Today in Middle Eastern history: Operation Exporter begins (1941)

World War II’s “Syria-Lebanon Campaign,” AKA Operation Exporter, is arguably (and I’m not a WWII expert so feel free to argue it) one of the least-covered operations of that war. Indeed, even at the time news about the campaign was downplayed or outright suppressed in Britain, for a very simple reason: it involved British troops fighting a French army. Yes, it was a Vichy French army, but it hadn’t even been a year since the last British and Free French forces were evacuated from France, and it was believed that British morale would suffer if it was learned that British and French forces were now at war with one other. But the fall of France to the Nazis, and this campaign, played a not-inconsiderable role in ultimately liberating both Syria and Lebanon from French colonial rule, so this operation is, I think, worth a mention.

Some British operation against French Lebanon and Syria was inevitable as soon as France fell to the Nazis and the Vichy government agreed to give German and Italian forces access to France’s Middle Eastern air bases–and potentially, so London feared, its railways. Syria was too well-positioned as a staging ground for a potential “back door” Axis attack on Egypt (the “front door” attack was already being led by Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps via North Africa), and as a highway for Axis-provided supplies to reach the pro-Axis (to be fair, it was more “anti-British” than “pro-Axis”) Iraqi government of Rashid Ali al-Gaylani. A British invasion of Iraq removed Gaylani from power in late May, but he managed to flee to neighboring Iran (which was at this point still ruled by the “neutral” but Axis-sympathetic Reza Shah), and so there was still a concern that, with Axis support, he could continue to cause problems for Britain.

Rashid Ali al-Gaylani (Wikimedia)

The Vichy forces greatly outnumbered the British in men and aircraft, particularly after they transferred a couple of hundred aircraft from France and French North Africa, but a couple of things worked in the Allies’ favor. One was that Britain’s large colonial holdings in the Middle East gave it the ability to attack Syria from Palestine in the south and from Iraq in the east simultaneously, and the Allies made the most of this by dividing their forces into four units that would each strike at different spots. Two units advanced north from Palestine to take Beirut and Damascus, while two more attacked from Iraq, one heading toward Palmyra and the other to Aleppo via Raqqa. The air war also went very well for the Allies, in that the vastly outnumbered British air force was able to destroy much of the French air force on the ground. Finally, for whatever reason, Germany never sent any substantial assistance to the Vichy French forces. French commander Henri Dentz was offered German aid but turned it down, and the Nazis apparently didn’t see Syria as important enough to overrule him and send help anyway.

The green lines show the Allied advances into Syria from Iraq (Wikimedia | Stephen Kirrage)

The four British and Free French columns began their simultaneous attacks on June 8, 1941. A series of battles followed over the next month, none of which strikes me as notable enough to single out and treat separately. Of the four targets of the four Allied forces, Damascus fell on June 21, Palmyra on July 1, and Beirut on July 12, which was the point at which Dentz surrendered. The Allies never made it to Aleppo, but that column did capture Deir Ezzor on July 3 and Raqqa on July 5, it’s just that the fighting ended before they got to their intended destination. The Armistice of Saint Jean d’Acre was signed on July 14–its terms called for Syria and Lebanon to be turned over to Free French control, albeit under British military oversight. Of the nearly 38,000 French POWs in Allied custody after the armistice was signed, nearly 5700 opted to defect and join the Free French army, while the rest were repatriated back to Vichy France.

With the Vichy government out of the picture, it fell to Charles de Gaulle’s Free French government in-exile and Britain to determine the future for Syria and Lebanon. Yes, I realize there was a decided lack of Lebanese and Syrian input into that discussion, but that’s just how things went in the colonial Middle East. And in actuality, I think the final outcome was largely what the Syrians would have wanted. After World War I, many Arabs living in what would become Syria (and Lebanon) were strongly resistant to the idea of becoming a French “mandate” (League of Nations-ese for “colony”). They pushed to have Syria made a British mandate instead. They pushed, surprisingly hard (I’ve actually read some of the post-war correspondence), to be put under American protection. A brief movement to institute a Syrian monarchy under the Hashemite Prince Faysal (later King Faysal of Iraq) was snuffed out by French forces. These Syrians preferred almost anything to what what they actually got–French colonial rule.

Now they were finally going to get independence. Britain and de Gaulle concluded prior to invading Vichy Syria that both Syria and Lebanon were to be granted independence upon the successful conclusion of the campaign. De Gaulle, to his credit, managed to adhere to the terms of this arrangement right up until the, um, successful conclusion of the campaign, at which point he reinstated the mandates. Unfortunately for his plans of a restored French Levantine empire, Britain was most vocal on the subject of Syrian and Lebanese independence, and suffice to say that in 1941 the tattered remnants of pre-war France were in no position to pick a serious argument with the British government. De Gaulle did another about face–he was for Syrian independence before he was against it, you might say, and then he was for it again–and announced that elections would be held in both countries in 1943.

It still took time for France to slow-walk its way out of the Middle East. Lebanon dates its independence to those November 1943 elections, but Syria dates its independence to October 1945. Nonetheless, they did both gain their independence as a result, in part, of Operation Exporter.

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