Cold War Era

The Myth of Soviet Arms and Tactics in the Middle East, Part One: from Palestine War to Suez Crisis

This legend goes so far that even the Russians began convincing themselves of it. Unsurprisingly, some of their ultra-nationalists couldn’t stop singing odes about ‘ages old friendship’ and declaring Syria for ‘our land’ when Putin launched an intervention in that country, back in 2015…

Here’s another of countless myths about Arab armed forces that remains widespread – not only in the West, but even in the Arab world: the one along which all those operating Soviet equipment were ‘Soviet trained’, indeed, ‘fighting Soviet style’ – which should mean using the Soviet doctrine, strategy and tactics. This legend goes so far that even the Russians began convincing themselves of it. Unsurprisingly, some of their ultra-nationalists couldn’t stop singing odes about ‘ages old friendship’ and declaring Syria for ‘our land’ when Putin launched an intervention in that country, back in 2015…

Well, let’s review the story of the ‘Soviet Arms and Tactics in the Middle East’ of, say, 1940s-1990s period.

From Palestine War to Suez Crisis

During the Palestine War (for Arabs) or Independence War (for the Israelis), fought 1947-1949, neither side used ‘Soviet’ arms, tactics or else. Arab armies were all equipped with left-overs de-facto junked upon them by former British and French administrators, or whatever their representatives were able to get from abroad in spite of multiple arms embargos. For example, the Egyptian armed forces went into that war driving M4 Shermans and Vickers carriers, and flying Spitfires; Syrian army drew French-made Hotchkiss tanks and various armoured lorries, and flew T-6 Texans; while the ‘Jordanian Army’ was not existent as such (it was named ‘Arab Legion’ and consisted of two brigades and few independent battalions, all of them British-commanded). During and after that war the Egyptians and Syrians purchased further fighter aircraft from Italy. Not from the former USSR.

Israeli Air Force Avia S.199

If at all, it was Israel that was sourcing plenty of its weapons from Czechoslovakia (one of five leading arms exporters of the 1940s-1970s period) – and even these were of Western origin (see Avia S.199s based on Messerschmitt Bf.109, Spitfires, etc., etc. etc.). Indeed, at one point in time the Israelis went as far as to steal a ‘top secret’ US radar from the USA and haul it to Czechoslovakia to hand it over to the Soviets and thus get a permission to continue training their troops and buying arms there. On the other hand, Israel was sourcing plenty of its arms from the USA and Italy too.

After that war, the USA, Great Britain and France issued the ‘Tripartite Declaration’, along which they were to maintain status quo and avoid arming any of parties (Arab states and/or Israel). The French were the first to ignore this declaration when they began delivering arms in big style to Israel, in 1951. British did sign a number of contracts with Egypt and Syria, in period 1950-1955, but subjected most of these to additional embargos. For example, out of some 300 aircraft Egypt ordered in the UK in that period, only about 100 were actually delivered, and all of these were obsolete. The USA largely respected the declaration (at least until Kennedy promised MIM-23 HAWKs to Israel, in early 1960s).

Things experienced a dramatic change in 1954, when Israel launched its efforts to obtain swept-wing fighters, while the clique around Ben Gurion sabotaged secret peace-talks with Nasser, and began launching attacks on Egyptian border posts. After being turned down in the USA and Canada (F-86 Sabre), Israelis ended placing an order for Mystére IIs in France.

Egypt first attempted to re-launch arms purchases from the UK, then sought arms from the USA. The Brits turned most of requests down. When Washington conditioned such partnership on basing rights for US troops in Egypt, Nasser – who just got the British to finally vacate their bases in the country, and thus couldn’t afford any new foreign troops in Egypt – first asked in China, then in the USSR. Related negotiations resulted in the famous ‘Czech Arms Deal’ of 1955, named that way in Nasser’s vain attempt to avert a military intervention by Great Britain, France and/or USA in reaction to it. Namely, Nasser (whom the CIA considered ‘our asset’ before he rose to power!) and the Soviets understood very well that the USA saw the Arab-Israeli conflict solely through the prism of the Cold War, instead of what it actually was. The tripartite invasion of 1956 (the so-called ‘Suez Crisis’), proved him right beyond any doubt.

During the Suez War of 1956, the Egyptians deployed Soviet arms, but still fought their own way – not along any kind of ‘Soviet tactics’. The sole ‘Soviet training’ they’ve received was related to converting them to the armament in question (MiGs, Soviet-made tanks etc.): i.e. teaching them how to fly or drive, nothing else. All the tactics remained their own.

During and after that conflict, Syria joined Egypt in buying Soviet arms: both countries continued doing so during the late 1950s and through 1960s too. Primary reason was that nobody else was ready to deliver.

A good example for this fact is Syria. The country lost its first democratic government to a CIA-organised military coup. Then, in 1958, it joined Egypt into the United Arab Republic (UAR), and its military was de-facto disbanded: all the major units were re-deployed to Egypt, all the officers and NCOs integrated into the UAR’s military, only small Egyptian units deployed into the ‘Eastern Province’. When Syrian officers staged a coup and kicked the Egyptians out, in 1961, there was nothing left of the Syrian military. For the next two years, the Syrians did whatever was possible to get arms from the West, and Europe (Italy and France) in particular – without any success. Only when all their efforts remained fruitless did they turn to Moscow for their re-armament. Even then, the Syrians actually preferred a cooperation with Czechoslovakia: problem was that – due to ‘re-distribution’ of specific industry-related tasks within the Warsaw Pact of the 1960s (for example: nobody else than the USSR was to manufacture fighter jets) – that country was out of the business of manufacturing ‘top tier’ type of arms, and thus out of condition to deliver anything comparable to, say, MiG-21s. Another problem was ‘Soviet competition’: Moscow was regularly, yet literally, outbidding even Czechoslovakia and Poland in many of major arms deals with Arab countries.

Sure, Egypt meanwhile continued purchasing Soviet arms in big style. However, that’s where that partnership ended: the number and influence of Soviet advisors in the country remained minimal. On the contrary, the primary (actually: the only) Egyptian plan for a war with Israel – Operation Qaher, which was actually the plan for the defence of Sinai – was developed by contracted former officers of the Wehrmacht.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and w:he:משתמש:אברהם אמיר via Wikipedia

Tom Cooper

Tom Cooper is an Austrian aerial warfare analyst and historian. Following a career in the worldwide transportation business – during which he established a network of contacts in the Middle East and Africa – he moved into narrow-focus analysis and writing on small, little-known air forces and conflicts, about which he has collected extensive archives. This has resulted in specialisation in Middle Eastern, African and Asian air forces. As well as authoring and co-authoring 560 books and over 1,000 articles, he has co-authored the Arab MiGs book series – a six-volume, in-depth analysis of the Arab air forces at war with Israel, in the 1955–73 period. Cooper has been working as editor of the five @War series since 2017.

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