Syria has long been a battleground for foreign powers

Just like the current situation today, foreign powers fought each other in Syria 83 years ago. This is the story of how the Allied Powers took on Nazi Germany far from the European battleground.

A British 2-pounder anti-tank gun in action in Syria, June 1941.
Courtesy of the Imperial War Museums
A British 2-pounder anti-tank gun in action in Syria, June 1941.

Syria has long been a battleground for foreign powers

French tanks fire on the British. Warplanes bomb Old Damascus. Foreign troops trade fire on the banks of the Euphrates. European flags are raised on balconies and in public squares ahead of ceasefire talks held in the total absence of any Syrian party.

At first glance, these scenes might seem to be from Syria's most recent war, but they are actually from 1941 when a mini-European war erupted in the country, proving history does repeat itself, just with different faces and objectives.

Some 83 years ago, Syria was under French occupation. While it had no army, had not yet discovered oil, and was without jihadist military groups, its other natural resources and Mediterranean ports made it a coveted territory that foreign powers fought over. And it was in the very same cities that witnessed the worst fighting in Syria's latest war, that fierce battles were carried out between European powers in 1941.

The war of 1941 came exactly one year after the Nazis occupied Paris in June 1940. A pro-Hitler regime in Vichy was set up to run France, led by decorated World War I officer Philippe Petain. That meant Syria automatically fell within the German sphere of influence, jolting it from one occupation to another.

French resistance to the occupation was set up with British backing led by General Charles de Gaulle, and red flags were raised over the occupation of Syria. German influence in Syria meant many things, including suspension of British commercial lines to India, loss of British bases in Cyprus and possibly the loss of both Egypt and the Suez Canal.

'We cannot let Syria go'

In his memoirs, a worried Winston Churchill—Britain's then-prime minister—wrote, “We cannot let Syria go.” A battle against the Germans to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world seemed initially impossible. At the time, the ex-mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, relocated to Berlin, where he was received by Hitler and given prime time on Radio Berlin to appeal to Muslim Europe.

Churchill responded by commissioning the building of a large mosque in London, hoping to secure support for the Allies from both Muslims and Arabs. He wanted absolute loyalty from them, expecting them to follow the lead of pro-London governments in Egypt and Iraq, who, at his behest, suspended diplomatic ties with Nazi Germany.

This blind loyalty to the British would soon trigger a revolt in Iraq, led by ex-prime minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani in April 1941. There was no German consulate in Baghdad, and the Axis powers were represented by an Italian consulate only, but al-Gaylani was immediately accused of being on the Nazi payroll. He managed to swiftly topple the British-backed government of Nuri Pasha al-Said, who fled to Jordan, while the Iraqi regent Emir Abd al-Ilah escaped on a British ship to Palestine.

Al-Gaylani called for a holy war against the British—a call that was heartily received by Arab youth and even by Muslim Indian conscripts in the British Army. Churchill moved fast to support his allies in Baghdad, sending his troops to crush the revolt. Pro-British monarchial rule was restored, and al-Gaylani was exiled, first to Italy and then to Germany, where he was received by Hitler.

Churchill was no less forceful with the king of Iran, Reza Shah, who had refused to break ties with Nazi Germany or to expel German experts from Tehran. Acting jointly with the Soviet Union, the British invaded Iran in August 1941, toppling the shah and replacing him with his son, who promised to be more cooperative with the British. The son was later toppled by the Khomeini revolution in 1979.

Wanting to preempt a repetition of the Iraqi and Iranian revolts, Churchill decided to invade Syria and liberate it from the Nazi regime, which ruled in Vichy. He realised, however, that the British were just as unwelcome to the locals as the French. To grease the wheel, Churchill managed to secure a promise from Charles de Gaulle to grant Syria its independence, even if phased and limited, once the military operation was complete.

Allied campaign begins

On 8 June 1941, the joint British-French campaign started in Syria. Its first bombs landed on the old markets surrounding the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus and the nearby neighbourhood of Sid Amoud. Ironically, the neighbourhood was nicknamed al-Harika (fire) because it had been torched by the French in 1925 in response to a national uprising.

The military campaign was codenamed Operation Exporter and, on paper, was jointly Franco-British. The Free French did not exceed 8% of the fighting force, however, and 92% were British troops from India. The 5th Indian Division entered Syrian territory via Dar’aa in the Syrian south with the objective of securing the road to Damascus. Australian troops invaded from British Palestine, and more Indian troops came from Iraq, heading towards Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, and Aleppo.

Indian Punjabis were tasked with taking Damascus after controlling the al-Aawaj River stemming from Mount Hermon to al-Ghouta, the agricultural belt surrounding the Syrian capital. They seized the town of al-Kisweh, 13 kilometres south of Damascus, and entered the capital with little to no resistance. It was a microcosm of the European war on Syrian territory, with de Gaulle’s forces estimated at 6,000 men, supported by 12 warplanes and 10 tanks.

Indian troops outside Damascus on 26 June 1941.

On the other side of the battlefield, Vichy troops stood at 35,000, with 90 tanks, 70 military vehicles, and 250 warplanes. The people of Syria stood on the sidelines, watching in disbelief as European powers tore each other apart on Syrian territory. On 18 June, the Allies entered Damascus, days before Hitler ordered his invasion of the Soviet Union. The fiercest French resistance took place in the ancient city of Palmyra on 1 July, and three days later, vicious battles took place in Deir ez-Zor—the two cities that witnessed heavy battles in 2015 before they were occupied by the Islamic State (IS).

General George Catroux, a close associate of General Charles de Gaulle, represented the Free French. He made a triumphant entry into Damascus, but there was very little rejoicing. Syrians did not shower him with flowers and rosewater, nor did they praise de Gaulle or Churchill. In total, Vichy France lost 6,000 troops in Syria, in addition to 1,000 Frenchmen killed on de Gaulle’s side. All were buried at the French cemetery in the Mezzeh orchards near Damascus, which survives as of 2024.

Ceasefire reached

Vichy French called for a ceasefire, which was signed on 14 July 1941 in the Palestinian city of Acre. The choice of venue was no accident; this is where Napoleon Bonaparte was stopped after his famed siege of the city in 1799.

A makeshift tent was put up to host the talks on a British military base, which has now become an Israeli agricultural settlement. Vichy France's high commissioner in Syria, Henri Dentz, represented Vichy France, and General Catroux represented de Gaulle. No Syrian was invited to attend, and no representative from the Damascus government was present.

Before entering the meeting, Catroux was shocked to find that his shining cap—the pride and honour of every French soldier —had been stolen by a petty thief believed to be acting on British orders. He had to sit for talks with Vichy, supervised by British generals, with a bare head. This would be one of the many insults hurled against him and de Gaulle by the British, who never missed an opportunity to remind both men that had it not been for Winston Churchill, then they would have never regained Syria.

Earlier, when entering Beirut with British general Henri Wilson, Catroux had been snubbed and completely ignored by Dentz’s bureau chief, who turned his back on him, seeing that it was the British, rather than Free French, that was calling the shots in the Middle East.

Allied leaders meet in Syria. Left to right- Air Chief Marshal Longmore, General Wavell, General de Gaulle, General Catroux.

The Acre Agreement failed to mention France’s rights in the future of Syria and said nothing about Syrian independence. It banned the Free French from communicating with Vichy forces or recruiting them into their ranks, and seeing it as an infringement on his powers, de Gaulle headed to Cairo to meet with British officials on 20 July to bring it down.


He had thought that Operation Exporter would restore France’s injured pride in Syria, only to later realise that it was the first step towards completely expelling France from Syria. He angrily complained to the British, saying: “I don’t think I shall ever get along with les Anglais. You are all the same, exclusively concentrated upon your own interests and business, quite insensitive to the requirements of others.”

Churchill was so upset by de Gaulle’s rant about the Acre Agreement that he seriously considered keeping him out of Syria altogether. He eventually decided to work with him, however, maintaining France’s political superiority in Syria while keeping military affairs in the hands of the British. De Gaulle would live up to his side of the pre-invasion agreement, dropping leaflets on Syrian cities and towns declaring the country independent from the hated mandate but conditioning that French troops would remain until hostilities in Europe came to an end.

When visiting the region later that summer, he tried in vain to clip British wings in Syria and hosted a reception at the French premises in Beirut. When Churchill’s representative and friend, Sir Edward Spears, showed up ten minutes late to the event, de Gaulle received him with a welcome so icy that Spears recalled it seemed to come straight “out of the refrigerator.”

Spears was then escorted back to the front door and bid farewell. De Gaulle was making a point: the French premise in Beirut, just like all of Lebanon and Syria, was French territory. And just like his home, he would be the one to decide who was welcome and who wasn’t.

Courtesy of the Imperial War Museums
British armoured cars in Aleppo, Syria, July 1941.

Mutual hatred

De Gaulle would remain in the region for nearly two months, constantly criticising the British for how the manner in which they were running Syrian affairs. To silence him and get him to return to London, Churchill threatened to cut off monthly stipends to the Free French, which amounted to £300,000 each month in addition to approximately £250,000 allocated especially for the Levant.

For his part, de Gaulle began to fire back with petty responses unfit for a statesman of his standing, like giving his troops access to Syrian military barracks and asking that the British sleep in tents. When Spears tried employing able-bodied Syrians as drivers, cooks, and guards, de Gaulle cut him short, saying that these were subjects of colonial France and that any such appointments had to go through him.

Matters neared breaking point when de Gaulle gave an interview to the Chicago Daily News in September 1941, hinting that Churchill was dealing with the Nazis behind France’s back. Churchill replied: “It is clear that de Gaulle has lost his head” and swiftly ordered BBC to deny him access to its airwaves, in punishment.

In an angry letter addressed to US President Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill wrote: “De Gaulle can no longer be considered by Great Britain as a sure friend. In spite of all that he owes the English, he demonstrated hatred of the English everywhere he went. In Syria, he caused discord between the English and the French.”

From that day onwards, a political rivalry erupted between the two countries over who controlled Syria. The British were adamant in telling the French that they could no longer rule the country as they pleased without consulting Winston Churchill first. In 1945, Churchill finally struck the final blow, issuing an ultimatum to de Gaulle, which ended the French presence in Syria.

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