Blair Fraser reports from Baghded


February 2 1957

Blair Fraser reports from Baghded


February 2 1957

Blair Fraser reports from Baghded



Canada has an opportunity in the Middle East today that never existed before.

The destruction of British influence by the attack on Suez left a vacuum here that will be filled from either East or West. Some people hope the United States will fill it, and all agree that the U. S. did gain vastly in the Arab world by President Eisenhower's stand against his close allies and against Israel. Others fear the Soviet Union is filling it already, and of that too there is some disquieting evidence.

But there is also evidence that Arab nations are somewhat wary of great powers as such. East or West, left or right.

“We appreciate what the United States has done, but we still have a doubt in our minds.” said Abdullah Rimawv. foreign minister of Jordan. “The doubt will become a certainty if the United States should try now to impose on us a solution of the Palestine problem.”

If there are doubts of the United States there are graver doubts of Russia. In Nasser's Egypt, which so many people call a Communist puppet, the controlled press gave front-page prominence day after day to the Soviet butchery in Hungary. I asked the publisher of Cairo's largest daily whether this was part of a deliberate policy to check the rising wave of Russian popularity .

“Yes. I believe it is,” he said. "We have conferences with the government from time to time about how we should handle the news, and our present instructions are these: hirst, we are to give credit to the Egyptian people; second, to other Arab nations; third, to the United Nations. In fourth and last place, we are told to give credit equally to the United States and the Soviet Union."

This is the mood that creates a new role for a country small enough not to be feared, strong enough not to be disregarded, rich enough to give help where help is needed—a country like Canada.

It is not the role of a hero, much less a wizard. In this tormented region, anything that anyone can possibly do is certain to be wrong in some important respect. A government that meddles voluntarily in the Middle East is handing its opposition a stick to beat it with. The easy common-sense course is to keep out. and observe complacently the inevitable mistakes of others.

Against common sense is only this: that nowhere in the world is a situation so fluid, so likely to be affected for good or ill by actions within a small nation's power. And nowhere in the w'orld is there a livelier danger of war.

Some observers, and they include some very cool heads, expect another major clash between Arabs and Israeli this spring. Each side now believes it defeated the other in the brief war last November. Each side is cockier, more sellconfident. more self-righteous than ever before, and in a mood to strike back at any provocation. There is no shortage of provocation in Palestine.

Out here, several things are accepted as fact that are still matters of argument at home. Not only Arabs, not only foreigners, but even the few British officials who are still on the job in some Arab countries seem to agree that Britain and France did three things by their attack on Egypt:

• They destroyed British influence in the Middle East, for now and for a long time to come.

• They gave Arab nationalism its greatest lift since the Turkish Empire collapsed.

• They made President Gamal Abdel Nasser the hero not only oí Egypt but of the whole Arab world. Some former enemies are now' his admirers; none dare criticize him openly.

It may seem odd that a military defeat has become a heroic exploit in Arab countries, though anyone who remembers Dunkirk should be able to understand it. A Cairo publisher explained to me how Egyptians feel:

“You must understand that in Arab eyes it is an honor, a great honor, that two great powers had to go to war against one man. Don’t forget that in this part of the world the greatest of great powers, the ones we have known and felt, are Britain and France. They went to war to defeat our president, and they tailed—he is still here! It is a great triumph.”

A Canadian who lives in Egypt put the same thought into a North American metaphor:

“Think of a small-town amateur boxer getting into the ring w'ith Rocky Marciano and staying on his feet for three rounds. He wouldn't have to win—nobody’d expect that, they wouldn’t even consider it. Just by staying on his feet he’d be a hero.”

There’s some evidence that the British government realized this beforehand—that they knew they could not win a real victory unless it w-erc virtually bloodless, the collapse of a cowardly foe —anti that they expected precisely this to happen. Some British “experts" on Middle Eastern affairs were heard, before the crisis, openly predicting that Egyptians would not fight in any circumstances. Nasser's regime was a house of cards, they said; a flick of the fingernail and it would topple. Since it did not topple, Nasser won the war.

His victory meant a sorry defeat for Britain and Britain’s friends in the Middle East. Except for those actually killed or bereaved in Port Said, there is no sadder plight out here than that of the Arab who has always been pro-British.



A Lebanese told me: “There’ll be no peace in the Middle East until Nasser has been eliminated”

“No one could have been more friendly to the British than I,” said an elderly merchant in Cairo, a leader in the business community there. “I love England.

I was educated there, I have spent years there since, and I have always defended England here at home — I have been criticized for it, too. What can 1 say now? Everything I have said all my life is proved wrong. Everything my opponents said has been proved right.”

Governments are in the same fix as individuals. It is no longer possible lor them to be openly pro-British, nor safe to be openly anti-Egyptian.

Of the five Arab governments in Asia Minor, at least two and probably three are anti-Nasser at heart. The third is Sa’udi Arabia, whose all-powerful king does not like to sec anyone rising abroad as a pan-Arab hero. The two that I know to be anti-Nasser are Lebanon and Iraq.

Lebanon is the little state just north of Israel, on the Mediterranean coast. It is slightly more than half Christian. That Christian community, a narrow but decisive majority in the Lebanon of today, would be a mere speck in “the Arab nation” that Nasser aspires to lead. At the time of the Suez crisis Lebanon had a pro-Arab prime minister, Abdullah Yaffi, who resigned when President Kamal Chamoun refused to break off relations with Britain and France. The present government is pro-Western, and has been described» as “a Christian dictatorship.”

There is no doubt that this Christian government, and the Christian community in general, regard Nasser with deep misgiving. One eminent Lebanese told me flatly: “There can be no peace in the Middle East until Nasser and Nasserism have been eliminated.”

But before saying this he reminded me that he was not to be quoted by name, and afterward added that if I did quote him he would instantly deny having made the statement. Anyone who talked so, even in Lebanon, would certainly be vilified and quite probably be assassinated.

I found the same discretion here in Baghdad, where the government is the most solidly pro-Western of all. Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri as-Said is the oldest and best friend Britain has in the Middle East. Iraq is the only Arab member of the Baghdad Pact, a mutual defense treaty of four Moslem states which is polluted, in Arab eyes, by the fact that Britain is a fifth partner. Even today the secretary-general of the Baghdad Pact, still living and working in Baghdad, is the able young Englishman Lord Jellicoe, son of the admiral.

Privately, Iraqi government spokesmen still say: “We do not like Nasser, we do not agree with his policies. We thought he was foolish to accept arms from the Communist block, and reckless to seize the Suez Canal.

“We have been staunch allies of Britain, and we still are—in spite of everything.”

But the “in spite of everything" is the giveaway line. As one official said rather mournfully: “We do hope the British won’t make any more mistakes.”

That is in private. In public, after suffering weeks of invective from the Egyptian radio in silence, old Nuri as-Said went on the air with a two-and-a-half-

hour speech defending his policies in general and the Baghdad Pact in particular. From beginning to end of the speech he never once mentioned Britain. No listener would have known, from Nuri's speech, that Britain was a member of the Baghdad Pact at all.

There were other, more positive signs that the Nuri as-Said government is on the defensive. Two days before the Iraqi parliament opened at the beginning of December (to be adjourned after only one sitting) five leading members of the opposition in Iraq were secretly arrested. They were held incommunicado for nearly three weeks; their trial was only thirtysix hours off when they first were allowed to see a lawyer about their defense.

The trial was held in secret at a court martial. All five were found guilty, the leader sentenced to three years hard labor and the rest to a year's “probation” on heavy bail. The charges were not revealed, except by lawyers for the defense.

As the defense tells it, the charges seem to amount to opposing the government, nothing more. One that particularly shocked Iraqi lawyers was a charge that the five had signed a petition to King Faisal II against the Nuri as-Said regime. The right to petition the king is one of the oldest, most deeply rooted of Arab traditions, and to find it described as a crime really horrified them.

Iraqi officials say, and the British in Baghdad concur, that the five accused were dangerous radicals and sponsors of

riots—“dreadful ragamuffins, really,” said one official.

Among the “ragamuffins” is the president of the Bar Association of Iraq, a former minister of justice. Another is a former minister of transport, two more are former MPs, and the fifth a sitting member of the present parliament. All are members óf a constitutional committee set up to form a “Congress Party” which, if it ever acquires legal existence under Iraq’s restrictive law, will replace two of the parties Nuri abolished in 1954.

It is true that no country in the Middle East is entirely free as we understand the word, and that every country there is in grave jeopardy. Iraq was very close to open rebellion after the Suez crisis, and governments so threatened are not apt to be scrupulous about civil liberties.

Nevertheless, it is still disquieting that the only parts of the Middle East where there is a strong, identifiable opposition are those isolated bastions of the Western cause, Iraq and Lebanon. It is also disquieting that in both those countries, spokesmen for the government describe their opponents as dupes if not accomplices of the Communist bloc.

Of all the charges against Nasser and pro-Nasser governments in the Middle East, this is the one most widely believed abroad: that they are all Communist stooges. It is not an easy charge either to prove or to disprove.

In Syria, for example, anyone can see that Western newspapers and certain

magazines are banned while Russian papers are prominently displayed in English, French, German and Arabic. The Syrian radio and the Syrian Arabic press never carry anything critical of the Soviet Union. One editor in Damascus tells an amusing story: last winter, as an experiment, he wrote an item in the weather column to the effect that “the cold weather coming down from Russia is expected to continue.” The censor cut it out.

No mention of the heroic revolt in Hungary, nor of United Nations resolutions condemning the Russian suppression of it, has appeared in the Syrian press or radio. 1 asked Colonel Abdel Hamid Serraj, chief of army intelligence and reputed strong man of Syria, why no reference to Hungary had been made. He replied blandly that there was no internal censorship in Syria, the newspapers could print what they liked, so he supposed the editors thought their readers would not be interested in Hungary.

But as for reports that Soviet arms have been “pouring” into Syria, and that the place swarms with Russian technicians and advisers, I found nobody who had any evidence to confirm this. Foreign observers in Syria say that about fifty Panzer tanks of Czech manufacture were obtained in 1955, and sixty-odd T-34s in the first half of 1956; these appeared in a military parade last summer, and foreigners tpok pictures of them. They guess that maybe another sixty tanks have been received since then. But as for a sudden rush of armor recently, if it happened it escaped the notice of some rather shrewd onlookers.

These same onlookers regard the Syrian army as thoroughly incompetent. Many of its senior officers were NCOs in the days of the French mandate; those who have some formal military education have been promoted with breathless speed. They have certainly had German advisers, but if they now have Russian these have kept themselves out of sight.

In Egypt, Canadian observers report that when the Suez attack came, about three hundred men, women and children from Iron Curtain countries were evacuated through Khartoum. Presumably some others must have flown out the Egyptian bombers which escaped to Syria and Sa’udi Arabia. A large group of Czech “tourists” were among the first to arrive when normal traffic reopened after the crisis, as well as groups of Russian and Chinese journalists.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence in Egypt that the Nasser regime is becoming apprehensive of the Russian embrace, and wants to strengthen ties with the free countries.

For one example—the Hungary story’s steady front-page display in the Egyptian press, especially when it was before the United Nations. Russian rejoinders got a fair play too, but the net effect was the just one—heavily anti-Soviet.

Here in Baghdad I spent an enlightening afternoon with the chief defense counsel for the accused opposition leaders, a big quiet man named Sa'ad Omar. He is not a party member; he was called in as defense counsel because he is vicepresident of the Iraq Bar Association. (The president was one of the accused.) After we got through talking about the case and settled down to a cup of tea, we began to talk politics in a general way.

“I honestly think the Nuri as-Said government is promoting communism here." Omar said. “Only Chiang Kai-shek in Formosa is as unpopular as Nuri as-Said is in Iraq, and they both call every opponent a Communist.

“Actually there is a vacuum here in Iraq. British prestige has been destroyed by their attack on Egypt, and this has left a great gap. If ths United States doesn't fill it, perhaps Russia will.

“We don't want that, though. We arc not Communists. We don’t want to give our country to the Russians. In the last free election we had, Communists got only one out of 142 seats in our parliament. But while the vacuum exists, the danger will exist too.”

Can the U. S. and Canada fill the gap merely by offering dollar aid?

Iraq’s example indicates that the answer is no. Iraq has plenty of money, the revenue of her oil. For the last four years Iraq has been plowing nearly three quarters of that oil income, or about $200 million last year, into capital-development schemes of flood control, irrigation and hydro-electric power development. Eventually these will double the arable land of Iraq and quadruple its productivity, while providing at the same time power for new industries.

I got the details of these plans from one of the Development Board officers, a dedicated soul whose heart was obviously in his work. But when I asked whether or not these great projects were strengthening the present government of Iraq, he bristled.

"There is no connection at all between the two,” he said. He personally was against the Nuri as-Said government, against the Baghdad Pact, against the British, and convinced that the development of Iraq would have gone faster and farther without any of these things.

How else, then, can the West regain the trust of Arab countries, and fill the “vacuum” that Britain has left behind?

That question cannot be answered without a fresh look at Israel. The one common feeling, the factor that unites all Arabs without distinction, is hatred of Israel and a burning sense of injustice that Israel exists at all.

It was not just for attacking Egypt that Britain lost all standing with the Arabs. Even in Egypt itself, several people said, “If Britain had attacked at once when Nasser seized the canal, we would have understood.” The unforgivable, unforgettable thing was that Britain attacked in alliance and apparent connivance with Israel.

Abdullah Rimawy, foreign minister in the new pro-Nasser government of Jordan, said: “In one way at least the attack on Egypt was a good thing. It made absolutely clear to everybody what had not been clear to all before, that Britain, France and Israel are all one enemy.”

Even today there seems to be little understanding in the West of either the depth or the strength of Arab resentment of Israel, of their sense of injustice that the intrusion of Israel should have been allowed and even assisted by Western nations. Most Westerners still think that when the Arabs were promised independence during World War I. the promise was made without proper knowledge or due authority. The fact is that it was made in writing, by Sir Henry McMahon, British high commissioner for Egypt and the Sudan, who said “I am authorized to give you the following pledges on behalf of the Government of Great Britain.” The pledges added up to independence for all Arab territory from Syria to the Red Sea and from Persia to the Mediterranean. The following year the British also made an agreement with the French to partition some of the same territory with the French, under “mandates." After yet another year had passed, the famous Bal-

four Declaration promised a “Jewdsh national home” in Palestine.

From these conflicting promises, as inexcusable as they are incompatible, most of the trouble in the Middle East stems.

What the Arabs do not and will not realize is that other Western nations had no share or even knowledge of Sir Henry McMahon’s pledge to the Arabs, but do have some commitment of their own now to Israel. We could not recognize a nation in 1948 and then nine years later, after a million Jews had gone there and left themselves nowhere else to go, withdraw that recognition and say Israel has no right to exist. Arabs talk as if nothing less would satisfy them.

On the other hand. Western and especially North American countries have a misconception of Israel. We think of Israel as a small, weak, peaceful country surrounded, and heavily outnumbered, by ferocious and bloodthirsty neighbors. In a sense, of course, all these things are true, but they are also extremely misleading.

The fact is that Israel is by far the strongest military power in the Middle

East—a tough, proud, aggressive nation with Spartan discipline and superb military efficiency. Outnumbered or not, the Israeli can defeat any or all of their Arab neighbors in battle, and would welcome a chance to prove it.

In the long run, of course, Israel is afraid of the Arab countries, and in the long run she has reason to be. Twenty to one are too long odds; give the Arabs enough Russian tanks and planes, and time enough to learn to use them, and eventually they will be strong enough to carry out their vainglorious boast and “drive the Jews into the sea.”

But in the short run, although they arc ashamed to admit it, it is the Arabs who are afraid. Any time she dared defy the opinion of the Western nations whose economic help she needs. Israel could knock out the feeble pensioner-state of Jordan and take the whole valley of the River Jordan for her own. Israel could chase away the incompetent soldiers of Syria, seize the headwaters of the Jordan and solve most of her problems of irrigation and power shortage. Israel may not now be an economically viable state,

but she could become so by force of arms.

If the West were to do as the Arab nations ask and cut off all economic aid to Israel tomorrow, undoubtedly this would happen. The threat of withdrawing economic aid is an effective restraint, but if the threat were carried out the restraint would no longer exist.

Thus we have reasons of discretion, as well as reasons of honor, for continuing to give Israel recognition and a reasonable amount of support. To do this without alienating forty million Arabs, and driving them into the Soviet camp for lack of anywhere else to go. is the formidable task that now confronts the West.

For that task, all the great powers have some disability or other. The British and the French put themselves out of court last November. The Americans, though they emerged from the Suez crisis with much greater prestige than they ever had before, are inevitably and incurably suspect — they are the chief sponsors of Israel, they are the strongest power in the world, and their oil holdings make them deeply interested parties.

What the Middle East needs, and lacks, is the presence of a few more disinterested parties. One of them could be Canada.

Heaven knows we are ill-equipped for the job now. In the whole “Arab nation” that stretches from Morocco to Mesopotamia. Canada has one ambassador— Herbert Norman in Cairo. He has a senior and able man, Lionel Roy, as charged’affaires in Lebanon, but no chargé can quite take the place of an ambassador. East of Lebanon-—in Syria, in Jordan, in Iraq, in Sa'udi Arabia — Canada has nobody at all. All our information from this troubled region we get at second hand, and most of it from interested sources.

But if we had our own information, what good would it do? What action could Canada take anyway?

Nothing sensational; nothing decisive. There is no immediate solution for the problems of the Middle East; nothing conceivable could remove them.

But one reason for this impasse is the Arab conviction that nobody — nobody with a white skin, that is; nobody with a Western connection — understands their case, let alone supports it. Thus isolated, the Arab countries tend to retire into a trance of self-pity and wishful thinking.

For the moment that trance has been broken. The vote of 65-1 against Israel, the votes that found Britain and France almost alone while the world stood with Egypt, gave the Arab countries a new faith in international justice.

Canada is the only nation in the commonwealth, and one of the' few in the world, able to follow up the advantage.

Just because we stepped out of line and refused to back our oldest commonwealth partners, Canada got more notice and respect out here than most Canadians realize. On an issue like Suez, the Arabs would take the backing of India and Pakistan for granted. Canada's stand was a surprise. It gave us a reputation for fairness somewhat higher than we deserve, but one we should not throw away lightly.

To keep it, Canada won’t need to back the Arab side blindly, or turn her back on Britain or even on Israel. What she will need to do is learn the facts of each dispute at first hand, and take what side she takes for real reasons. In the fragile equilibrium that is chronic in the Middle East, small things can have decisive weight. One such small thing might be the comprehension and sympathy of one more small country, -fa