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The Suez Canal crisis was an event that permanently changed the landscape of the middle east and was the cause of a shift in political power during the cold war and the subsequent decades. The Suez Canal, located in Egypt, was a major shipping route for many major countries including Britain, France, Egypt, and the relatively new nation of Israel. The building of the Canal was originally a partnership between France and Egypt and in 1869 the canal was completed, however in 1875, due to the large debt accumulated by the Egyptian government, they had to sell large shares in the canal to the British government.
The Canal itself connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and this it made it a crucial route for the European powers of Britain and France to ship oil. At this point in time two thirds of all of Europe’s oil was being shipped through this route. Post World War II was a time of tension in the middle east as many Arab countries, including Egypt, did not approve of the newly formed Jewish State of Israel. Tensions increased as France then proceeded to sell arms to the Israelis which the Arabs saw as a direct threat to them. Several years prior to the actual crisis Britain had attempted to mend relationships with Egypt after an attempted, but unsuccessful, coup to overthrow the British control in the region. This resulted in an agreement for the withdrawal of British military presence. However, soon after their withdrawal, they tried to form an Arab coalition sympathetic to Britain centred around Iraq, Egypt’s direct rivals. These factors inevitably led to retaliation by the Egyptian government, and this retaliation is what became known as the Suez Canal Crisis.
On July 26, 1956 Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal cutting off Britain, France, and Israel from their most important water way. This had the potential to cripple the British economy and to damage the French and Israeli economies to a lesser, yet significant, degree. The closing of the canal for France also meant more limited access to their North African colonies which they already had somewhat deficient control of. When the Prime Minister of Britain, Sir Anthony Eden, heard about the situation he and the U.S. president, Eisenhower, held a meeting of all the major nations who were using the canal. The Americans pushed for a diplomatic resolution, the British and French agreed with this for a time but used the diplomacy as a way to gain time to begin military preparations for the forceful seizure of the canal. The fall of that year preparations were coming to a head and the French had been in discussion with the Israelis about a combined attack on Egypt. The alliance between the three powers of Britain, France, and Israel was solidified in October of 1956 in the Protocol of Sevres however, Eden was reluctant and hesitant to include the Israelis. The Israelis had even more reason to launch an attack on the Egyptians as not only did they have a continually growing animosity for one another but for several years prior to this conflict the Egyptians had been controlling a region in the Sinai known as the Straits of Tiran. The straits of Tiran were a crucial shipping line for the Israelis and the Egyptians’ control of the area blocked their access to the Red Sea and stopped them from trading with the east.
On October 29, 1956 the Israelis began an operation in southern Sinai codenamed Operation Kadesh. The operation began with paratroopers landing in the southern Sinai region with the intent to secure and hold strategic positions to weaken the Egyptian forces. The targets mainly consisted of military outposts and staging grounds such as the Gaza Strip to ensure that the Egyptians would be unable to send reinforcements or stage counter offensives. The Egyptians responded to this aggression the following day with naval retaliation attempting to use a destroyer to shell the Israeli city of Haifa to cripple their oil supplies there. However, they were routed and then captured by two Israeli destroyers and a French destroyer stationed there preparing for the British and French operations.The hostilities initiated by Israel, however, were against the plans the three nations had originally agreed upon. Initially the plan was to attack from two sides simultaneously, the Israelis from air and land in the Sinai region while the British and French would lead an air and naval landing from the Mediterranean Sea. Meanwhile both parties also maintained air superiority and constant air strikes. The British and French, however saw potential disaster in this, as the Israelis swiftly routed the Egyptians allowing for an increased possibility of fighting along the Suez Canal itself which is something both Britain and France wanted to avoid as it would interfere with their planned operation. So, on October 30, a day after Israeli operations began, Prime Minister Eden and French President Guy Mollet issued a statement, which was pre-planned with Israel, that said the following, “The Governments of the United Kingdom and France have taken note of the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Egypt. This event threatens to disrupt the freedom of navigation through the Suez Canal on which the economic life of many nations depends. The Governments of the United Kingdom and France are resolved to do all in their power to bring about the earliest cessation of hostilities and to safeguard the free passage of the Canal.
They accordingly request the Government of Israel to stop all warlike action on land, sea and air forthwith; to withdraw all Israeli military forces to a distance of ten miles east of the Canal. The communication has been addressed to the Government of Egypt, requesting them to cease hostilities and withdraw their forces from the neighbourhood of the Canal and to accept the temporary occupation by Anglo-French – forces of key positions at Port Said, Ismailia and Suez. The United Kingdom and French Governments request an answer to this communication within twelve hours. If at the expiration of that period one or both Governments have not undertaken to comply with the above requirements, the United Kingdom and French forces will intervene in whatever strength may be necessary to secure compliance”. This statement was France and Britain’s last attempt to secure their aims through diplomatic terms. After the 12 hour period had passed with no response the British and French began mobilizing the troops they had been accumulating in surrounding territories.
On October 31,1956 the British and French began Operation Musketeer with the objective of capturing and controlling the Suez Canal and the surrounding region, forcing Egypt into a surrender. The following day the air attacks began along the canal and against strategic Egyptian targets. On November 5 the landings of the 45th Commando Brigade and 16th Parachute Brigade began by sea and air. The ground forces were able to quickly secure and establish strategic points along the Suez Canal. November 5-6 the second phase of British and French attacks began codenamed Operation Telescope. The operation began with the British dropping paratroopers on Gamil airfield and Port Faud with the intent to capture and neutralize the airfields to prevent any further defensive actions from the Egyptian air force. While the operation had a rough start for the British, due to the paratroopers being separated from their weapons caches while under heavy fire, both the British and French achieved their objectives and managed to cripple the Egyptian air force.
For the majority of French and British people they were in support of the military action being taken to resolve the crisis however many of their western allies strongly disagreed with the actions being taken. The United States in particular was very upset with the course of action their allies had chosen to take. President Eisenhower was outraged about the lack of information about the intentions that Guy Mollet and Sir Anthony Eden had provided for them. Along with this the United States saw the situation as reckless due to the current cold war situation as the aggressors’ actions drew the attention of the Soviet Union who had even threatened nuclear strikes against the three invading powers involved in the crisis if they failed to disengage. The States even threatened heavy economic sanctions against the the three aggressors, particularly against Britain as they threatened to devalue the pound-sterling. The United Nations felt the need to intervene and with the help of the United states passed a draft resolution for all forces to retreat behind a designated armistice line. Regardless of all these attempts none of these strategies stopped the French, British, and Israeli agressions. It was at this point that Canada, a country with very strong ties to Britain, began to involve themselves more heavily in the situation. Canada’s official role in the situation was as a mediator however, more privately, Ottawa objected to the actions being taken by their allies. At this time Lester B. Pearson was Canada’s secretary of state for external affairs and was leading the Canadian delegation to the UN to help resolve the crisis. Originally Pearson was working towards the goal of a diplomatic solution with the other UN states however, when the military hostilities began Pearson had to change his ideas to find a resolution. Working with other colleagues within the United Nations Pearson came up with the idea of a large scale heavily armoured United Nations peacekeeping force.
On November 4, 1956 the idea was put to a vote within the UN assembly where it was passed unanimously. Unfortunately, regardless of this, the British and French still continued with Operation Telescope the following day. Eventually, due to the continued pressure, the invading forces agreed to a ceasefire and on November 6, 1956 it was put into effect. Following the ceasefire the newly formed UN peacekeeping force was deployed into the canal zone allowing the aggressors to retreat without giving the appearance of having been defeated. The peacekeeping force was instrumental in maintaining the border between Egypt and Israel from erupting into further conflict by keeping both forces in their respective territories. By December of that year British and French troops fully withdrew and by March of the following year Israel had completely backed down. In April, 1957 the canal reopened to international shipping.In the aftermath of the crisis both the US and UN recognized Egypt to have complete sovereignty over the Suez Canal. After the British and French forces had withdrawn from the area, both leaders came under heavy scrutiny and criticism for the actions taken to deal with the crisis. Contrary to earlier sentiments, the public opinion was much more divided post crisis than during. The countries of Britain and France saw their political influence significantly weakened in the wake of the Suez Canal Crisis. It was at this point that France and Britain were no longer considered world superpowers.
Along with this major decline in political influence both countries continued to lose many colonies at an alarming rate draining them of even more wealth and global influence. These factors in turn led to a more independent middle east which was more autonomous than it had previously been leading to Arab states choosing governments and laws more influenced by their own traditions and culture rather than being instituted or influenced by foreign western power. For Canada’s involvement in the crisis Lester B. Pearson would win the Nobel Peace Prize and later would become the Prime Minister of Canada. To conclude, the Suez Canal Crisis was not only an event that impacted the nations involved but changed the very fabric of the middle east to one of greater independence from western influence. It also brought down some of the greatest political powers of the previous centuries to a lesser status and changed how international organizations deal with global crisis.
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