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SYRIAN INCURSION into JORDAN, September 20-23, 1970

SYRIAN INCURSION into JORDAN, September 20-23, 1970

Modern Military

After a conflict with PLO and massive attack of the Jordanian King Hussein military on Palestinian Fedayeen forces, known as Black September events, Syria took the chance to interfere and support the later. Below is the chronology of the resulting 3 day fierce fighting between fellow Arab countries (once allies). Unfortunately what I have are only Jordan/western side sources with limited photo evidence. Lets see the chronology of events.

Sunday, September 20 

Syria’s Fifth Division (including elements of four Syrian brigades and the Palestinian Hittin Brigade) began invading northern Jordan at approximately 2 a.m. local time on September 20. More than 170 T–55 tanks and 16,000 troops initially supported the invasion, but Syria declined to commit its air force even after Jordanian fighters started to attrite the invasion force.

Actually the incursion began two days earlier when smaller Syrian units infiltrated across Jordanian border, acting as Fedayeen forces. As the Syrian advance continued, Jordanians reportedly repulsed two armored offensives. Furthermore, inflicted “heavy losses” on a Syrian armored brigade (those reports are most likely fiction). The tanks had crossed near Ramtha and by 3 p.m. were 5 miles south of there. They slowly moved toward Irbid, a Jordanian city only 45 miles north of Amman and under Fedayeen control. Complementing the ground campaign, Hawker Hunter aircraft attacked the Syrian tanks and set some on fire.

King Hussein after checking an abandoned Israeli tank on 21 March 1968 during the Battle of Karameh. The perceived joint Palestinian-Jordanian victory led to an upsurge in support for the fedayeen in Jordan.

They were grounded after nightfall, however, when at 6:15 p.m. the Jordanians reported that two armored brigades operating on a broad front were attempting a third assault.  By 9 p.m., three Syrian brigades with 215 tanks—the equivalent of a division—were located near Irbid. Fortunately, despite all the Syrian activity, the Iraqi expeditionary force remained uncommitted. They moved east, presumably to remain clear of a Syrian-Jordanian battleground. The Syrian 6th Armored Brigade—normally stationed in Deraa – reportedly moved toward Mafraq. Iraqi officers also asked the Jordanian air force to depart the Mafraq airfield and fly to the H–5 airfield 75 miles east, explaining that they did not want Iraqi forces near the airfield drawn into the contest. 

Monday, September 21

The ground order of battle in northern Jordan still favored Syria on the morning of September. Syria had nearly 300 tanks and 60 artillery tubes near Ramtha and Irbid. Some tanks had entered Irbid but remained in groups rather than dispersing in the city streets. Other tanks remained in groups outside town. Construction work at Irbid suggested the Syrians were preparing to hold it. A Syrian second echelon comprising supply vehicles and bulldozers was positioned between the Syrian border and Irbid.

The units included the 5th Division headquarters, two armored brigades, and one tank battalion. In other words, Syria committed as much as a third of its 900 tanks available. Moreover, between Deraa and Damascus to the operation. Jordan had a smaller force—three infantry brigades and 120 to 140 tanks—in the area. Syrian forces continued to advance. And by 5 p.m. had captured two key crossroads including an intersection serving as a gateway to Amman, only 45 miles south. 

Tuesday, September 22

The Syrian forces again attempted to breach Jordanian lines on the northern ridgeline of the Ajnun Mountains and attacked from Hawara toward Irbid by midday. After advancing 3 kilometers toward Irbid and As- Sarish around 10 a.m. local, they stopped to regroup after falling under Jordanian tank and artillery fire. Hawker Hunter fighter-bombers continued to attack the Syrian armor in relays of eight aircraft. With intervals of half an hour between sorties. The small Jordanian air force—with fewer than 50 Hawker Hunter and F–104 fighters—ultimately flew as many as 250 sorties during the crisis.

Airstrikes, logistic shortfalls, and mechanical breakdowns began to attrite the Syrian armor, and the Israelis, who had flown reconnaissance missions over Jordan on September 21 and 22, assessed that the Syrians would encounter serious logistic difficulty within 3 to 4 days – one battalion reportedly had only 8 operational tanks out of an inventory of 31 due to breakdowns, and by midday on September 22, approximately 50 of 200 Syrian tanks were inoperable. Based on this assessment, generously provided to King Hussein by the USA, Jordan concluded that it had achieved tank parity with the Syrians. Amman had achieved this through attrition of Syria’s 5th Division and by reinforcing its own forces in the north during the night of September 21–22.

An estimated 200 Jordanian tanks were located in the battle zone. According to this version, these losses and the shift in the correlation of forces account in part for Syria’s decision to withdraw from Jordan on the night of September 22–23 (another part being attributed to the political pressure and the threat of US and Israeli involvement on the side of Jordan).

Wednesday, September 23

Syrian forces completed their withdrawal on September 23, when they started to regroup near the Syrian side of the border. Despite being withdrawn, according to Jordanian sources sporadic engagements and artillery fire continued through the day and Sep 24. 

As for losses, Jordanians reported destroying 70 to 75 tanks but the final losses reached 135 tanks and 1,500 casualties, according to subsequent interviews with the 40th Brigade commander. According to the much popularized version, Israelis ultimately assessed that Damascus had lost 120 tanks: 60 to 90 knocked out by Jordanians and the rest due to mechanical breakdowns. Jordan reportedly lost only 16 tanks and an armored car and sustained 112 casualties. 

Fedayeen of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in Jordan, early 1969

Interestingly there is another, less common Israeli assessment of Syrian losses – 62 tanks, including destroyed, damaged and attrition, plus about 60 APCs. Casualties were estimated as 150 KIA and WIA plus another 450 Fedayeen. According to a French source, the total Syrian losses of armor were about 70 pieces. As we see it is hardly probable Syria has lost anything over 20-25 tanks completely destroyed, especially as Jordan was able to give a fight only on September 22, but mostly utilizing RJAF assets. All the victorious claims attributed to Jordanian artillery (at least of Sep 21 and 22) could have little effect on tanks. 

Another interesting point is regarding ‘Syrian Centurion tanks’ taken out by Jordanian army. Of cause there were no natural-born Syrian Centurions, but a couple of sources mentioned ex-Jordanian Cents captured by Fedayeen (or most probably defected by Palestinian tankmen who served in Jordanian armored units). I have no real proof of it but it can probably be that most of the tanks claimed to be destroyed were the Cents operated by Palestinians, at least there are some pics of those tanks. Once again, this is my fantasy. 

IDF claims of Syrian logistical shortage can also be hardly considered real.

Syria had gradually increased its armor and had no issue of getting reinforcements. The major fallback was a lack of SAAF that was a result of pure political considerations (aka games). Actually the USA found themselves trying to push Israel engage its IAF and deal with Syrians. However, Israel did not see it as one-sided. At that point Syrians were not an issue, only the PLO. Israel demanded a full operational freedom over Jordanian territory. Including ground activities, with the US covering his political and military back. 

Now considering the superpowers’ involvement. In the whole story we mentioned only the USA, which actually augmented its presence in the Mediterranean with two carrier strike groups with another one on the way. In response, the USSR increased its number of ships including destroyers and subs. Some publications mention that Soviet advisors were acting with Syrian and PLO against Jordanians, but this is fake. No Soviet advisor would become present on Jordanian ground (though Soviets were active in Syria. We need to remember the War of Attrition was the peak of Soviet military presence in the Middle East. In general the Soviet position was to let Arabs deal by themselves. All the fancy speculations about nukes, etc – pure fantasy. 

Written by Tanks In Action Editor Efim Sandler

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SYRIAN INCURSION into JORDAN, September 20-23, 1970