The Battle of the Bekaa Valley

Israel gives high priority to destroying and suppressing the enemy’s air- and land-based air defense capability during the initial stages of the battle. The potential scale of Israel’s success in suppressing Syrian air defenses in a future battle over the Golan is indicated by the fact that during the 1982 war, Israel essentially broke the back of the Syrian surface-to-air missile network in the Beka’a Valley in one day, on June 9. Israel shot down over 80 Syrian fighters and lost only one A-4 in flying a total of over 1,000 combat sorties-including the sorties delivered against Syrian ground-based air defenses in the Beka’a. Israel also was able to devote an extraordinary percentage of its total sorties to the attack mission, although it should be noted that even in the 1973 war, some 75 percent of all IAF sorties were attack sorties.

On the ground, when the Israelis finally launched their main assault, the Syrians were ready for it. The 1st Armored Division, reinforced with additional artillery and commando units, was fully deployed in the valley and had been improving its defensive positions for two days. The Syrians deployed with their 76th and 91st Armored Brigades forward, dug-in across the valley floor, anchoring their lines in the mountains on either side. In addition, the Syrians had worked the natural obstacle of Lake Qir’awn into their defensive scheme in the western Bekaa. The 1st Armored Division’s mechanized brigade, the 58th, was deployed in-depth, dug-in behind the two armored brigades, where it could serve either as a secondary line of defense or a reserve that could be brought forward to aid the armored brigades. The Syrians also deployed teams of commandos backed by armor in antitank ambushes farther south to delay, disrupt, and attrite the Israeli forces before they hit the main defense line. Meanwhile, the T-72-equipped 3rd Armored Division was en route to the Bekaa and was expected to arrive some time on June 11.

During the afternoon of June 9, while the IAF was butchering Syria’s air and air defense forces, the Israeli Bekaa Forces Group slogged their way along the narrow roads of the southern entrance to the valley. On a number of occasions, Syrian helicopter gunships—and occasionally fixed-wing aircraft—attacked the Israeli columns, causing little damage but forcing them to take cover and slowing their advance. In addition, the Israelis constantly encountered Syrian commando ambushes, which further slowed and frustrated them. The Syrian commandos were usually well-deployed and tough to root out. Several Israeli units lost armored vehicles and men to these ambushes, while all were slowed by the need to move cautiously and clear out the stubborn Syrian defenders whenever they did trip an ambush.

The Israelis had learned to use infantry, air strikes, and armor when possible, to clear the surrounding hills when they encountered dug-in Syrian antitank teams, but this was a time-consuming process, and the Syrians fought hard and mostly retreated in good order when their positions became untenable. Nevertheless, Syrian aim was poor and the commandos and their armor rarely tried to get out and maneuver against the Israelis. These problems, and the superb gunnery and quick improvisational skills of the Israelis, tended to minimize the actual damage the Syrian commandos were able to inflict, but the lost time was important. Especially since Israel knew that the destruction of the Syrian SAMs would bring immense superpower pressure on them to agree to a ceasefire.

The Israelis finally attacked the main Syrian defense line in the Bekaa in the early morning of June 10. The Syrians were outnumbered in the assault: the reinforced Syrian 1st Armored Division had 350–400 tanks, 150 artillery pieces, and approximately 150 ATGM-equipped BRDM-2s, while the Israeli ugdot [divisions] had over 650 tanks and about 200 artillery pieces. However, the Syrians had the advantages of their dug-in defenses and the superb defensive terrain of the Bekaa.

Two of the Israeli ugdot struck the Syrian lines in the west, on either side of Lake Qir’awn, while the 252nd Armored Division hit the eastern flank of the Syrian lines anchored on the Anti-Lebanon mountain range. Although all three Israeli attacks were frontal assaults against dug-in Syrian units in excellent defensive terrain, which prevented the Israelis from deploying more than a fraction of their forces for the assault, the Israelis punched through rapidly on all three axes. In the far west, the Syrians deployed only light covering forces, believing the terrain too rough for an Israeli armored drive, with the result that the Israelis quickly broke through the Syrian lines and began driving deep into the Bekaa along the eastern slope of the Lebanon range.

The main battle, however, took place to the east of Lake Qir’awn where the Israeli 90th Armored Division attacked up the main north-south road in the Bekaa. The Syrian high command recognized this as a critical threat and fed in ever more reserves to try to stop the Israelis. Although the terrain prevented the Israelis from deploying their full force and the Syrians were well entrenched on the surrounding hills, the Israelis constantly worked against the Syrian flanks, maneuvering for advantage and using their superb gunnery skills to pick off Syrian armored vehicles and grind down the Syrian forces. By 1500 hours, the Syrian lines had buckled and the 90th Division had broken through. In the east, the Israeli 252nd Armored Division drove through the Syrian lines fairly easily, and by late afternoon they were threatening to link up with the 90th Division and encircle the remnants of the forward brigades of the Syrian 1st Armored Division.

Yet the trap never snapped shut, and much of the 1st Armored Division was able to escape as a result of Israeli mistakes. Of greatest importance, most of the Israeli units did not aggressively pursue the retreating Syrians and moved at an almost leisurely pace. Despite the urgency in Tel Aviv for the BFG to reach the Beirut-Damascus highway before nightfall, Ben Gal’s units moved slowly and deliberately. Without Israeli pressure, the Syrians retreated reasonably well, conducting fighting withdrawals all across the front and maintaining good unit cohesion, except among those formations that had suffered most in the combat with the Israelis earlier in the day. On one occasion, a Syrian commando unit conducted a spoiling attack against an Israeli armored unit near Rashayyah, which only destroyed one APC and killed a few soldiers, but still disrupted the Israeli formation and delayed its advance. In addition, the Syrians threw their helicopter gunships into the melee to slow down the Israelis and cover the retreat of their ground forces. The Syrian Gazelles and Mi-24 Hinds generally caused only minor damage to the Israelis, but they further slowed the already cautious advance.

For the most part, the sluggish pace of the Israeli pursuit appears to have been the product of their experience over the previous four days, during which they had been constantly ambushed by Syrian commandos. This seems to have made the IDF reticent to engage in any sort of headlong advance through the hills of the Bekaa, even after cracking the main Syrian lines and putting the 1st Armored Division to flight.

This caution was further reinforced when an Israeli battalion accidentally ran into several battalions of the Syrian 58th Mechanized Brigade, plus other elements of the 1st Armored Division regrouping around the town of Sultan Yaqub during the afternoon of June 10. Most of the Syrian units were part of the second line of defense, and they were not aware that the Israelis had gotten so far north. The vanguard of an Israeli armored brigade pushed into the town against no resistance and then out the other side only to suddenly find itself in the midst of the Syrian forces.

Although the firefight became quite fierce and the Syrians had the advantage of being deployed in hills surrounding their prey on three sides, they did remarkably little damage to the trapped Israelis. The Syrian armor and APCs sat in the hills and were content to fire down on the Israelis, rather than coming down to destroy the Israeli armor in a close assault. Twice, the Syrians did send small antitank units down to attack the Israelis, but they were driven off easily by automatic weapons fire. Finally, at around 2100, the Israelis concentrated virtually every artillery piece in the Bekaa on the Syrians around Sultan Yaqub, creating a “box” of fire through which the trapped battalion was able to withdraw. The Israelis lost only eight armored vehicles at Sultan Yaqub, but the ambush had preoccupied Ben Gal’s command staff and deprived the rest of his corps of artillery support, further slowing the Israeli pursuit. Thus, by night on June 10, the Israelis had routed the 1st Armored Division, but they had not finished it off, nor had they reached the Beirut-Damascus highway.

Despite the IDF’s problems on June 10th, the defeat of the 1st Armored Division, coming on top of the destruction of Syria’s air and air defense forces, threw the Syrian high command into a state of panic. The Syrians recognized that the Israelis had powerful forces threatening to cut the Beirut-Damascus highway, which would split the Syrian forces in Lebanon. The General Staff also could not be certain that the Israelis did not intend to drive up to the Beirut-Damascus highway, turn right, and push into the Damascus plain in conjunction with an assault from the Golan. This fear prompted the Syrians to alert their forces around the capital, dispatch two independent armored brigades to block the Beirut-Damascus highway as it debouched into Syria, and order the 3rd Armored Division to establish a defensive line south of the highway with the remnants of the 1st Armored Division.

Although one of its brigades suffered heavy losses to IAF air strikes on June 10 and 11, by 1000 hours on June 11, the 3rd Armored Division was in the Bekaa and heading south to take up defensive position forward of the Beirut-Damascus highway before the Israelis could get there. The Israelis meanwhile had finally gotten going after a late start and were similarly racing north to get to the Beirut-Damascus highway before noon, when a US-brokered ceasefire was due to take effect. Shortly before then, lead elements of the 82nd Armored Brigade of the 3rd Armored Division collided with the vanguard of the Israeli corps. In the ensuing firefight, the Israelis quickly gained the upper hand through superior marksmanship and maneuver and destroyed as many as 30 T-72s before the Syrians pulled back. The Syrians were unable to knock out any of the Israeli tanks in this exchange. Nevertheless, the fight was still a sort of victory for Syria because the 3rd Armored Division had prevented the Israelis from reaching the Beirut-Damascus highway before the noon deadline.

The Syrians took at least 4,500 casualties and lost 300–350 tanks, 150 APCs, nearly 100 artillery pieces, 12 helicopters, 86 aircraft, and 29 SA-2/3/6/8 batteries. Against the Syrians, the Israelis suffered 1,067 casualties, 30 tanks lost (with another 100 damaged), and 175 APCs destroyed and damaged. Thus, the Syrians were on the wrong side of a 4:1 exchange ratio in casualties, a 10:1 ratio in tank losses, and an 86:0 ratio in aircraft losses.

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