Packaging military campaigns: PR from Sinai to Syria

Packaging military campaigns: PR from Sinai to Syria
5 min read
31 Oct, 2016
Comment: Sixty years ago, Israel, Britain and France invaded Sinai but lied to the UN General Assembly about their motives. Manipulating military campaigns is equally common today, writes Laith Saud
Invading Sinai was part of an effort to secure control of the Suez Canal [AFP]

"It is absurd to suggest - as it has, I regret, been suggested - that our intervention was part of a long prepared plot concerted with Israel. Such allegations are not only absurd, they are false." - British Ambassador to the UN General Assembly, 1 November 1956.

On 29 October 1956, Israeli forces invaded Egypt. They were quickly supported by an incursion of British and French air raids and troop movements. Sixty years on, what does the 1956 war teach us about military campaigns and the official statements that accompany them - especially in the Middle East? We learn that often, official statements actually obscure intended purposes. 

The significance of Suez

International Law scholar John Quigley observes that, "the 1956 troop insertion into Egypt was one of the most devious international invasions of modern times. It is not uncommon that a state committing aggression invents a story that, if true, would justify its action. But it is far from common that not one, not two, but three state combine to invent a story."

But, in fact, this is what Britain, France and Israel did in 1956; they invented a pretext to invade Egypt.

Israel's official story tells the invasion of the Sinai as a military reprisal, but in fact, it was a premeditated attack committed to two major objectives for Israel: 1) Occupation of the Peninsula (and the hope of acquiring access to oil reserves) and 2) occupation of the Gaza Strip, which then was under Egyptian administration. 

Golda Meir, then Foreign Minister of Israel declared the Gaza Strip to be "an integral part of Israel," thus stating her country's intention to remain there indefinitely as an occupying power.

The British and French wanted to extend the last few gasps of colonial exploitation they had enjoyed for the previous century

For the British and French, invading the Sinai was part and parcel of an effort to secure control of the Suez Canal. 

Completed by French engineers in 1869, under Khedive Ismail, the canal is a flashpoint of modern Egyptian history, including British colonialism and Nasserite nationalism. 

On completion, the canal provided cheap and well-exploited access to the Red Sea (and Indian Ocean) for European powers and, in Ismail Pasha's imagination, drew Egypt closer to Europe. Well, Egypt came closer to Europe but not in the way an Egyptian would have hoped for; Ismail incurred massive amounts of debt to European powers. 

This debt became a pretext for the British to leverage in order to assert direct control over Egyptian finances.  These events finally led to the famous 'Urabi revolt (1879-1882), which was crushed, and after which Egypt become more or less a British satellite and the canal a British possession. 

The three actors vociferously maintained the integrity of the campaign and lied to the UN General Assembly until they were blue in the face

In the summer of 1956, President Jamal Abdul-Nasser nationalised the canal, wresting it away from British control and asserting Egyptian independence more fully. He overturned roughly eighty-years of history. Here, Israeli and European interests converged. 

The Israelis wanted expand their territory and circumvent the rise of a popular, appealing Arab Nationalist power in Cairo, while the British and French wanted to extend the last few gasps of colonial exploitation they had enjoyed for the previous century. 

British, French and Israeli officials met in France and coordinated a military attack and the false story they would present to the world to justify it. But why was it important to concoct a story?

War (at the United Nations)

One of the staple notions of International Relations is the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD); this theory proposes that states armed with nuclear weapons will not use them on one another because that would precipitate a similar response, assuring the destruction of both states. 

In a way, MAD pervades international relations generally; if states were permitted to attack other states offensively or outside of the context of self-defense, there would be chaos. So in international institutions, the principle of non-aggression is paramount. No one can admit to wanting to invade a country for oil or to expand territory or to re-draw borders, so a lie will always precede an aggressive military campaign. 

A lie will always precede an aggressive military campaign

In 1986, thirty-years after the invasion of the Sinai, British officials de-classified the minutes of meetings held between British, French and Israeli officials. These documents demonstrated that the three states did in fact collude in initiating an offensive war against Egypt, while collectively lying to the international community about their actions, intended purposes and coordination. 

But at the United Nations, during the time, the three actors vociferously maintained the integrity of the campaign and lied to the UN General Assembly until they were blue in the face. 

The entire affair turned out to be a failure for the French, and a disaster for the British. The US and USSR were enthusiastic about asserting their newfound post-WWII status as superpowers, and forced the occupiers out of Sinai. Israel made gains, but more modest than they had hoped for.

As we look at the Middle East today, there are multiple major military campaigns under way. Mosul and Aleppo strike me as the most important. In both cases "fighting terrorism," in particular IS has served as a pretext for on going military campaigns into the two major cities. 

Will the actions on the ground in Mosul and Aleppo in days to come correspond to this pretext?

But in the days to come, will the actions on the ground correspond to this pretext? 

It is well known that Russia has used IS as a justification for military intervention into Syria, but has in fact been fighting rebels opposed to the Assad regime - not ISIS, at all. 

Will the military campaign in Mosul result in a large population exodus; further changing Iraq's historical demography? 

There are already indications that Iraqi Kurds will call for independence after the Mosul campaign. So reader beware, governments say one thing, but often do something else.  Just look at history. 

Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Follow him on Twitter: @laithsaud

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.