Does the Middle East Face another Carve-up among Foreign Powers?

The Big Powers are returning to the Middle East.

This time they are not coming under their own steam. President George W. Bush is about to carry former colonial giants Britain and France back to countries which “decolonized” themselves in the 1940s. The US president believes that the partial restoration of their former influence will underpin his efforts to bring democracy to the region and provide extra military backing for his Iraq campaign.

When Bill Clinton sat in the White House, Israeli, Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian leaders were frequent and welcome visitors in Washington. Today, they are replaced by British and French officials lobbying for positions of influence in Israel, the Palestinian areas, Syria and Lebanon.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East experts see the ghost of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Accord haunting the most recent councils of Bush, British prime minister Tony Blair and French president Jacques Chirac. That accord, one of many that carved up Palestine in its long, truncated history, placed all the regions containing Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy sites under shared Anglo-French-Russian administration, while areas north of Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, including Lebanon, were to be under French dominion.

Great Britain needed a Mediterranean port, so it was assigned control of Haifa. From there, the British were to establish in the Negev and Trans-Jordan an Arab protectorate linking British Suez Canal and southern Iraqi bases by land.

But the Sykes-Picot accord agreement never quite came off. Egypt, Palestine and Trans-Jordan did come under British rule; Syria and Lebanon became the French Levant, but Russia was frozen out of the Middle East – much like now.

The Bush doctrine, by clothing some Sykes-Picot features in contemporary garb, awards the two former Big Powers areas of influence – albeit only as American sub-contractors. Britain has a strong in with the Mubarak regime in Cairo, its partner in security responsibility for the Gaza Strip after Israel withdraws from the territory this summer.

(Jordan will be Egypt’s counterpart on the West Bank, a role Bush and Jordanian king Abdullah discussed at length during the monarch’s White House visit Tuesday, March 15.)

(See “US Intelligence Takeover of Palestinian Authority in HOT POINTS and DEBKA-Net-Weekly 197, March 11, 2005).


Payback time for Bush ally


Britain’s comeback to the region – even as a loose influence for Egypt and along Israel’s southern border – matched by its control of southern Iraq, represents Bush’s reward for the unqualified support Blair rendered the US war in Iraq. Britain will need to send more troops to beef up its presence in Iraq, but for the Gaza Strip, Blair can make do with MI6 Secret Service agents. The British presence in Palestinian territory on Israel’s border in conjunction with Egypt will be the second leg supporting Britain’s bases in southern Iraq.

It is a sort of link between its two patches of influence in the Middle East, a faint reminder of British ambitions of 89 years ago. Given today’s forms of transport, the former Big Power may find the proximity useful in case military reinforcements need to be rushed to either region.

For Israel, Palestinian Authority territory in the West Bank and Jordan, Washington is the only superpower. But US leaders, Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, will henceforth be a lot less accessible and far less personally involved in policies for Israeli, Jordanian and the Palestinians and stay out of crisis-solving. US Lieutenant-General William E. (Kip) Ward, the US security coordinator for Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, will do the heavy lifting under the tutelage of Bush’s national security adviser Stephen Hadley.

France will be allowed to reestablish some of its old influence in Syria and Lebanon. (See separate article: Chirac: Leave Hizballah to Me)

This is less a reward than a lure. Bush hopes that Chirac will be ultimately persuaded to bridge the conceptual gap between the eastern Mediterranean and the river banks of Mesopotamia and follow the example of the British premier.

Just as Britain has carved out a position in the Shiite lands of southern Iraq, Washington sees a role for France in bringing the Sunni Muslims of central Iraq round to calling off their guerrilla war and participating in the process of democracy that is going forward in their country and spreading across the region.

If that Bush scenario comes to be, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East experts foresee America, Britain and France dividing up regions of influence in the Middle East in the context of American global policy with far-reaching results.


Realigning European alliances


London and Paris stand to overcome their historic rivalry and draw closer together. This will be at the expense of the close Franco-German partnership forged since the end of World War II. It will also entail Chirac breaking out of the anti-American front he formed two years ago with German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian president Vladimir Putin against the US invasion of Iraq.

A British-French rapprochement may well drive Berlin and Moscow into each other’s arms. Together, they may use to good advantage Ukrainian leader Viktor Yushchenko‘s desire for closer ties relations with Berlin. A new Russian-German-Ukrainian alliance would retilt the power balance in Eastern and Central Europe in Moscow’s favor.

Ultimately, Bush’s policy of carrots for Britain and France will divide the ranks of the EU-3, the joint British-French-German effort to engage Iran in incentives diplomacy to halt its nuclear weapons program. The UK and France will range behind Washington’s tough stance, while Germany and Russia will try and bridge the gap between Washington and Tehran.

Japan and China also have long-term interests in the Middle East where most of their energy supplies come from. Both Asian powerhouses will above all take Iran into account as a provider of oil when they weigh their position with regard to Bush’s power stakeout for the region.

Iran, realizing there will be no soft shoulders in the US-French-Anglo front, will edge closer to Germany and Russia; Beijing may well come on board a German-Russian-Iranian lineup. Japan remains a blank but in any scenario Tokyo will not take the chance of alienating Iran.

Amid the shifting trends projected here, the Middle East faces major strategic metamorphoses; the most significant is expected to overtake Israel’s geopolitical position.

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