Syrian MIGs in the Skies of Lebanon

It is Tuesday, June the 8th 1982. Thirty years ago today. IDF forces are advancing into southern Lebanon. On a hill located south east of Sidon, the division headquarters of Lieutenant-General Avigdor Kahalani, the hero of the desperate battle to hold the north of the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur war, is parked. He is hosting in his command tent another division commander, Lieutenant-General Yitzhak Mordechai. At the bottom of the hill, soldiers manning an improvised road block stop a Lebanese vehicle and find in it a pilot seat taken from the crashed Cobra helicopter of Yossi Keler, RIP. The inhabitants of the car are taken for questioning. Near the tent I identify a familiar face. Unbelievable, but this is a childhood friend I have not seen for 20 years. He is a Lieutenant Colonel now. We settle into a conversation about days gone by.

Suddenly something attracts my attention. From the corner of my eye I see something which for a second I think is a gliding bird, but realise immediately is a fighter jet. It enters a shallow dive from north to south with its nose aimed directly at us. Automatically I try to identify the aircraft, assuming it is one of ours. Upper wing, rectangular air intakes to the sides of the body, but unlike an F-15, only one vertical fin… something does not make sense to me. The aircraft continues descending directly towards us and then turns elegantly eastwards at a low speed and performs an Independence Day style fly-past. It exposes its right side which is painted in brown and green camouflage and is adorned with the markings of the Syrian air force. This is, without doubt, a MIG-23. A second aircraft is diving behind it.

Someone pushes aside the tent’s flap and shouts into it “MIGs!”. “MIGs?” shouts Kahalni back. He jumps to his feet with his right hand grabbing his assault rifle and his left hand placing his helmet on his head. Perfect drill, I think to myself. Everyone hurries out. The planes make another wide turn and prepare to what looks like a bombing run. “Where are the anti-aircraft guys?” shouts someone. “They have gone down for lunch…” answers someone else. Whoever makes it jumps onto the vehicles and the armoured personnel carriers and grabs a machine gun. The others take cover wherever possible. The MIGs approach and dozens of medium and heavy machine guns open fire at them, unleashing hell. The noise is incredible. The planes drop their ordnance at the bottom of the hill near the artillery regiment, turn east and flee the area flying at low level. “That’s it.” says someone. “Syria is in the war.”

“Where is the air force?” asks someone angrily. There is no answer, but after a short while we hear an approaching Bell 212 helicopter. It lands, and out of it emerges the IDF’s assistant head of operations, air force man Lieutenant General Giora Furman. Those present gather around him. “We were just attacked by Syrian MIGs.” someone tells him. Furman does not seem surprised. “How many MIGs were there?” he asks. “Two.” comes the answer. “Interesting…” says Furman. “There should have been eight…” Great, I think. You knew about this and nobody warned us. But the question “Where is the air force?” receives an appropriate answer within 24 hours. Next day, the air force, under the command of General David Ivri, carries out its operation ‘Mole-Cricket 19’. The Syrian anti-aircraft missile batteries array in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley is completely destroyed. In the ensuing air battle over the area, IAF fighter jets shoot down eighty Syrian warplanes of all types, possibly including the two MIG-23s that attacked us the day before. All ninety participating IAF jets return safely. A long term deterrence is probably achieved there – the silence along the Syrian front has been maintained for the last 30 years.

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One Response to Syrian MIGs in the Skies of Lebanon

  1. You might find these newspaper headlines of interest. From the Falklands War but front page headline also about Lebanon in 1982.

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