Legality of Military Action by Egypt and Syria in October 1973
The Vietnam and Arab-Israeli Conflicts and the Remaking of International Law (University of Michigan Press)
18 Pages Posted: 13 Jan 2023
Date Written: January 11, 2023
In the early 1970s, the United States faced delicate issues on use of force for its military action in Vietnam. The United States exited Vietnam early in 1973 only to confront new use of force issues a few months later in the Middle East. Israel in 1967 had invaded Egypt, then, almost immediately, Jordan and Syria. The United States, which regarded Israel as a virtual ally, had kept the Security Council of the United Nations from condemning Israel in 1967 despite credible claims of aggression by the three Arab countries. In the Autumn of 1973, within months of the US departure from Vietnam, Egypt and Syria sought to regain their territory, an action that raised an issue of the legality of use of force. Having just extracted itself from a military action that brought considerable international condemnation upon itself, the United States found itself protecting Israel in the face of international sentiment that favored Egypt and Syria.
With the hostilities in both Vietnam and the Middle East, serious discussion of the legalities in the Security Council never took place. The United States, using its position as a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, was able to orient discussion away from legalities. In both situations – whether in regard to its own actions in Vietnam, or Israel’s actions in the Middle East – the United States was on thin ice from the standpoint of international legality. Both situations involved protection of national territory from outside military action. The United States had inserted itself military in Vietnam into what was widely regarded as a domestic civil war. Israel had occupied territory of Egypt and Syria under questionable circumstances, and the two Arab nations were seeking to recapture their territory.
For the United States a common element was that it sought to forestall difficulties with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had scored major Cold War points against the United States with scathing condemnation of the United States for aggression against Vietnam. Israel’s occupation of Egyptian and Syrian territory in 1967 had similarly brought a charge of aggression by the Soviet Union against Israel. Israel’s continuing occupation of Egyptian and Syrian territory was similarly the target of a Soviet charge of aggression. The international context of the era was unfavorable to the United States. New states emerging from colonialism were changing the composition of the United Nations, putting the United States on the defensive with respect both to Vietnam and to the Middle East.
This essay focuses on the 1973 Middle East episode – on the actions of Syria and Egypt to regain their territory, and on diplomatic efforts by the United States to deflect criticism of Israel and to manage its own relations with the Soviet Union.
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