Sarah Sheafer, “Sadat’s War Strategy: Political Gains vs. Military Victory,” The Strategy Bridge, October 21, 2017
On Nov. 20, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat stood before the Israeli Knesset on a historic trip to the country. Addressing 120 Israeli parliamentary members, Sadat said, “I come to you today on solid ground to shape a new life and to establish peace.” Never before had an Arab leader formally visited Israel, and the means by which he arrived at this situation was unorthodox. Just four years prior, Egypt and Israel were at war.
Employing the dictum of Carl von Clauzewitz—war is an extension of policy—Sadat decided to wage a limited war against Israel on Oct. 6, 1973, to achieve political gains as opposed to a decisive military victory. After the humiliating defeat during the 1967 Six-Day War, Sadat sought out to restore Arab self-confidence, shatter the Israeli myth of invincibility, and bring Israel to the negotiating table.
While Sadat ultimately achieved his objectives, his strategy was risky, and one could argue his political gains were a result of sheer luck and mistakes made by his adversary. Despite ultimately signing a long-lasting peace treaty with Israel, Sadat isolated Egypt and himself, with many Arab nations calling him a traitor. Nevertheless, much can be learned from Sadat’s decision making process. With clear, attainable objectives, Sadat’s strategy during the 1973 October War is perhaps a perfect example achieving political gains through limited war by exploiting an adversary’s weaknesses and simultaneously employing clever, diplomatic means.
SADAT’S INHERITANCE: A POOR ECONOMY, HUMILIATION AND UNWANTED SOVIET RELATIONS
When Gamel Abdel Nasser unexpectedly died of a heart attack on Sept. 28, 1970, many viewed his vice president, Sadat, as a temporary replacement. Unlike the charismatic and popular Nasser, Egyptians initially viewed Sadat as ineffectual. This assessment, however, was incorrect, and Sadat’s impact proved to be immense. Not only was Sadat faced with the task of stifling political isolation, he also inherited a number of problems from Nasser.
One of the foremost concerns on Sadat’s mind was Egypt’s failing economy. In Sadat’s memoir, he wrote, “The economic legacy Nasser left me was in even poorer shape than the political.” Sadat largely blamed Egypt’s economic woes on its relationship with the Soviet Union, saying that with “crass stupidity” Egypt had “copied the Soviet pattern of socialism.” Sadat’s distaste of communism was reflected during his early presidency when he carried out the Corrective Revolution, shocking Egyptians by dismissing and imprisoning two powerful officials from Nasser’s old regime—Sharawy Gomaa, the Interior Minister, and Sadat’s vice president Ali Sabry, who had close ties with the Soviets.
To bolster Egypt’s collapsing economy, Sadat reoriented emphasis in Egypt’s relations from the Soviet Union to the Unites States. In his memoir, Sadat described Egypt’s relationship with the Soviets as disadvantageous, because “the Russians had practically no relations with anybody.” Several obstacles, however, stood in his way. Sadat believed the situation after the 1967 defeat needed to be redressed to regain Egypt’s self-confidence and the world’s confidence in Egypt. To Sadat, the economic situation was merely one of the facets of the problem.
Another obstacle in the way of reorienting Egypt to the West was the strong relationship between Israel and the United States. Tensions were still high between Israelis and Egyptians. Israel was satisfied with the status quo after capturing the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula in 1967, which served as potential security buffers. Sadat not only needed to take away Israel’s bargaining chips at the negotiating table, but also convince the United States to pressure Israel to even come to the table. After U.S. President Richard Nixon’s first trip to the Soviet Union in May 1972, however, the policy of détente was issued jointly between the two superpowers, calling for a military relaxation in the Middle East. Sadat viewed this decision as giving in to Israel.
A close adviser to Sadat described him as one who took “big leaps over small steps and often used what he called ‘electric shocks’ to stir up the stagnant waters of diplomacy.” In line with his political style, Sadat decided to wage a limited war against Israel to break the deadlock, forcing the United States to step in and earning a respectable place at the negotiating table at the same time. To achieve a lasting peace with Israel, regain the Sinai, and improve Egypt’s economy, Sadat laid out three objectives:
2. Shatter the Israeli myth of invincibility; and
3. Alter U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.
By achieving these goals, Sadat would ultimately restructure the Middle Eastern regional order.
SADAT’S WAR STRATEGY
After an impressive Israeli performance from June 5-10, 1967, in which Israel destroyed Egypt’s air force on the ground during the first day of war, Westerners praised the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for its decisive victory. Many compared the characteristics of the war to Napoleon Bonaparte’s use of Antoine-Henri Jomini’s principles of war, involving speed, surprise, concentration, and the offensive. Sadat, however, needed to take on a different approach. Eighty-five percent of Egypt’s air force and 80 percent of its ground equipment were destroyed in 1967. While Israel grew even stronger militarily after its victory, Egypt was slow to recover due to its collapsing economy. By 1973, Egypt’s armed forces were still unprepared to fight another war with Israel. Many senior military commanders opposed war when Sadat proposed the idea in 1972.
Considering Egypt’s military weaknesses, Sadat proposed a limited war focused on inflicting the heaviest Israeli losses as opposed to defeating the Israelis. By causing high casualties, Sadat expected to change Israel’s thinking and morale, undermining the country’s belief in its ability to protect itself in the future. To achieve this, Sadat planned for two fronts: Egyptian forces in the south and Syrians in the north. By forming a coalition with Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad, Egypt could offset, to some degree, Israel’s superior forces.
In addition to generating heavy losses, Sadat planned for Egypt’s armed forces to cross the Suez Canal and recapture as much as the Sinai as possible. Sadat used to tell Nasser, “If we could recapture even 4 inches of Sinai territory (by which I meant a foothold, pure and simple), and establish ourselves there so firmly that no power on earth could dislodge us, then the whole situation would change—east, west, all over.” Therefore, Sadat’s goal never called for the ambitious recapture of the entire Sinai. Instead, Egyptian armed forces would focus on casualties rather than terrain, only taking land if the opportunity arose.
The element of surprise was also crucial to offset Israel’s superior forces and produce psychological effects. Sadat implemented several endeavors to deceive the Israelis to thinking Egypt would not wage a war. These efforts will be discussed later, but it is important to note Sadat’s clever manipulations. For example, he strategically chose the month of October because it was during Ramadan, an unlikely time for predominantly Muslim countries to wage a war. In addition, the 6th of October was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Many Israeli soldiers would be home, praying and fasting with family.
Sadat also deceived the Israelis by expelling Soviet military advisers from Egypt in 1972. Israelis interpreted this move as an indication Egypt would not launch a war in the near future. Sadat also made this decision to distance Egypt from the Soviet Union, providing an opportunity for the United States to exert its influence. By expelling the Soviets, a war with Israel would also be seen as purely Egyptian, as opposed to another episode of the Cold War. If the Americans viewed the 1973 war as a proxy with the Soviets, however, the United States would prevent any headway in the region. Despite Sadat’s bold, risky move, the Soviet Union continued to fulfill Egyptian weapons system requests in order not to lose its place in Egypt to the United States.
Another way Sadat used non-military measures to achieve political gains was the opening of backdoor channels to form diplomatic relations with the United States. He also used personal relationships with oil-rich countries to exert economic pressures on the West. Before the start of the war, Sadat enlisted their support, which resulted in an oil price increase of 70 percent on October 17, 1973. Working in tandem with Egyptian and Syrian military efforts, Arab oil-producing states threatened to reduce output 5 percent every month until Israel withdrew from the territories it captured in 1967. The effects of the price increase had a startling impact on markets around the world. On October 19, Saudi Arabia went even further by placing an oil embargo on the United States after Nixon requested from Congress a $2.2 billion emergency aid package for Israel. These economic pressures impacted the U.S. decision to pressure Israel to agree to a cease-fire on October 22.
ADDRESSING “HOW” MILITARILY: EGYPTIANS EXPLOIT ISRAELI VULNERABILITIES
To implement this strategy, the Egyptian armed forces focused on exploiting Israeli vulnerabilities in three areas: intelligence, air power, and armed forces. Israel’s decisive victory in 1967 was largely due to excellent intelligence regarding Arab war plans, capabilities, and vulnerabilities. The tremendous success by Israeli Military Intelligence, however, made the country overconfident. As a result, Israel based its war planning on the assumption of having accurate intelligence, which predicted a 48-hour warning of an impending Arab attack. This would later prove a major impediment in October 1973, when its miscalculation resulted in the inability to mobilize troops in time to fight the Egyptians and Syrians.
Arguably, Egypt’s success in exploiting Israeli vulnerabilities in intelligence was largely due to its adversary’s mistakes; however, as mentioned earlier, Sadat pursued a deliberate plan to deceive Israeli Military Intelligence and disguise his intentions. He started by orchestrating a massive media campaign, which included the planting of information in newspapers to make it seem Egypt was not ready for war. Sadat also made subtle moves, such as telling a foreign minister of a certain European country he was going to be at the United Nations in October 1973 because he predicted the minister would tell Israeli officials. He took several measures to confuse Israel regarding his intentions earlier in May that year by mobilizing Egyptian troops. He did the same in August, and the Israelis responded once again by mobilizing its forces. When Egypt conducted the same move in October, however, Israel did not mobilize. When asked why he made this decision, Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan said Sadat “made me do it twice, at a cost of ten million dollars each time. So, when it was the third time round I thought he wasn’t serious.” Not only did Israel consider the costliness of mobilization, Israeli intelligence pointing to the unlikelihood of war and the specific date also played an important factor. Israel was wary of calling up reserves on Oct. 5, which was the eve of Yom Kippur.
Regardless of whether intelligence could predict an Egyptian attack within 48-hours, Israeli intelligence also failed to calculate the time at which Egyptian troops could cross the Suez Canal. After 1967, Israel set up sand embankments on the eastern side of the canal and a defensive line of fortifications known as the Bar Lev. Breaching the sand embankments would take considerable time, providing a period for Israeli forces to mobilize. Israeli intelligence failed to predict Egypt’s use of an ingenious solution: a water pump. Instead of the five to six hours 600 pounds of explosives and one bulldozer required to clear 1,500 cubic meters of sand, water pumps could clear the embankments within two to three.
Egyptians were also concerned about the Israeli Air Force. In contrast to Egypt, Israel’s war strategy depended on maintaining air superiority. Over half its defense budget went to the air force. For this reason, Israel assumed Egypt would not launch a major war without first ensuring sufficient air power, considering a fight in open desert almost suicidal after lessons learned in 1967. To challenge Israeli air superiority, Egypt employed integrated air-defense systems, comprised of SAM-2s, SAM-3s, SAM-6s, SAM-7s, and ZSU-23-4s. Sadat had to strike a delicate balance with the Soviets after expelling its advisers to continue receiving military aid that provided for these technological means.
Israel’s ground forces were the third element Egyptians needed to address in its exploitation of vulnerabilities. Israel maintained predominantly tank-intensive forces after their successes in 1967, where armored brigades led by tanks with little or no infantry support allowed for the lightning advance across the Sinai desert. Not only did Israel emphasize armor in budget allocations, it also altered its doctrine and reorganized its forces, converting several infantry brigades into armor units. Instead of focusing on future wars, the Israeli Defense Force prepared to fight the last one by relying on what worked best in 1967: intelligence, air power, and tanks. The Egyptians exploited this emphasis by employing Soviet anti-tank missiles such as Saggers and RPG-7s. Israel’s predominantly armored units lacked enough infantry, mortars, and artillery to subdue Egyptian infantry armed with these weapons in 1973.
THE EGYPTIAN ASSAULT AND THE SHATTERING OF ISRAELI INVINCIBILITY
On October 6 at 4:30 a.m., Israeli intelligence reported an impending Arab attack. A source indicated a joint Egyptian-Syrian attack would take place at 6 p.m. that day. Not only did Israeli intelligence fail to issue a 48-hour warning in advance of an attack, it predicted the wrong time of attack, actually scheduled for 2 p.m. Israeli reserves and troops were still mobilizing during the initial assault. Almost every element in the Egyptian crossing operation went according to plan. In Sadat’s memoir, he recalls, “Israel had been boasting of the Six-Day war; now we could boast of the Six-Hour War.” The attack stunned virtually everyone in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said, “The circumstances could not possibly have been worse. In the first two or three days of the war, only a thin line of brave young men stood between us and disaster.”
Matters for the Israeli military only seemed to get worse as confusion consumed the battlefield. Israeli commanders failed to order the evacuation of strong points, despite the Egyptian surprise attack. It was not until mid-morning on October 7 that Israeli Chief of Staff David Elazar issued the order to evacuate the outposts in proximity of major enemy thrusts. By then, many of the men who had remained at the strong points were surrounded by Egyptian troops or had either been killed or captured. Furthermore, Israeli military doctrine called upon Israelis to never abandon their fellow soldiers. Many Israeli commanders instinctively responded to desperate calls for help, rushing to the strong points. High losses experienced by the Israelis occurred during the first several days of the war in these fortifications, which served as killing grounds for Egyptian troops who ambushed their counterattacks.
Sadat’s goal of striking a psychological blow against Israel started to come to fruition on the second day. The Egyptian troops had already damaged a great deal of Israeli equipment and men. By the end of the morning on the second day, one armored brigade reported its tank count falling from 100 to 23. The heavy losses of men took a toll on Israeli soldiers. General Ariel Sharon recounted that day when he observed troops pulling back from the Suez Canal: “I…saw something strange on their faces—not fear but bewilderment. Suddenly something was happening to them that had never happened before.” Similar sentiment emanated from senior officials. Dayan described October 7 in his morning report as the Day of Judgment and the “fall of the Third Commonwealth.”
The third day of war sealed the full impact of Egyptian and Syrian tactical achievements after a foiled Israeli counterattack. Despite Egyptians clearly holding the initiative on October 8, the Israel Defense Force was determined to stall an expected attack on the passes with its own major countermove. Egyptian resilience and Israeli mistakes, however, ultimately defeated the counterattack. Fog and friction had dominated the battlefield, causing heavy Israeli losses in men and equipment. Despite these losses, the Israelis failed to achieve any tactical or operational gains. Many Israeli historians and analysts consider October 8, 1973, as the worst day in the history of the Israeli military.
THE ISRAELI RESURGENCE AND END OF HOSTILITIES
After three days of surprising successes and soaring confidence, Egyptian commanders and senior officials called for the taking of the Sinai passes. Despite mounting pressure, Sadat remained steadfast, focusing on political ends rather than military means. He preferred caution over a reckless mistake of pushing too fast just for the sake of gaining more territory. Adhering to his original strategy, Sadat told his commanders to continue focusing on Israeli casualties. He wanted time to conduct secret diplomacy with the United States.
By October 9, however, the military situation on the second front was deteriorating. Sadat started to receive Syrian calls for help. A special emissary from Asad traveled to Cairo on October 11, pleading for the Egyptians to relieve Israeli pressure in the Golan. Confronted with the possibility of losing political credibility in the Arab world, Sadat felt compelled to demonstrate solidarity with the Syrians against Israel. Economic factors may also have influenced his decision, because Egypt relied heavily on financial assistance from Arab oil-producing countries. Taking the offensive in the Sinai, however, would significantly alter the course of the war. On October 14, Egyptian forces implemented orders to take the passes, resulting in sheer disaster as a result of attempting an offensive attack too late with insufficient forces. With Israeli troops reinforced with U.S. antitank TOW (Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided) missiles, the Egyptians were unable to penetrate Israel’s defensive positions. Before the end of the day, Egyptian forces were in full retreat to their bridgeheads. In their wake, they left behind some 250 destroyed tanks, which surpassed the 240 tanks they lost from October 6-13.
With an opportunity to seize the initiative, the Israelis devised a crossing operation for October 15. While the assault resulted in intense fighting and heavy losses, Israeli forces were successful. Nevertheless, Sadat’s goal of shattering Israel’s belief in its security was reinforced when Israeli commanders were increasingly concerned about casualties. As a result, Israeli commanders began to gravitate toward operations that favored armored tactics as opposed to infantry support. Despite achieving heavy Israeli casualties, Sadat became increasingly concerned. The Israeli forces had pushed their way to within about a kilometer of the main Cairo-Ismailia highway. Sadat’s hope now rested with the United States and the Soviet Union, who agreed to sponsor a UN resolution calling for a cease-fire. The Americans were crucial in pressuring Israel to abide by the resolution on October 22. Israel, however, broke the ceasefire by continuing its advance after claiming Egypt fired on Israeli forces first.
During this time, the Soviet Union and the United States became increasingly concerned about being drawn into the war. Moscow made it clear to Nixon that if Washington would not pressure Israel to cooperate and stop its violation of the ceasefire, the Soviets might be faced with taking appropriate steps unilaterally. The Soviet Union placed seven airborne divisions on a heightened state of alert and increased its naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea. Responding to Soviet actions, the United States decided to raise the U.S. nuclear alert to Defense Condition 3 (DEFCON3), the first of such an alert since the Cuban Missile Crisis 11 years prior. After U.S. pressure, Israel agreed to a second ceasefire on October 25.
THE WAR’S IMPACT IN ISRAEL
While Israel emerged from the war militarily victorious—encircling Suez City and penetrating 20km into Syria—Sadat achieved his goal of destroying Israeli confidence in its security and reorienting U.S. policy in the Middle East. Over 2,800 Israelis died in the war, and 7,500 were wounded. For a small country like Israel, this figure was immense. If compared to U.S. losses in Vietnam, which numbered around 50,000, Americans would have suffered 200,000 dead in proportion to the number of Israelis killed in 1973. Another type of casualty arose in the Israel Defense Forces. Prior to 1973, there were few psychiatric cases resulting from battle. The war, however, produced a high ratio of cases.
After the war, Israelis became obsessed with the question of what went wrong. With mandatory service, all Israeli homes felt the effects of war and called for accountability and an inquiry to investigate the failure of the government and Israeli military. After a series of protests, Meir agreed to the conduct of an investigation, carried out by the Agranat Commission. The investigation criticized Israeli Military Intelligence for failing to provide accurate information pointing to a high probability of war and recommended the termination of its director’s career, among a few others. Its report also found Elazar seriously negligent in his overconfidence in the Israeli military’s ability to repel an attack on two fronts. It criticized him for not ordering a partial mobilization by the morning of October 5 as a precautionary measure and called for his resignation. The commission also criticized the Israel Defense Force for lacking a detailed plan based on realistic assessments of Syrian and Egyptian capabilities in the event of a surprise attack.
While many other military officials received negative evaluations, the commission failed to indict the Israeli political leadership. As a result, there was public outrage and protests throughout the country. Many Israelis felt the commission used the military leadership as a scapegoat for the failure caused by Meir and Dayan. The national turmoil had already affected politics, with Meir’s Labor Party losing six of its previous 57 Knesset seats in the December elections. Meir was unable to form a coalition until March 10, 1974. With public outrage over the report, however, Meir decided to step down as prime minister on April 11, 1974. When another round of elections occurred in 1977, Menachem Begin and the Likud Party came to power, ending the Labor Party’s control of the country, a tenure that had endured since the establishment of the state in 1948.
It is important to note the formation of the Agranat Commission and the political changes within Israel, because they shed light upon the effects caused by the war. One of Sadat’s main objectives in 1973 was the disintegration of Israeli invincibility and confidence in its security. He achieved this by inflicting heavy casualties in a limited war that came as a surprise to Israel. The war humbled his adversary and altered the Israeli political landscape. Furthermore, it brought the Israelis to the negotiating table.
PEACE AT A HIGH PRICE
After the war, the United States altered its policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. A situation emerged that provided an opportunity to increase U.S. influence at Soviet expense. Washington now worked toward promoting peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt. Despite failing to achieve a military victory in the war, Sadat fulfilled his political objective of reorienting relations toward the West. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was key in the negotiations and intermediated directly between the two countries to keep the Soviets out of the peace process. The war also resulted in mending Egypt’s failing economy, which Sadat had aimed to do by reorienting Egypt’s relationship from the Soviet Union to the United States. Washington began sending Egypt economic assistance, making the country America’s main recipient of foreign aid after Israel.
Not only was Sadat able to attract Western capital, he also restored Egyptian pride. In his memoir, Sadat described the war as changing the world order. He said the “Arab people were no longer a ‘lifeless body’ but a world power—they could fight, and in fact defeat, Israel.” Sadat also noted Egypt did not go to war for the sake of war, but for a “respectable place at the negotiating table.” Sadat’s objective was fulfilled after Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula in September 1978 as a result of the Camp David Accords. On March 26, 1979, Egypt and Israel signed a historic peace treaty.
After making peace with Israel, many in the Arab world viewed Sadat as a traitor, calling him Israel’s man and an American puppet. Sadat also faced opposition at home. Egypt’s National Unionist Progressive Party publicly denounced the peace treaty, saying it was made at the expense of Arabs. After a failed plot to overthrow Sadat and numerous plans to assassinate him, one eventually succeeded. On October 6, 1981, Sadat was assassinated at the annual victory parade held in Cairo celebrating the crossing of the Suez Canal during the 1973 October War.
While Sadat was able to achieve his objectives through a strategy focused on political gains as opposed to military victory, his efforts ultimately cost him his life and isolated Egypt from the Arab world. Furthermore, his bold moves, which involved the delicate balance of secrets and manipulation in order to surprise the Israelis, were risky. If Israeli intelligence had discovered his intent earlier, his plan would have been foiled. Regardless of an intelligence failure, Elazar could have called for partial mobilization on October 5 after witnessing a large number of Arab troops massing on the Syrian and Egyptian fronts. If Elazar had done so, the Egyptians may have been unable to assault the fortified positions along the Bar Lev line. Instead of political gains, Sadat would have incurred heavy human and material losses. He also probably would not have survived politically.
Moreover, Sadat’s strategy hinged on the belief that an Arab initiative in the first 24-hours would result in shattering the myth of Israeli invincibility. Sadat had no way of knowing how Israel would react to heavy casualties, despite achieving a military victory. Sadat’s strategy also relied on Western involvement. If the United States had not pressured Israel to accept a ceasefire, Israeli forces could have made it all the way to Cairo. In such a scenario, Sadat would have placed Egypt at an even lower position at the negotiating table.
Sadat, however, understood these gambles. He once told a close adviser he liked men who took risks: “If they were prepared to do what they believe in and accept the consequences…without the willingness to take such risks, nothing would ever change.” Sadat saw a limited war as the only way to address Egypt’s economic woes, restore Arab self-confidence, and achieve a lasting peace with Israel. According to Clausewitz, military leaders should be “guided by the laws of probability.” In waging war, there is a lack of clarity, and risks must be undertaken. Sadat’s probability assessment ultimately proved correct, and the risks he undertook were crucial in forcing a more powerful adversary and two superpowers to change their attitudes toward the Middle East.
The 1973 October War illustrates how war is an instrument of policy by other means. Other than Sadat, few would have predicted a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel as a result of a fourth Arab-Israeli war. When the Egyptian president addressed the Israeli Knesset on November 20, 1977, he acknowledged his responsibility to employ any instrument necessary to achieve this peace, saying:
“God Almighty has made it my fate to assume responsibility on behalf of the Egyptian people…the main duty of which, dictated by responsibility, is to exploit all and every means in a bid to save my Egyptian Arab people and the pan-Arab nation from the horrors of new suffering and destructive wars, the dimensions of which are foreseen only by God Himself.”
After four Arab-Israeli wars, Sadat could finally conclude his address in Jerusalem with “Salam Aleikum—peace be upon you.”
*All footnotes can be found in the original publication here.