The Baathist coup led to revolts not only among the lower middle classes in several cities, who considered the new rulers to be peasants, but also among some officers, Sunni or Druze, who protested against what they saw as an Alawite takeover. The new government leader, Salah Jadid, tightened Syria’s ties with Moscow and with Yasser Arafat‘s Fatah (the main Palestinian resistance organization). He succeeded in bringing Israel/Palestine high on the agenda of the Arab League, the ultimate goal being the final victory over Israel. Eventually, Egypt and Jordan joined forces with Syria.
On 5 June 1967, after a protracted conflict with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan over the Jordan River’s water, Israel started a war, known as the June War, against the Arab countries. The Israeli army completely destroyed both Syria’s and Egypt’s Air Force, before they could even take off. Thereafter, the Israeli army invaded the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank, which was in Jordanian hands. On June 10, it attacked the Syrian Golan Heights. In less than two days, Syria lost this strategic region including its main city, Quneitra, which was entirely destroyed by the Israeli army, causing 120,000 refugees – mainly Druze – to flee to Syria. On June 11, the warring parties accepted the United Nation’s call for a cease-fire. Later in 1967, the UN Security Council issued its Resolution 242, calling for complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied during the war, in exchange for peace talks and Arab recognition of Israel. In 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights.
Following this defeat Salah Jadid came under attack both within Syria as well as internationally. Among his critics was Air Force general Hafiz al-Assad, Defence Minister during the June War. Despite his opposition, al-Assad retained his position in the government, biding his time and strengthening his camp during the following three years.
In September 1970, another dramatic event took place on Syria’s doorstep, in Jordan. Skirmishes between the Palestinians and the Jordanian authorities had been occurring for about a year. In what became known as Black September, King Hussein, fearing another, more widespread Palestinian revolt, had his forces kill thousands of fedayeen (resistance fighters). The remnants of the forces that belonged to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fled to Lebanon with their leader Yasser Arafat (who had become PLO-chairman the year before).