Thursday, July 31, 2008

[suez] end of an empire

This is the Wiki article abridged and paraphrased . You can read the whole thing through, view the summary below or just click out with a sigh. :)


The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, having been financed by the French and Egyptian governments. Technically, the territory of the canal proper was sovereign Egyptian territory, and the operating company, the Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal (Suez Canal Company) was an Egyptian-chartered company, originally part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

To the British, the canal was the ocean link with its colonies in India, the Far East, Australia, and New Zealand and the area as a whole became strategically important. Thus, in 1875, the British government of Benjamin Disraeli bought the Egyptian share of the operating company, obtaining partial control of the canal's operations and sharing it with mostly-French private investors.

In 1882, during the invasion and occupation of Egypt, the United Kingdom took de facto control of the canal proper, finance and operation. The Convention of Constantinople (1888) declared the canal a neutral zone under British protection. In ratifying it, the Ottoman Empire agreed to permit international shipping to freely pass through the canal, in time of war and peace.

In 1948, the British Mandate of Palestine ended, the British forces withdrew from Palestine, and Israel declared independence. Britain's military strength was spread throughout the region, including the vast military complex at Suez with a garrison of some 80,000.

[Then came the Islamic rise in Egypt and increasingly frosty post-war relations between Britain and Egypt.]

In October 1951, the Egyptian government unilaterally abrogated the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty, the terms of which granted Britain lease on the Suez base for 20 years. Britain refused to withdraw from Suez. The price of such a course of action was a steady escalation in increasingly violent hostility towards Britain.

[Now followed the removal of the Egyptian monarchy, increasing Arab obstruction of the canal and a 1953-54 attempt by Britain to mend relations. They would withdraw the garrison gradually if they could influence the canal zone. Nasser was unpopular at home for this agreement and Egypt also saw Jordan and Iraq as a threat, those two being friendly towards Britain.

Now came Nasser's civil unrest and obstruction of Britain across the arab world, coupled with the Czechoslovakian arms deals, bringing vast weapons reserves to the middle-east and cutting the reliance on western arms.]

On May 16th, 1956, Nasser officially recognized the People's Republic of China. Washington withdrew all American financial aid for the Aswan Dam project on July 19th. Nasser's response was the nationalization of the Suez Canal.

After the American government didn't support the British protests, the British government decided for the military intervention against Egypt to avoid the complete collapse of British prestige in the region.

However, direct military intervention ran the risk of angering Washington and damaging Anglo-Arab relations. As a result, the British government concluded a secret military pact with France and Israel that aimed at regaining the Suez Canal.


[Now followed various meetings and then ...]

Three months after Egypt's nationalization of the canal company, a secret meeting took place at Sèvres, outside Paris. Britain and France enlisted Israeli support for an alliance against Egypt.

The parties agreed that Israel would invade the Sinai. Britain and France would then intervene, instructing that both the Israeli and Egyptian armies withdraw their forces to a distance of 16 km from either side of the canal.

The British and French would then argue that Egypt's control of such an important route was too tenuous, and that it needed be placed under Anglo-French management.

[Britain failed to inform the U.S., expecting that it would accede to the fait accompli. Israel began the attack on October 29th, 1956. It was messy but came to this point ...]

On November 3, 20 F4U-7 Corsairs from the 14.F and 15.F Aéronavale taking off from the French carriers Arromanches and La Fayette, attacked the Cairo aerodrome. Nasser responded by sinking all 40 ships present in the canal, closing it to further shipping until early 1957.

[However ...]

The operation to take the canal was highly successful from a military point of view, but was a political disaster due to external forces.

The Eisenhower administration forced a cease-fire on Britain, Israel, and France which it had previously told the Allies it would not do. The U.S. demanded that the invasion stop and sponsored resolutions in the UN Security Council ...

Part of the pressure that the United States and the rest of NATO used against Britain was financial, as President Eisenhower threatened to sell the United States reserves of the British pound and thereby precipitate a collapse of the British currency.

[Various embargos and the criticism by the Commonwealth at a time when this represented the last vestige of the Empire also pressured Britain. The pound was pressured and Eden resigned.

The main fallout was that France and Britain were weakened in international eyes, world power effectively shifted to the superpowers and France fell out with its allies, with some justification this time, promoting its own interests and supposedly giving nuclear secrets to Israel.


Could Britain have played it better?

Yes, of course. The leadership relied on the old Empire clout too much but that was understandable, given the history of Britain in Palestine and Suez. In this blogger's eyes, the most significant factor though was the refusal of the U.S. to help, coupled with its out and out obstruction in the end.

If Britain had brought the U.S. into the game, I doubt it would have altered much. There would have been equal hostility to America and though the military operation still would have been successful, Britain would have to have conceded the whip hand to the U.S. This was a slap in the face of Britain's prestige, which MacMillan acknowledged was the new reality in his willingness to accommodate the Americans from that point forward.

It would be nice to think that a Churchill, Thatcher or Ian Botham type could have steered a better course with a lot of "side" to it but one wonders how much better they would have done.]

4 comments:

Colin Campbell said...

My dad was in the Black Watch and the Paratroops. He "flew in and shot up a few Arabs and then left" were his entire recollections of his involvement with Suez.

My uncle, who just died flew Lancasters over Dresden and dropped a lot of metal. He didn't talk about it all.

My grandfather had his left ear drum blown out by a cannon in World War 1 somewhere in France. He never talked about it.

War it really brings out the best in us.

Lord James Bigglesworth said...

Both my parents, directly and indirectly, died from war complications too. Yes Colin - you're right.

Lord Nazh said...

They should have known better than to go into a war with the French :)

Lord Nazh said...

Both my grandfathers were in war (WWII and Korea); multiple uncles/cousins in Vietnam...

they all talked about it gladly; the chance to serve their country.