suez Canal (where the old ceasefire line had been), and cut off the Egyptian Third Army just as a United Nations cease-fire came into effect.
The war had far-reaching implications for many nations. The Arab World, which had been humiliated by the lopsided defeat of the Egyptian-Syrian-Jordanian alliance during the Six-Day War, felt psychologically vindicated by its string of victories early in the conflict. This vindication paved the way for the peace process that followed, as well as liberalizations such as Egypt's infitah policy. The Camp David Accords, which came soon after, led to normalized relations between Egypt and Israel—the first time any Arab country had recognized the Israeli state. Egypt, which had already been drifting away from the Soviet Union, then left the Soviet sphere of influence entirely.
In the years following that war, Israel erected lines of fortification in both the Sinai and the Golan Heights. In 1971 Israel spent $500 million fortifying its positions on the Suez Canal, a chain of fortifications and gigantic earthworks known as the Bar Lev Line, named after Israeli General Chaim Bar-Lev.
Nonetheless, according to Chaim Herzog:
The Israeli decision was to be conveyed to the Arab states by the U.S. government. The U.S. was informed of the decision, but not that it was to transmit it. There is no evidence of receipt from Egypt or Syria, who thus apparently never received the offer. The decision was kept a closely-guarded secret within Israeli government circles and the offer was withdrawn in October, 1967.
Egypt and Syria both desired a return of the land lost in the Six-Day War. However, the Khartoum Arab Summit issued the "three no's", resolving that there would be "no peace, no recognition and no negotiation with Israel."
President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt died in September 1970. He was succeeded by Anwar Sadat, who resolved to fight Israel and win back the territory lost in the Six-Day War. In 1971, Sadat, in response to an initiative by UN intermediary Gunnar Jarring, declared that if Israel committed itself to "withdrawal of its armed forces from Sinai and the Gaza Strip" and to implementation of other provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 242 as requested by Jarring, Egypt would then "be ready to enter into a peace agreement with Israel." Israel responded that it would not withdraw to the pre-June 5, 1967 lines.
Sadat hoped that by inflicting even a limited defeat on the Israelis, the status quo could be altered. Hafiz al-Assad, the head of Syria, had a different view. He had little interest in negotiation and felt the retaking of the Golan Heights would be a purely military option. Since the Six-Day War, Assad had launched a massive military buildup and hoped to make Syria the dominant military power of the Arab states. With the aid of Egypt, Assad felt that his new army could win convincingly against the Israeli army and thus secure Syria's role in the region. Assad only saw negotiations beginning once the Golan Heights had been retaken by force, which would induce Israel to give up the West Bank and Gaza, and make other concessions.
Sadat also had important domestic concerns in wanting war. "The three years since Sadat had taken office… were the most demoralized in Egyptian history… A desiccated economy added to the nation's despondency. War was a desperate option. In his biography of Sadat, Raphael Israeli argued that Sadat felt the root of the problem was in the great shame over the Six-Day War, and before any reforms could be introduced he felt that shame had to be overcome. Egypt's economy was in shambles, but Sadat knew that the deep reforms that he felt were needed would be deeply unpopular among parts of the population. A military victory would give him the popularity he needed to make changes. A portion of the Egyptian population, most prominently university students who launched wide protests, strongly desired a war to reclaim the Sinai and was highly upset that Sadat had not launched one in his first three years in office.
The other Arab states showed much more reluctance to fully commit to a new war. King Hussein of Jordan feared another major loss of territory as had occurred in the Six-Day War, during which Jordan had been halved in population. Sadat was also backing the claim of the PLO to the territories (West Bank and Gaza) and in the event of a victory promised Yasser Arafat that he would be given control of them. Hussein still saw the West Bank as part of Jordan and wanted it restored to his kingdom. Moreover, during the Black September crisis of 1970, a near civil war had broken out between the PLO and the Jordanian government. In that war, Syria had intervened militarily on the side of the PLO, estranging Assad and Hussein.
Iraq and Syria also had strained relations, and the Iraqis refused to join the initial offensive. Lebanon, which shared a border with Israel, was not expected to join the Arab war effort due to its small army and already evident instability. The months before the war saw Sadat engage in a diplomatic offensive to try to win support for the war. By the fall of 1973, he claimed the backing of more than a hundred states. These were most of the countries of the Arab League, Non-Aligned Movement, and Organization of African Unity. Sadat had also worked to curry favour in Europe and had some success before the war. Britain and France for the first time sided with the Arab powers against Israel on the United Nations Security Council.
The role of the superpowers, too, was a major factor in the outcome of the two wars. The policy of the Soviet Union was one of the causes of Egypt's military weakness. President Nasser was only able to obtain the material for an anti-aircraft missile defense wall after visiting Moscow and pleading with the Kremlin leaders. He claimed that if supplies were not given, he would have to return to Egypt and tell the Egyptian people Moscow had abandoned them, and then relinquish power to one of his peers who would be able to deal with the Americans. The Americans would then have the upper hand in the region, which Moscow could not permit.
One of Egypt's undeclared objectives of the War of Attrition was to force the Soviet Union to supply Egypt with more advanced arms and war materiel. Egypt felt the only way to convince the Soviet leaders of the deficiencies of most of the aircraft and air defense weaponry supplied to Egypt following 1967 was to put the Soviet weapons to the test against the advanced weaponry the United States had supplied to Israel.
Nasser's policy following the 1967 defeat conflicted with that of the Soviet Union. The Soviets sought to avoid a new conflagration between the Arabs and Israelis so as not to be drawn into a confrontation with the United States. The reality of the situation became apparent when the superpowers met in Oslo and agreed to maintain the status quo. This was unacceptable to Egyptian leaders, and when it was discovered that the Egyptian preparations for crossing the canal were being leaked, it became imperative to expel the Soviets from Egypt. In July 1972, Sadat expelled almost all of the 20,000 Soviet military advisers in the country and reoriented the country's foreign policy to be more favorable to the United States. The Syrians remained close to the Soviet Union.
The Soviets thought little of Sadat's chances in any war. They warned that any attempt to cross the heavily fortified Suez would incur massive losses. The Soviets, who were then pursuing détente, had no interest in seeing the Middle East destabilized. In a June 1973 meeting with U.S. President Richard Nixon, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had proposed Israel pull back to its 1967 border. Brezhnev said that if Israel did not, "we will have difficulty keeping the military situation from flaring up"—an indication that the Soviet Union had been unable to restrain Sadat's plans.
In an interview published in Newsweek (April 9, 1973), President Sadat again threatened war with Israel. Several times during 1973, Arab forces conducted large-scale exercises that put the Israeli military on the highest level of alert, only to be recalled a few days later. The Israeli leadership already believed that if an attack took place, the Israeli Air Force would be able to repel it.
Almost a full year before the war, in an October 24, 1972 meeting with his Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Sadat declared his intention to go to war with Israel even without proper Soviet support. Planning was done in absolute secrecy—even the upper-echelon commanders were not told of war plans until less than a week prior to the attack, and the soldiers were not told until a few hours beforehand. The plan to attack Israel in concert with Syria was code-named Operation Badr (the Arabic word for "full moon"), after the Battle of Badr, in which Muslims under Muhammad defeated the Quraish tribe of Mecca.
The Egyptians did much to further this misconception. Both the Israelis and the Americans felt that the expulsion of the Soviet military observers had severely reduced the effectiveness of the Egyptian army. The Egyptians ensured that there was a continual stream of false information on maintenance problems and a lack of personnel to operate the most advanced equipment. The Egyptians made repeated misleading reports about lack of spare parts that also made their way to the Israelis. Sadat had so long engaged in brinkmanship, that his frequent war threats were being ignored by the world. In May and August 1973 the Egyptian army had engaged in exercises by the border and mobilizing in response both times had cost the Israeli army some $10 million.
For the week leading up to Yom Kippur, the Egyptians staged a week-long training exercise adjacent to the Suez Canal. Israeli intelligence, detecting large troop movements towards the canal, dismissed these movements as mere training exercises. Movements of Syrian troops towards the border were puzzling, but not a threat because, Aman believed, they would not attack without Egypt and Egypt would not attack until the weaponry they wanted arrived.
The obvious reason for choosing the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur for staging a surprise attack on Israel was that on this specific day (unlike any other holiday) the country comes to a complete standstill. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day for Jews, not only observant, but most secular Jews fast, abstain from any use of fire, electricity, engines, communications, etc., and all road traffic comes to a standstill. Many soldiers leave military facilities for home during the holiday and Israel is most vulnerable, especially with much of its army demobilized. The war also coincided with the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, meaning that many of the Muslim soldiers were also fasting. Many others believe that the attack on Yom Kippur surprisingly helped Israel to easily marshal reserves from their homes and synagogues, because the nature of the holiday meant that roads and communication would be largely open, to help organize and mobilize the military.
Despite refusing to participate, King Hussein of Jordan "had met with Sadat and [Syrian President] Assad in Alexandria two weeks before. Given the mutual suspicions prevailing among the Arab leaders, it was unlikely that he had been told any specific war plans. But it was probable that Sadat and Assad had raised the prospect of war against Israel in more general terms to feel out the likelihood of Jordan joining in." On the night of September 25, Hussein secretly flew to Tel Aviv to warn Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir of an impending Syrian attack. "Are they going to war without the Egyptians, asked Mrs. Meir. The king said he didn't think so. 'I think they [Egypt] would cooperate'". Surprisingly, this warning fell on deaf ears. Aman concluded that the king had not told it anything it did not already know. "Eleven warnings of war were received by Israel during September from well placed sources. But [Mossad chief] Zvi Zamir continued to insist that war was not an Arab option. Not even Hussein's warnings succeeded in stirring his doubts". He would later remark that "We simply didn't feel them capable [of War]"
Finally, Zvi Zamir personally went to Europe to meet with Marwan, at midnight on October 5/6th. Marwan informed him that a joint Syrian-Egyptian attack on Israel was imminent. It was this warning in particular, combined with the large number of other warnings, that finally goaded the Israeli high command into action. Just hours before the attack began, orders went out for a partial call-up of the Israeli reserves. Ironically, calling up the reserves proved to be easier than usual, as almost all of the troops were at synagogue or at home for the holiday.
The Israeli strategy was, for the most part, based on the precept that if war was imminent, Israel would launch a pre-emptive strike. It was assumed that Israel's intelligence services would give, at the worst case, about 48 hours notice prior to an Arab attack.
Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, and Israeli general David Elazar met at 8:05 a.m. the morning of Yom Kippur, six hours before the war was to begin. Dayan opened the meeting by arguing that war was not a certainty. Elazar then presented his argument, in favor of a pre-emptive attack against Syrian airfields at noon, Syrian missiles at 3:00 p.m., and Syrian ground forces at 5:00 p.m. "When the presentations were done, the prime minister hemmed uncertainly for a few moments but then came to a clear decision. There would be no preemptive strike. Israel might be needing American assistance soon and it was imperative that it not be blamed for starting the war. 'If we strike first, we won't get help from anybody', she said." European nations, under threat of an Arab oil embargo and trade boycott, had stopped supplying Israel with munitions. As a result, Israel was totally dependent on the United States to resupply its army, and was particularly sensitive to anything that might endanger that relationship. After Meir had made her decision, a message arrived from Henry Kissinger: "Don't preempt." Had Israel struck first, according to Henry Kissinger, they would not have received "so much as a nail".
David Elazar proposed a mobilization of the entire Air Force and four armored divisions, a total of 100,000 to 120,000 troops, while Dayan favored a mobilization of the Air Force and two armored divisions, totaling around 70,000 troops. Meir sided with Elazar's proposal, and the mobilization proceeded.
The Egyptian units would not advance beyond a shallow strip for fear of losing protection of their SAM batteries, which were situated on the West bank of the canal. In the Six-Day War, the Israeli Air Force had pummeled the defenseless Arab armies. Egypt (and Syria) had heavily fortified their side of the cease-fire lines with SAM batteries provided by the Soviet Union, against which the Israeli Air Force had no effective countermeasures. Israel, which had invested much of its defense budget building the region's strongest air force, would see its air force rendered almost useless by the presence of the SAM batteries.
Anticipating a swift Israeli armored counterattack, the Egyptians had armed their first wave with unprecedented numbers of man-portable anti-tank weapons—rocket propelled grenades and the more advanced Sagger guided missiles, which proved devastating to the first Israeli armored counter-attacks. One in every three Egyptian soldiers had an anti-tank weapon. "Never before had such intensive anti-tank fire been brought to bear on the battlefield. In addition, the ramp on the Egyptian side of the canal had been increased to twice the height of the Israeli ramp, giving them an excellent vantage point from which to fire down on the Israelis, as well as any approaching tanks. The scale and effectiveness of the Egyptian strategy of deploying these anti-tank weapons coupled with the Israelis' inability to disrupt their use with close air support (due to the SAM shield) greatly contributed to Israeli losses early in the war.
The Egyptian army put great effort into finding a quick and effective way of breaching the Israeli defenses. The Israelis had built large 18 meter high barricades made primarily from sand. Egyptian engineers initially used explosive charges to clear the obstacles, before a junior officer proposed using high pressure water cannons. The idea was tested and found to be a sound one, and several high pressure water cannons were imported from East Germany. The Egyptian forces used these water-cannons loaded with water from the Suez Canal. The water-cannons effectively blasted away the barricades.
At 2:05 pm, a large air strike involving 220-250 Egyptian Aircraft conducted strikes against three airbases and airfields, ten Hawk SAM sites, major command posts, electronic jamming centers, radar stations, two long-range artillery positions, and a fortified strongpoint east of Port Fuad. The Egyptian Command estimated that the EAF pilots had accomplished 95 per cent of their mission targets with less than 5 per cent casualties. This was coupled with a barrage from more than 2000 artillery pieces for a period of 53 minutes, against the Bar Lev Line defenses and pillboxes, and also against command posts and tank concentration areas.
Under cover of this artillery barrage, 8,000 Egyptian troops then crossed the Suez Canal in nearly 1,000 rubber assault rafts, in what became known as The Crossing, capturing or destroying all but one of the Bar-Lev forts. Tank-hunting detachments began laying mines on tank platforms, and conducting ambushes against Israeli tanks, preventing the IDF armor from interfering with follow-up waves of Egyptian forces crossing the canal. At 2:30 the Egyptian flag was raised on the eastern side of the canal, and at 2:46 Egyptian soldiers captured the first fortified position. Engineer Corps began to construct bridges across the canal under artillery cover and with infantry support. Commando units, Sa'iqa (literally lightening) were transported by helicopters deep into the Sinai, as far as 40 km east of the canal, to hamper Israeli reserves and prevent their intervention. The Israeli air force conducted air interdiction operations to prevent the bridges from being erected, but were met with heavy resistance from SAM batteries; thirteen Israeli aircraft were downed from the time of the crossing till 5:00 pm. These attacks were overall ineffective, as bridges that were destroyed were quickly repaired and made functional again by engineers. The Israeli brigade garrisoning the Bar-Lev forts was overwhelmed. After less than six hours, fifteen fortifications had been captured, and Egyptian forces advanced several kilometers. Within six hours, five infantry divisions and 400 tanks had crossed the canal Only one fortification, code named Budapest (the northernmost Bar-Lev fort), would remain in Israeli control through the end of the war. The crossing was completed with few casualties on the Egyptian side: 280 men killed with the loss of 15 aircraft and 20 tanks. On the other hand, Israeli losses by the morning of October 7 were considerably higher; General Mandler reported that his armored division's tanks had gone down to 100 from 291, while Shomron Armored Brigade in the south had decreased from 100 tanks to just 23. At around 1600 Elazar learned that IAF losses in the first 27 hours of the war reached 30 aircraft.
In a meticulously rehearsed operation, the Egyptian forces advanced approximately 4 to 5 km into the Sinai desert with the combined forces of two armies (both by Western standards corps-sized, which included the 2nd Infantry Division in the northern 2nd Army). The Egyptian forces then consolidated their initial positions. On October 7 the bridgeheads were enlarged an additional 4 km, at the same time repulsing Israeli counter-attacks. During the nights of October 7 and 8, the Egyptian 18th Infantry Division liberated the city of Qantara.
On October 8, Shmuel Gonen, commander of the Israeli Southern front—who had only taken the position 3 months before at the retirement of Ariel Sharon—ordered a counterattack by the three brigades of Abraham Adan's 162nd armored division. However, one of Adan's brigades was stuck in a traffic jam, and the other two were each at half-strength.. They attacked entrenched Egyptian forces at Hizayon, where approaching tanks could be easily destroyed by Saggers fired from the Egyptian ramp. The result was a disaster for the Israelis. Towards nightfall, a counterattack by the Egyptians was stopped by Ariel Sharon's 143rd Armoured Division—Sharon had been reinstated as a division commander at the outset of the war. The fighting subsided, with neither side wanting to mount a large attack against the other. Israeli losses in these early battles in the Sinai were 49 planes and approximately 500 tanks.
Following the disastrous Israeli attack on the 8th, both sides adopted defensive postures and hoped for the other side to attack. That same day, the 2nd Infantry Division succeeded in destroying the Israeli 190th artillery brigade and captured its commander, while forces from the third army seized artillery positions at Ain Mousa, approximately 14 km southwest of Suez. The IAF increased its attacks during the following days on Egyptian positions along the canal. Elazar replaced Gonen, who had proven to be out of his depth, with Chaim Bar-Lev, brought out of retirement. Because it was considered dangerous to morale to replace the front commander during the middle of a battle, rather than being sacked, Gonen was made chief of staff to the newly appointed Bar-Lev.
After several days of waiting, it became clear to the Egyptian Command that Israeli efforts were concentrated against Syrian forces on the Golan. Sadat, wanting to ease pressure on the Syrians, ordered his chief generals (Saad El Shazly and Ahmad Ismail Ali chief among them) to attack. The 2nd and 3rd Armies were to attack eastward at the same time with their forces, leaving behind five infantry divisions to hold the bridgeheads. The attacking forces would not have SAM cover, so the EAF was tasked with the defense of these forces from Israeli air attacks. Armored and mechanized units began the attack on October 14 with artillery support. Despite stiff resistance, Egyptian forces managed to advance a distance varying between 12 to 15 km, occupying some positions and inflicting heavy casualties. Estimating that the attack eastwards had been successful and had served its purpose, the Egyptian General Command gave orders for the attacking troops to return to their positions. Israeli historian Rabinovich, gives a different analysis "The attack, the most massive since the initial Egyptian assault on Yom Kippur, was a total failure, the first major Egyptian reversal of the war. Instead of concentrating forces of maneuvering, except for the wadi thrust, they had expended them in head-on attack against the waiting Israeli brigades. Egyptian losses for the day were estimated at between 150 and 250 tanks."
The following day, October 15, the Israelis launched Operation Abiray-Lev ("Valiant" or "Stouthearted Men")—the counterattack against the Egyptians and crossing of the Suez Canal. The attack was a tremendous change of tactics for the Israelis, who had previously relied on air and tank support—support that had been decimated by the well-prepared Egyptian forces. Instead, the Israelis used infantry to infiltrate the positions of the Egyptian SAM and anti-tank batteries, which were unable to cope as well with forces on foot.
A division led by Major General Ariel Sharon (almost certainly the 143rd Armoured Division) attacked the Egyptian line just north of Bitter Lake, in the vicinity of Ismailiya. The Israelis struck at a weak point in the Egyptian line, the "seam" between the Egyptian Second Army in the north and the Egyptian Third Army in the south. In some of the most brutal fighting of the war in and around the Chinese Farm (an irrigation project east of the canal and north of the crossing point), the Israelis opened a hole in the Egyptian line and reached the Suez Canal. A small force crossed the canal and created a bridgehead on the other side. For over 24 hours, troops were ferried across the canal in light inflatable boats, with no armor support of their own. They were well supplied with American-made M72 LAW rockets, negating the threat of Egyptian armor. Once the anti-aircraft and anti-tank defences of the Egyptians had been neutralized, the infantry once again was able to rely on overwhelming tank and air support.
Prior to the war, fearing an Israeli crossing of the canal, no Western nation would supply the Israelis with bridging equipment. They were able to purchase and refurbish obsolete modular pontoon bridging equipment from a French WWII scrap lot. The Israelis also constructed a rather sophisticated indigenous "roller bridge" but logistical delays involving heavy congestion on the roads leading to the crossing point delayed its arrival to the canal for several days. Deploying the pontoon bridge on the night of October 16/17, Adan's 162nd Division crossed and raced south, intent on cutting off the Egyptian Third Army before it could retreat west back into Egypt. At the same time, it sent out raiding forces to destroy Egyptian SAM batteries east of the canal. By October 19 the Israelis managed to construct four separate bridges just north of the Great Bitter Lake under heavy Egyptian bombardment. By the end of the war the Israelis were well within Egypt, reaching a point 101 kilometers from its capital, Cairo.
In the Golan Heights, the Syrians attacked the Israeli defenses of two brigades and eleven artillery batteries with five divisions and 188 batteries. At the onset of the battle, 180 Israeli tanks faced off against approximately 1,300 Syrian tanks. Every Israeli tank deployed on the Golan Heights was engaged during the initial attacks. Syrian commandos dropped by helicopter also took the most important Israeli stronghold at Jabal al Shaikh (Mount Hermon), which had a variety of surveillance equipment.
Fighting in the Golan Heights was given priority by the Israeli High Command. The fighting in the Sinai was sufficiently far away that the Israeli population centers were not immediately threatened; should the Golan Heights fall, the Syrians could easily advance towards Tiberias, Safed, Haifa, Netanya, and Tel Aviv. Reservists were directed to the Golan as quickly as possible. They were assigned to tanks and sent to the front as soon as they arrived at army depots, without waiting for the crews they trained with to arrive, without waiting for machine guns to be installed on their tanks, and without taking the time to calibrate their tank guns (a time-consuming process known as bore-sighting).
As the Egyptians had in the Sinai, the Syrians on the Golan Heights took care to stay under cover of their SAM batteries. Also as in the Sinai, the Syrians made use of Soviet anti-tank weapons (which, because of the uneven terrain, were not as effective as in the flat Sinai desert).
The Syrians had expected it would take at least 24 hours for Israeli reserves to reach the front lines; in fact, Israeli reserve units began reaching the battle lines only fifteen hours after the war began.
By the end of the first day of battle, the Syrians (who at the start outnumbered the Israelis in the Golan 9 to 1) had achieved moderate success. Towards the end of the day, "A Syrian tank brigade passing through the Rafid Gap turned northwest up a little-used route known as the Tapline Road, which cut diagonally across the Golan. This roadway would prove one of the main strategic hinges of the battle. It led straight from the main Syrian breakthrough points to Nafah, which was not only the location of Israeli divisional headquarters but the most important crossroads on the Heights." During the night, Lieutenant Zvika Greengold, who had just arrived to the battle unattached to any unit, fought them off with his single tank until help arrived. "For the next 20 hours, Zvika Force, as he came to be known on the radio net, fought running battles with Syrian tanks—sometimes alone, sometimes as part of a larger unit, changing tanks half a dozen times as they were knocked out. He was wounded and burned but stayed in action and repeatedly showed up at critical moments from an unexpected direction to change the course of a skirmish." For his actions, Zvika became a national hero in Israel.
During over four days of fighting, the Israeli 7th Armoured Brigade in the north (commanded by Yanush Ben Gal) managed to hold the rocky hill line defending the northern flank of their headquarters in Nafah. For some as-yet-unexplained reason, the Syrians were close to conquering Nafah, yet they stopped the advance on Nafah's fences, letting Israel assemble a defensive line. The most reasonable explanation for this is that the Syrians had calculated estimated advances, and the commanders in the field didn't want to digress from the plan. To the south, however, the Barak Armored Brigade, bereft of any natural defenses, began to take heavy casualties. Brigade Commander Colonel Shoham was killed during the second day of fighting, along with his second in command and their Operations Officer (each in a separate tank), as the Syrians desperately tried to advance towards the Sea of Galilee and Nafah. At this point, the Brigade stopped functioning as a cohesive force, although the surviving tanks and crewmen continued fighting independently.
The tide in the Golan began to turn as the arriving Israeli reserve forces were able to contain and, starting on October 8, push back the Syrian offensive. The tiny Golan Heights were too small to act as an effective territorial buffer, unlike the Sinai Peninsula in the south, but it proved to be a strategic geographical stronghold and was a crucial key in preventing the Syrian army from bombarding the cities below. By Wednesday, October 10, the last Syrian unit in the Central sector had been pushed back across the Purple Line, that is, the pre-war border.
A decision now had to be made—whether to stop at the 1967 border, or to continue into Syrian territory. Israeli High Command spent the entire October 10 debating this well into the night. Some favored disengagement, which would allow soldiers to be redeployed to the Sinai (Shmuel Gonen's defeat at Hizayon in the Sinai had happened two days earlier). Others favored continuing the attack into Syria, towards Damascus, which would knock Syria out of the war; it would also restore Israel's image as the supreme military power in the Middle East and would give them a valuable bargaining chip once the war ended. Others countered that Syria had strong defenses—antitank ditches, minefields, and strongpoints—and that it would be better to fight from defensive positions in the Golan Heights (rather than the flat terrain of Syria) in the event of another war with Syria. However, Prime Minister Meir realized the most crucial point of the whole debate—"It would take four days to shift a division to the Sinai. If the war ended during this period, the war would end with a territorial loss for Israel in the Sinai and no gain in the north—an unmitigated defeat. This was a political matter and her decision was unmitigating—to cross the purple line… The attack would be launched tomorrow, Thursday, October 11."
From October 11 to October 14, the Israeli forces pushed into Syria, conquering a further twenty-square-mile box of territory in the Bashan. From there they were able to shell the outskirts of Damascus, only 40 km away, using heavy artillery.
"As Arab position on the battlefields deteriorated, pressure mounted on King Hussein to send his Army into action. He found a way to meet these demands without opening his kingdom to Israeli air attack. Instead of attacking Israel from their common border, he sent an expeditionary force into Syria. He let Israel know of his intentions, through US intermediaries, in the hope that it [Israel] would accept that this was not a casus belli justifying an attack into Jordan… Dayan declined to offer any such assurance, but Israel had no intention of opening another front."
Iraq also sent an expeditionary force to the Golan, consisting of some 30,000 men, 500 tanks, and 700 APCs. The Iraqi divisions were actually a strategic surprise for the IDF, which expected a 24-hour-plus advance intelligence of such moves. This turned into an operational surprise, as the Iraqis attacked the exposed southern flank of the advancing Israeli armor, forcing its advance units to retreat a few kilometers, in order to prevent encirclement.
Combined Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian counterattacks prevented any further Israeli gains. However, they were also unable to push the Israelis back from the Bashan salient.
On October 22, the Golani Brigade and Sayeret Matkal commandos recaptured the outpost on Mount Hermon, after sustaining very heavy casualties from entrenched Syrian snipers strategically positioned on the mountain. An attack two weeks before had cost 25 dead and 67 wounded, while this second attack cost an additional 55 dead and 79 wounded. An Israeli D9 bulldozer with Israeli infantry breached a way to the peak, preventing the peak from falling into Syrian hands after the war. A paratrooper brigade took the corresponding Syrian outposts on the mountain.
The Battle of Latakia, a revolutionary naval battle between the Syrians and the Israelis, took place on October 7, the second day of the war, resulting in a resounding Israeli victory that proved the potency of small, fast missile boats equipped with advanced ECM packages. This battle was the world's first battle between missile boats equipped with surface-to-surface missiles. The battle also established the Israeli Navy, long derided as the "black sheep" of the Israeli services, as a formidable and effective force in its own right. Following this and other smaller naval battles, the Syrian and Egyptian navies stayed at their Mediterranean Sea ports throughout most of the war, enabling the Mediterranean sea lanes to Israel to remain open.
However, the Israeli navy was less successful in breaking the Egyptian Navy's blockade of the Red Sea for Israeli or Israel-bound shipping, thus hampering Israel's oil resupply via the port of Eilat. Israel did not possess enough missile boats in Red Sea ports to enable breaking the blockade, a fact it regretted in hindsight.
Several other times during the war, the Israeli navy mounted small assault raids on Egyptian ports. Both Fast Attack Craft and Shayetet 13 naval commandos were active in these assaults. Their purpose was to destroy boats that were to be used by the Egyptians to ferry their own commandos behind Israeli lines. The overall effect of these raids on the war was relatively minor.
Besides Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, several other Arab states were involved in this war, providing additional weapons and financing. The amount of support is uncertain. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait gave financial aid and sent some token forces to join in the battle. Morocco sent three brigades to the front lines; the Palestinians sent troops as well. Pakistan sent sixteen pilots. Bangladesh sent a medical team and relief supplies.
Algeria sent 18 MiG-21's, Libya gave hundreds of Strela missiles, and unknown number of plans, A squadron of Hunter jets from Iraq, and Mi-6 helicopters, and an infantry brigade from the Sudan.
Uganda radio reported that Idi Amin sent Ugandan soldiers to fight against Israel. Cuba also sent approximately 1,500 troops including tank and helicopter crews who reportedly also engaged in combat operations against the IDF.
On that same day, in response to the Soviet Union's airlift to Egypt, President Nixon ordered the commencement of Operation Nickel Grass, an American airlift to replace all of Israel's material losses. Israel began receiving supplies on October 13. According to Abraham Rabinovich, "while the American airlift of supplies did not immediately replace Israel's losses in equipment, it did allow Israel to expend what it did have more freely". By the end of Nickel Grass, the United States had shipped over 22,000 tons of matériel to Israel.
|Tanks||Egypt, Syria and Iraq used T-34/85, T-54, T-55, T-62 and PT-76, as well as SU-100/152 WWII vintage self propelled guns.||M50 Sherman, M51 Sherman, M48 Patton, M60 Patton, Centurion and about 200 T-54/55 captured during the Six-Day War, and later upgraded with British 105 mm L7 gun.|
|APCs/IFVs||BTR-40, BTR-152, BTR-50, BTR-60 APC's & BMP 1 IFV's||M2/M3 Half-track, M113|
|Artillery||2A18, M1937 Howitzer, BM-21||M109 self-propelled howitzer, M107 self-propelled gun, M110 self-propelled howitzer, M50 self-propelled howitzer and Makmat 160 mm self-propelled mortar and 155 mm towed howitzers|
|Aircraft||MiG-21, MiG-19, MiG-17, Su-7B, Tu-16, Il-28, Il-18, Il-14, An-12, Aero L-29||A-4 Skyhawk, F-4 Phantom II, Dassault Mirage III, Dassault Mystère IV, IAI Nesher, Sud Aviation Vautour|
|Helicopters||Mi-6, Mi-8||Super Frelon, CH-53, AB-205|
|AAW||SA-6 Gainful, SA-3 Goa, SA-2 Guideline, ZSU-23-4||MIM-23 Hawk, MIM-72/M48 Chaparral|
|Infantry weapons||Carl Gustav M/45, AK-47, RPK, RPD, DShK HMG, AT-3 Sagger and RPG-7||Uzi, FN FAL, M16, FN MAG, M2 Browning, LAW and TOW|
The Security Council of the United Nations passed (14-0) Resolution 338 calling for a cease-fire, largely negotiated between the U.S. and Soviet Union, on October 22. It called upon "all parties to the present fighting" to "terminate all military activity immediately." It came into effect 12 hours later at 6:52 p.m. Israeli time. Because it went into effect after darkness, it was impossible for satellite surveillance to determine where the front lines were when the fighting was supposed to stop. Prior to the ceasefire taking effect, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had told Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, "You won't get violent protests from Washington if something happens during the night, while I'm flying. Nothing can happen in Washington until noon tomorrow.
When the cease-fire began, the Israeli forces were just a few hundred meters short of their goal—the last road linking Cairo and Suez. During the night, the Egyptians violated the cease-fire in a number of locations, destroying nine Israeli tanks. In response, David Elazar requested permission to resume the drive south, and Moshe Dayan approved. The Israeli troops finished the drive south, captured the road, and trapped the Egyptian Third Army east of the Suez Canal.
The next morning, October 23, a flurry of diplomatic activity occurred. Soviet reconnaissance flights had confirmed that Israeli forces were moving south, and the Soviets accused the Israelis of treachery. In a phone call with Golda Meir, Henry Kissinger asked, "How can anyone ever know where a line is or was in the desert?" Meir responded, "They'll know, all right." Kissinger found out about the trapped Egyptian army shortly thereafter.
Kissinger realized the situation presented the United States with a tremendous opportunity—Egypt was totally dependent on the United States to prevent Israel from destroying its trapped army, which now had no access to food or water. The position could be parlayed later into allowing the United States to mediate the dispute, and push Egypt out of Soviet influence.
As a result, the United States exerted tremendous pressure on the Israelis to refrain from destroying the trapped army, even threatening to support a UN resolution to force the Israelis to pull back to their October 22 positions if they did not allow non-military supplies to reach the army. In a phone call with Israeli ambassador Simcha Dinitz, Kissinger told the ambassador that the destruction of the Egyptian Third Army "is an option that does not exist.
The Soviets placed seven airborne divisions on alert and airlift was marshalled to transport them to the Middle East. An airborne command post was set up in the southern Soviet Union. Several air force units were also alerted. "Reports also indicated that at least one of the divisions and a squadron of transport planes had been moved from the Soviet Union to an airbase in Yugoslavia". The Soviets also deployed seven amphibious warfare craft with some 40,000 naval infantry in the Mediterranean.
The message arrived after Nixon had gone to bed. Kissinger immediately called a meeting of senior officials, including Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, CIA Director William Colby, and White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig. The Watergate scandal had reached its apex, and Nixon was so agitated and discomposed that they decided to handle the matter without him:
The meeting produced a conciliatory response, which was sent (in Nixon's name) to Brezhnev. At the same time, it was decided to increase the Defense Condition (DEFCON) from four to three. Lastly, they approved a message to Sadat (again, in Nixon's name) asking him to drop his request for Soviet assistance, and threatening that if the Soviets were to intervene, so would the United States.
The Soviets quickly detected the increased American defense condition, and were astonished and bewildered at the response. "Who could have imagined the Americans would be so easily frightened," said Nikolai Podgorny. "It is not reasonable to become engaged in a war with the United States because of Egypt and Syria," said Premier Alexei Kosygin, while KGB chief Yuri Andropov added that "We shall not unleash the Third World War. In the end, the Soviets reconciled themselves to an Arab defeat. The letter from the American cabinet arrived during the meeting. Brezhnev decided that the Americans were too nervous, and that the best course of action would be to wait to reply. The next morning, the Egyptians agreed to the American suggestion, and dropped their request for assistance from the Soviets, bringing the crisis to an end.
However, the day before the offensive was to begin, the United Nations imposed its cease-fire (following the acquiescence of both Israel and Egypt). "The acceptance by Egypt of the cease-fire on Monday [October 22] created a major dilemma for Assad. The cease-fire did not bind him, but its implications could not be ignored. Some on the Syrian General Staff favored going ahead with the attack, arguing that if it did so Egypt would feel obliged to continue fighting as well… Others, however, argued that continuation of the war would legitimize Israel's efforts to destroy the Egyptian Third Army. In that case, Egypt would not come to Syria's assistance when Israel turned its full might northward, destroying Syria's infrastructure and perhaps attacking Damascus"
Ultimately, Assad decided to call off the offensive, and on October 23, Syria announced it had accepted the cease-fire, and the Iraqi government ordered its forces home.
Israel received Kissinger's threat to support a UN withdrawal resolution, but before they could respond, Egyptian national security advisor Hafez Ismail sent Kissinger a stunning message—Egypt was willing to enter into direct talks with the Israelis, provided that the Israelis agree to allow nonmilitary supplies to reach their army and agree to a complete cease-fire.
The talks took place on October 28, between Israeli Major General Aharon Yariv and Egyptian Major General Muhammad al-Ghani al-Gamasy. Ultimately, Kissinger brought the proposal to Sadat, who agreed almost without debate. United Nations checkpoints were brought in to replace Israeli checkpoints, nonmilitary supplies were allowed to pass, and prisoners-of-war were to be exchanged. A summit in Geneva followed, and ultimately, an armistice agreement was worked out. On January 18, Israel signed a pullback agreement to the east side of the canal, and the last of their troops withdrew from the west side of the canal on March 5, 1974.
On the Syrian front, shuttle diplomacy by Henry Kissinger eventually produced a disengagement agreement on May 31, 1974, based on exchange of prisoners-of-war, Israeli withdrawal to the Purple Line and the establishment of a UN buffer zone. Israel accused Syria of torturing its prisoners of war, claiming a violation of the Geneva conventions. The agreement ended the skirmishes and exchanges of artillery fire that had occurred frequently along the Israeli-Syrian cease-fire line. The UN Disengagement and Observer Force (UNDOF) was established as a peacekeeping force in the Golan.
On a tactical level, the end of the war saw Israel with territorial gains in the Golan Heights and the encirclement of the Egyptian third army. Some believe the cease fire prevented Israel from landing its harshest blow, as a USMC report asserts: "They were now in position to threaten the rear administrative and supply areas of the entire Egyptian Army. Largely due to the efforts of the Soviet Union, which was fearful of the possibility of a serious Egyptian defeat, the U.N. Security Council imposed a cease-fire effective 22 October."
The report also argues that the Arab side succeeded in surprising Israeli and worldwide intelligence agencies both strategically and tactically: "From a purely military point of view, the first and most important Arab success was the strategic and tactical surprise achieved. While this was aided to no small degree by mistakes made by Israeli Intelligence and the political and military leadership in Israel, the bulk of the credit must go to the highly sophisticated deception plan mounted by the Egyptians. They succeeded in convincing the Israeli Command that the intensive military activity to the west of the Canal during the summer and autumn of 1973 was nothing more than a series of training operations and maneuvers. This deception must be marked as one of the outstanding plans of deception mounted in the course of military history. The plan was successful not only as far as Israeli intelligence was concerned, but also with world-wide intelligence agencies."
For the Arab states (and Egypt in particular), the psychological trauma of their defeat in the Six-Day War had been healed. In many ways, it allowed them to negotiate with the Israelis as equals. However, given that the war had started about as well as the Arab leaders could have wanted, at the end they had made only limited territorial gains in the Sinai front, while Israel gained more territory on the Golan Heights than it held before the war; also given the fact that Israel managed to gain a foothold on African soil west of the canal, the war helped convince many in the Arab World that Israel could not be defeated militarily, thereby strengthening peace movements. The war effectively ended the old Arab ambition of destroying Israel by force.
The war had a stunning effect on the population in Israel. Following their victory in the Six-Day War, the Israeli military had become complacent. The shock and sudden defeats that occurred at the beginning of the war sent a terrible psychological blow to the Israelis, who had thought they had military supremacy in the region. However, in time, they began to realize what an astounding, almost unprecedented, turnaround they had achieved: "Reeling from a surprise attack on two fronts with the bulk of its army still unmobilized, and confronted by staggering new battlefield realities, Israel's situation was one that could readily bring strong nations to their knees. Yet, within days, it had regained its footing and in less than two weeks it was threatening both enemy capitals, an achievement having few historical parallels." In Israel, however, the casualty rate was high. Per capita, Israel suffered three times as many casualties in 3 weeks of fighting as the United States did during almost a decade of fighting in Vietnam.
In response to U.S. support of Israel, the Arab members of OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, decided to reduce oil production by 5% per month on October 17. On October 19, President Nixon authorized a major allocation of arms supplies and $2.2 billion in appropriations for Israel. In response, Saudi Arabia declared an embargo against the United States, later joined by other oil exporters and extended against the Netherlands and other states, causing the 1973 energy crisis.
The initial success greatly increased Sadat's popularity, giving him much firmer control of the Egyptian state and the opportunity to initiate many of the reforms he felt were necessary. In later years this would fade, and in the destructive anti-government food riot of 1977 in Cairo had the slogan "Hero of the crossing, where is our breakfast?" ("يا بطل العبور، فين الفطور؟", "Yā batl al-`abūr, fēn al-futūr?").
The Agranat Commission published its preliminary findings on April 2, 1974. Six people were held particularly responsible for Israel's failings:
Rather than quieting public discontent, the report—which "had stressed that it was judging the ministers' responsibility for security failings, not their parliamentary responsibility, which fell outside its mandate"—inflamed it. Although it had cleared Meir and Dayan of all responsibility, public calls for their resignation (especially Dayan's) became more vociferous.
Finally, on April 11, 1974, Golda Meir resigned. Her cabinet followed suit, including Dayan, who had previously offered to resign twice and was turned down both times by Meir. Yitzhak Rabin, who had spent most of the war as an advisor to Elazar in an unofficial capacity, became head of the new Government, which was seated in June.
In 1999, the issue was revisited by Israel's political leadership, and in order to correct the shortcomings of the war from being repeated, the Israeli National Security Council was created to help in better coordinating between the different security and intelligence bodies, and between these and the political branch.
Rabin's government was hamstrung by a pair of scandals, and he was forced to step down in 1977. The right-wing Likud party, under the prime ministership of Menachem Begin, won the elections that followed. This marked a historic change in the Israeli political landscape as for the first time since Israel's founding, a coalition not led by the Labour party was in control of the government.
Sadat, who had entered the war in order to recover the Sinai from Israel, grew frustrated at the slow pace of the peace process. In a 1977 interview with CBS News' Walter Cronkite, Sadat admitted under pointed questioning that he was open to a more constructive dialog for peace, including a state visit. This seemed to open the floodgates, as in a later interview with the same reporter, the normally hard-line Begin - perhaps not wishing to be compared unfavorably to Sadat - said he too would be amenable to better relations and offered his invitation for such a visit. Thus in November of that year, Sadat took the unprecedented step of visiting Israel, becoming the first Arab leader to do so, and so implicitly recognized Israel.
The act jump-started the peace process. United States President Jimmy Carter invited both Sadat and Begin to a summit at Camp David to negotiate a final peace. The talks took place from September 5–17, 1978. Ultimately, the talks succeeded, and Israel and Egypt signed the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty in 1979. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from the Sinai, in exchange for normal relations with Egypt and a lasting peace.
Many in the Arab community were outraged at Egypt's peace with Israel. Egypt was expelled from the Arab League. Until then, Egypt had been "at the helm of the Arab world. Egypt's tensions with its Arab neighbors culminated in 1977 in the short-lived Libyan-Egyptian War.
Anwar Sadat was assassinated two years later, on October 6, 1981, while attending a parade marking the eighth anniversary of the start of the war, by Islamist army members who were outraged at his negotiations with Israel.
In Egypt, many places were proudly named after the October 6 date and Ramadan 10, its equivalent in the Islamic calendar. Examples of these commemorations are the 6th October Bridge in Cairo كوبري السادس من اكتوبر and the cities 6th of October City and 10th of Ramadan City.