Reviving the Anglo-Franco-American Tripartite in the Middle East

May 12, 2016

On May 25th, 1950, the “P3” — the United States, the United Kingdom, and France — issued a Joint Declaration on the Arab States and Israel. In this so-called Tripartite Declaration, the three countries declared “their unalterable opposition to the use of force or threat of force between any of the states” in the Middle East, as well as their determination to  “immediately take action, both within and outside the United Nations, to prevent such violation.” Beyond this political commitment, made in response to the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the declaration also endeavored to better coordinate arms sales to Israel and Arab states. This led to the establishment of a Near East Arms Coordinating Committee (NEACC) in which representatives from the three western powers compared notes on Middle Eastern arms requests.

It became rapidly apparent that the declaration was unable to reassure Israel, which at the time insisted that Washington agree to a formal treaty-bound security guarantee, or Egypt, which rejected any form of Western-led security architecture. What’s more, the declaration could not overcome divisions within the P3 itself, whose members viewed it more as a vehicle to advance their national and often competing interests than as a genuine attempt to buttress regional stability. The NEACC became irrelevant after the 1955 Soviet-sponsored Egyptian-Czechoslovak arms deal and 1954 French arms sales to Israel. Ultimately, the discord created by the Franco-British initiative during the 1956 Suez war rendered the declaration a dead letter. The demise of P3 unity during the conflict and the failure of the Franco-British initiative itself left the United States as the main external security provider in the region for the first time. Indeed, while France and the United Kingdom did not retreat from the region, they would only play a secondary role in the U.S. strategy of containment of the Soviet Union in the Middle East.

Fast forward 60 years and the stars are once again realigning on the defense and security regional scene.

The New Regional Scene

As the Obama administration enters the twilight of its second term, stakeholders from within and outside the region share the perception of a decreasing U.S. preeminence in the Middle East and wavering commitment to regional security and stability. This sentiment is fueled in large part by the lack of clarity on the organizing principles of U.S. policy in the region since 9/11, as well as by the Obama administration’s policy of restraint since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Yet perceptions are one thing and reality another. Washington remains by far the most influential and powerful external player in the Middle East. There is a relatively broad bipartisan consensus in the Washington security community that the Middle East remains strategically significant for the United States, even if U.S. economic reliance on Middle Eastern hydrocarbons is less acute than it once was.

That being said, the constraints on U.S. power in the region made visible during the Obama years are here to stay. The U.S.-led security architecture is increasingly contested in Asia and Europe, requiring constant U.S. attention and resources. The U.S. fiscal predicament remains unsolved. Foreign interventionism is under attack by the presumptive Republican candidate, and by a prominent Democratic candidate even if the general public continues to support an active U.S. role in world affairs. In such a context, Washington alone cannot hope to efficiently tackle the most daunting security and defense challenges and threats in the region: terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, disintegration of traditional state structures, and the risks of conflict with Iran. Despite the current administration’s skeptical view of key allies, the United States needs allies in this region now more than at any time in the last 60 years.

The good news for Washington is that France and the United Kingdom are once again keen to play a greater role in the Middle East. Contrary to the United States, geography leave the European powers without luxury to wonder whether the Middle East still matters to them. The destabilizing flows of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, the turmoil in Libya, and the threat of Iran’s nuclear-armed missiles and terrorism are all more direct challenges to the European continent than they are to America. As the United States dithers over its role and posture, Europe cannot simply isolate itself and hope for the best. France and the United Kingdom arrived at the same conclusion, reinforced by recent events. Their security requires that they enhance their partnerships, presence, and commitment to regional security and stability, largely but not exclusively in the Gulf. One can thus track how Europe’s two leading military and nuclear powers have enhanced their presence and influence in the region over the past decade.

In May 2009, France opened a military base in the United Arab Emirates, where hundreds of French troops and numerous fighter jets are now stationed permanently. Paris has led or participated in military exercises with Gulf partners, Egypt, and Jordan, while the French military is heavily involved in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL, with jets operating from both the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. At 2015’s end, the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle was the only carrier in the Gulf and led the anti-ISIL naval task force in the temporary absence of a U.S. carrier for the first time in a decade. The French arms industry has significantly ramped up arms sales throughout the region. At the diplomatic level, France led Europe in adopting harsher sanctions against Iran in 2011 and 2012 and took a demanding non-proliferation stance during the nuclear negotiations with Tehran. France’s President Hollande was the first non-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leader invited to the forum’s summit in May 2015. In short, France has significantly enhanced its role as an external security provider over the past decade.

Likewise, the United Kingdom, which officially abandoned its forward military presence in the region in the late 1960s, has now pivoted back to the Middle East. London never entirely relinquished presence and influence, as it maintained security ties and remained a significant player in the region in particular during the two wars against Iraq. However, like France, Britain has decided in recent years to reestablish a permanent forward presence in the Gulf, namely through the construction of a naval base in Bahrain capable of hosting its new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, the use of an airbase in the United Arab Emirates, and forward presence and military exercises in countries such as Jordan. The 2015 National Security Strategy and Defense and Security Review enshrined this more vigorous role in writing, stressing the need to “build a permanent and more substantial U.K. military presence to reflect our historic relationships, the long-term nature of both challenges and opportunities and to reassure our Gulf allies.”

The Importance of Trilateral Cohesion

Revived French and British postures in the Middle East should be welcomed by the United States. This evolution obviously does not guarantee a seamless trilateral alignment on Middle Eastern policy. Yet as Washington insists that its allies have more skin in the game, it must also be willing to allow them to play a greater role in the definition of its strategic rules and objectives. The United States is great at building coalitions around the U.S. security agenda, but has a mixed record of letting its closest allies have a say in the definition of objectives and strategy. This has been true in particular on Middle Eastern issues in recent times. Post-Cold War history indicates that the P3 has been able to achieve more successful outcomes when operating in unison, while strong disagreements on policy issues have rarely boded well for the trilateral relationship – and for the Middle East itself.

On the “successes” side of the ledger, the first Gulf War in 1991 involved a very close coordination between Washington, London, and Paris, as demonstrated by since-declassified transcripts of the daily phone calls during the crisis between then U.S. and French presidents George H.W. Bush and Francois Mitterrand. Although the lack of postwar planning following the 2011 Libya intervention has fueled an intense debate about whether intervening was the right decision in the first place, the P3 fulfilled the mandate of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1793 by preventing a humanitarian catastrophe. With regard to nuclear negotiations with Iran, the three capitals succeeded in rallying the international community around strong economic sanctions that provided the leverage needed to compel Tehran to agree to the resolution reached in July 2015 through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Presidents Obama and Sarkozy alongside Prime Minister Gordon Brown revealed in a joint press conference in September 2009 that Iran had been building another clandestine enrichment facility in Fordow. The revelation led the U.N. Security Council to adopt Resolution 1929, which then paved the way for the decisive sanctions adopted in subsequent years that triggered Iran’s change of heart.

Whenever there are clear divisions among the three partners, these are usually tied to dramatic failures. In 2003, France refused to side with the U.S.-Anglo-led coalition that invaded Iraq. It soon became evident that the invasion was ill-advised and its aftermath poorly planned and executed. The intervention fueled Iraq’s sectarian divide and destabilized the Iraqi state, thereby eroding the main firewall to Iran’s expansionist regional policy. A decade after the invasion of Iraq, the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons led the P3 to the initial agreement on coordinated punitive military strikes. Beyond chemical weapons themselves, part of the P3’s calculus was that the strikes could be a game changer in a civil war that had deteriorated so much that its destabilizing effects for Syria’s neighbors and for Europe would be uncontrollable. Alas, the P3 coalition collapsed after continued British renouncement and American second-guessing.

What started as an attempt by the P3 to use the 2013 chemical weapons episode to force Assad into negotiations toward an end to the war ended up as a U.S.-Russian initiative to neutralize the Syrian chemical weapons program. While this later effort was certainly worthwhile (though unfinished), the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship displaced the P3 as the relevant framework to deal with the Syrian crisis. It failed in preventing the radicalization of Assad’s opponents and in discouraging Russia from launching its own military intervention to buttress its crumbling Syrian ally. The 2013 chemical weapons episode was an absolute fiasco for the P3, as it failed to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and then proved unable to restore deterrence after the Syrian regime again broke the WMD taboo. The evolution of the Syrian conflict since then — including continued U.S.-Russian cooperation — has been detrimental to the Europeans, who have struggled since then to regain influence over the course of the diplomatic process and to cope with the surge of Syrian refugees destabilizing the European Union. Meanwhile, the United States is slowly but surely being dragged into another long-term war in the Middle East that President Obama had been so careful to avoid.

In short, Washington, London, and Paris can only gain from working more closely together and embedding their respective positions earlier within their policymaking machineries. This is an issue of both substance and of process. On substance, the P3 is already coordinating intensively on issues such as the anti-ISIL military campaign, to which France and the United Kingdom are the two main contributors after the United States. Military to military coordination is one thing, and the extent to which French and British views about the coalition’s military strategy are taken into consideration remains unclear. But the military strategy itself is a means, not an end; sharing a political vision of a post-conflict solution is even more important. Yet the extent to which the P3 has developed a common vision for the future of Syria and its different communities remains to be seen.

On the threat of WMD, the P3 is best placed to strictly enforce the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and craft a policy to further constrain Iran’s ballistic missiles program, a strategy that may need to include targeted EU sanctions at some point. Transatlantic unity will require flexibility on the American side regarding its sanctions policy to ensure that Iran receives the economic benefit of the deal and does not create wedges within the P3 by leveraging European economic interests against U.S. inflexibility. Beyond the Iran deal itself, the P3 retains an important role in limiting the risk of interstate conflict created by Iran’s regional policy. Since the conclusion of the deal, the United States has become more engaged in an effort to reassure its Gulf partners. France and the United Kingdom could bring additional credibility to those assurances and craft a joint approach with Washington to oppose Iran’s destabilizing behavior as necessary. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have recently demonstrated an increased willingness to take military action, either in Bahrain, Libya, or more significantly in Yemen. This has so far produced mixed results. Reassuring and engaging Gulf countries can only give the P3 more clout to influence this new activism to help it produce better outcomes.

Preserving and reinforcing the state system where it is threatened remains a key challenge for the P3 in the Middle East, and it can occasionally be at odds with Western promotion of democracy. Finding the right balance is complex, as the Egyptian case continues to demonstrate. Still, power vacuums are unlikely to pave the way for more inclusive societies, growing economies, and resilient political regimes. The United States, the United Kingdom, and France all cooperate at different levels with governments in the region, providing security assistance, training, exercises, and weaponry. These efforts could be better coordinated, in particular with regard to the three key partners of Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, recently toured by Hollande a few days before President Obama’s latest travel to Riyadh for the US-GCC Summit.

To Ensure Success, Understand Your Limits

For obvious reasons, trilateral cooperation has its own limitations. France and the United Kingdom are well aware that their reinforced postures and arms sales are not able to dampen the anxieties fostered by the perception of U.S. restraint. Washington’s Central Command boasts around 84,000 military and non-military personnel and contractors assigned or associated with its missions. The French presence is around 1,500 personnel – including a thousand involved in the anti-ISIL coalition, while the British presence is only about 500 personnel. From an operational standpoint, the French military is already heavily deployed overseas. A quick reinforcement of this posture in case of a contingency would not be impossible but would surely be challenging. As for now, the British military is similarly constrained by power projection capabilities shortfalls—for instance, London’s first Queen Elizabeth-aircraft carrier will only enter service by 2020. One solution for the two European powers lies in bilateral cooperation, as evidenced by their renewed interest in a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force,

Beyond limitations to the P3 format itself, security and stability rests first and foremost on the shoulders of local stakeholders. First, the P3 can only help its partners with their acceptance and endorsement. Second, trilateral cooperation should not risk negatively affecting preexisting bilateral partnerships. When direct cooperation may prove more problematic, tacit coordination or information sharing should be further explored through regular P3 senior-level policy consultations. Likewise, the P3 needs to acknowledge the presence and influence of other extra regional players such as Russia, China, and, increasingly, India. France and the United Kingdom also retain an interest in embedding powerful European players such as Italy or the European Union itself into their initiatives— even if these actors do not have a forward-deployed military presence in the region. Perhaps more importantly, caucusing with Germany, which appears likely to be more involved in the region, will be as important as ever for France and the United Kingdom. This so-called “E3” was an efficient sub-format in the P5+1 talks with Iran that the three Europeans started together in 2003. Considering Berlin’s clout in E.U. affairs, Paris and London’s positions can only be strengthened when shared by their European allies—the three capitals hardly saw the Syrian crisis through the same lens, hereby diminishing E.U. influence on its resolution.

Multilateralism can reinforce a P3 trilateral policymaking but it cannot replace the strength of a political impetus coming from this core group of countries, especially given their status as permanent members of the UN Security Council. Enhanced French and British postures in the Middle East are an opportunity for the United States, provided Washington can take into account its European allies’ own political and strategic visions. For the past 15 years, U.S. administrations have been keen to pursue transformational objectives in a region that was too unstable to process them. Trouble times require predictability and evolutionary policies more than revolutionary ones driven by ideology. Washington could benefit from the more pragmatic policies that London and Paris have followed traditionally in the region.

The 1950 Tripartite Declaration ultimately failed because its stated purpose of regional stability was at odds with the reality of its function of regulating competing interests between its participants. Today, however, all three countries’ interests are arguably far more aligned than they were back then. In many ways, the initial spirit of the Tripartite Declaration is perhaps more relevant now than ever.


Simond de Galbert is a Visiting Fellow and a French diplomat in residence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. His views are his own, and do not represent those of CSIS or the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He can be found on Twitter as @simonddegalbert.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Christopher Mesnard