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The road was a solid sheet of flame for about 250 yards with ammunition exploding and armoured cars and lorries burning fiercely. The charred and battered remnants of this convoy which littered the road between Falluja and the Canal Turn remained for several weeks afterwards as evidence of the enemy’s defeat.22 The British took Habbaniya on 7 May 1941. General Wavell tried to warn the Chiefs of Staff about ‘the limits of military action in Iraq … without a favourable political situation’. But Churchill was blunt that ‘there can be no question of negotiation’ with the Iraqi leadership and telling Wavell that he should imitate the German blitzkrieg: ‘you should exploit the situation to the utmost, not hesitating to try to break into Baghdad’. Against Wavell’s fears for political unrest, Churchill assured ‘You do not need to bother too much about the long future in Iraq’. Wavell took the hint and reported back ‘we try to liquidate this tiresome Iraq business quickly’.23 Some of the leaders fled to Iran, Rashid Ali and the Mufti to Istanbul, six were tried by court martial on 4 May 1941, and three, Yanis Sabani, Colonel Mahmud Salman and Colonel Fahmi Said were hung;24 others were rounded up in August of 1941 and were interned in Rhodesia for the duration of the war.
Looking back, Cornwallis wrote The Rashid ‘Ali uprising in May 1941, during the course of which not only the Iraqi army but the majority of the population of Iraq demonstrated dislike for the British, came as a great shock to Britishers in Iraq.25 The invasion of Syria France’s rule over the Levant was far from liberal. In July 1938 France suspended the constitution of Syria, closing its national assembly and dismissing its Arab representatives.
On 21 September 1939 High Commissioner Puaux did the same in Lebanon. As the Levant passed over into Vichy hands, not much changed for its Arab peoples.
During the Iraq Revolt, the Vichy Admiral Darlan offered French airfields in Syria to the Luftwaffe to give air support to Rashid ‘Ali. In the event, the German air force flew few flights, being tied up in the east. But the challenge led the British and Free French to engineer an invasion of Syria. De Gaulle overstated the support that he could expect from the French colonial officers and troops in Syria, who were mostly loyal to the Vichy’s High Representative, Dentz. Wavell told Churchill that ‘progress at first being by propaganda, leaflets and display of force’, in the invasion of Syria. ‘If resistance was encountered, the utmost force would be used’.26 When the invasion by Indian troops under British command sidestepped de Gaulle, the General was outraged at the usurping of French rights in Syria.27 The Free French leader General Catroux said ‘I am entering Syria with my forces in the name of France. Honour forbids that the people of the Levant, remaining faithful to France in spite of her defeat, be placed under the odious heel of Germany.’ 28 At the time, though, many fought with the Germans against the Allied invasion, like the French trained Fawzi al-Qawuqji, a veteran of the revolt in Palestine in 1936, who had taken up arms against the Vichy-Syrian authorities earning himself a death-sentence which he avoided by fleeing to Iraq to take part in the Rashid ‘Ali revolt. It was in Iraq that the British set up a special flying column to attack al-Qawuqji and his men, called Mercol.29 German General Rudolf Rahn got al Qawuqji pardoned so that he could fight against the Allies.30 When de Gaulle arrived at forts that had been allocated to the Free French, he found British flags flying over them. A wired game of words followed, where Syria’s “independence” was an empty claim, but the “rights” of France and England over her territory were hotly contested. Churchill pleaded with de Gaulle not to name Catroux as High
Commissioner, for the trouble it would cause the alliance. De Gaulle complained to a friend:
Our partners wanted to create the impression that, if the Syrians and Lebanese received independence, they would owe it to England, and so place themselves in the position of the arbiters between us and the Levant states.
To Churchill, de Gaulle wrote I shall appoint Catroux Delegué-General and Plenipotentiary. We shall proclaim and respect the independence of the Levant States on condition of a treaty with them enshrining the rights and special interests of France.31 In Cairo, on 21 July, de Gaulle told the British Secretary of State for the Middle East Oliver Lyttleton that within three days the French Forces would no longer consider themselves under British command, raising the spectre of fighting between the allies.
Lyttleton eventually gave way recognising France’s historic rights in the Levant and a promise of ‘non-interference’ in these on Britain’s part.32 ‘We must make clear to both the French and the Syrians and the Lebanese that we have no desire to see French interests in the Levant overthrown’, wrote British Minister Harold Macmillan.33 At the Druze town of Soueida in late July, Lyttleton had to stand down a brigade of English troops who were about to start fighting their French rivals over which European flag should fly there.
The rights of the Syrians, of course, were wholly secondary. At the end of July de Gaulle toured Beirut and Damascus trying to set up local government amongst Arabs, but the results were patchy and ‘left Arab nationalists discontented’.34 As soon became clear, the ‘Free French’ expected to inherit the rights of the mandatory power in full. The virtual France that De Gaulle was trying to create out of its colonies could never regain the prestige that defeated and occupied Vichy France had lost, unless its full imperial rights were honoured.
France had tried to divide the Levant against itself, dividing the Lebanon, with its substantial Christian share of the population, from Syria; and France’s mission civilisatrice was quite an investment in the education and training of a civil and military elite that, it was hoped, would be loyal.
Catroux’s replacement as Delegué-General in Syria and the Lebanon, Jean Helleu, repeated the formula that independence could only happen in the framework of a treaty with France that set out her pre-eminence. The Syrians answered by electing a pointedly nationalist assembly on 16 August 1943. Worse still, on 21 September, the Lebanese snubbed Helleu’s preferred leader Emile Eddé in favour of a Constitutional Bloc that united Christian and Muslim behind the banner of Lebanese independence. With Lebanese President Bishara Al-Khuri rejecting negotiations, Helleu had the French marines round up him and his ministers at 4.00 am, on 11 November 1943: ‘the president’s son, his face streaming blood, staggered into my room saying his father had been taken from his bed by Senegalese soldiers’, wrote Churchill’s Free French liaison officer Edward Spears.35 The Lebanese ministers interned at the Rechayya fortress, Helleu suspended the constitution and made Eddé puppet ruler of a French police state. To Helleu’s horror, the two ministers who escaped the dawn raid effectively rallied cross-community support for a free Lebanese government in the forests, while Eddé was boycotted by everyone.
De Gaulle could not believe that the Lebanese actions were their own, assuming that they were being influenced by Edward Spears, as part of a British attempt to push the French out of the Levant – a view seemingly confirmed by British protests at the suppression of Lebanese representatives. But Britain would not, he thought, let conflict with Arab nationalists come into the open: ‘I am convinced that London is bluffing’, he said, ‘for the English have every reason to hope that disorders will not occur in the Lebanon or Syria’. De Gaulle was right to think that London feared an Arab revolt, but wrong to think that they would rely on France to prevent it. Already Churchill had told General Wilson to draw up plans for a British military occupation of the Lebanon.36 With protests and riots threatening further instability, the French released al-Khuri who again asserted independence. On 27 November 1943, the Syrian constituent assembly, having followed events closely, themselves abrogated France’s rights as a mandatory power. This time France chose not to provoke further moves by reacting.
The following year, as France’s claim to pre-eminence in the Levant rang yet more hollow, De Gaulle sent French and Senegalese troops, which stirred up a general strike starting on 19 May 1944, a suspension of all negotiations between the Levant representatives and the French, and rioting across Beirut and Damascus. On 28 May, the fighting got worse as insurgents attacked French military installations, and French cars and homes were attacked. Rioters in Damascus were chased by French troops into the parliament, Syrian police headquarters, the Bank of Syria and other public buildings.
General Oliva-Roget ordered these ‘centres of insurrection’ to be bombarded. Some 40 civilians were killed and 1400 injured. With France on the verge of losing control, the allies’ response, on 31 May 1944, was to give the go-ahead to a second British invasion of Syria in three years. Exasperated, de Gaulle made it clear that if French troops were fired on by British troops in the Lebanon, they would fire back to defend their military rule against the establishment of a British military rule over the Syrians. Crowds in Beirut ‘hissed and booed’ the French troops as they were escorted out of town, and shouted ‘down with de Gaulle’ and ‘down with France’.37 The crowds cheered the British troops that escorted the French, though they might have been less happy if they had seen what the Syrian Prime Minister Quwatli had to offer the British to get them to clear out the French. In the letters from Quwatli to Britain’s Terence Shone, the Prime Minister swears ‘to grant Britain concessions for oil exploration in Syria and a preferential political, economic and financial status in the country; to adopt a foreign policy compatible with Britain’s; and to allow Britain a role in establishing the Syrian army.’ 38
The Persian Campaign
At the outbreak of the Second World War, an Iranian government official complained to the German intelligence officer Bernhard Schulze-Holthus that the British act like ‘white lords who look on us as colonials and treat us with unbearable arrogance’.39 ‘There is in fact no possibility of any British action in the West’, Churchill had written to Stalin on 4 Sept. 1941 ‘before the winter sets in’. But Churchill saw the appeal of opening ‘the fullest communication with Russia through Persia’: ‘We welcomed the opportunity of joining hands with the Russians and proposed to them a joint campaign’ to invade Persia (present-day Iran).40 The British used the danger of a German fifth column in Iran ‘as a pretext for the eventual occupation of Iran and are deliberately exaggerating its potency’ said Lewis Dreyfus in a cable to the US State Department 19 August 1941).41 The Foreign Office’s Eastern Department asked Would it not be best, when we are in a position to talk strongly to the Iranians, to come out into the open and say frankly that we must look after the oilfields for the duration of the war, and (if we and the Russians feel equal to the task) take special steps to ensure that the railway functions in accordance with our requirements (the Soviet Government making similar demands)?42 But on 25 August the British Foreign Office issued a statement that since the Iranian government ‘are not prepared to give adequate satisfaction to the recommendations’, to expel German engineers, ‘His Majesty’s Government and the Soviet Government must have recourse to other measures to safeguard their essential interests’, that is, an invasion.
As well as a chance to bond with Stalin along the lines of the pact to divide Poland between the Marshall and Hitler, Churchill had other reasons to invade Iran; ‘The Persian oil fields were a prime war factor’.43 The Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden thought ‘all depends upon our ability to concentrate a sufficient force in Iraq to protect the Iranian oil fields’, and warned that ‘the Shah is fully conscious of the value of the oilfields’. Churchill feared that ‘the Persian troops around and about the Ahwaz oil fields’ might ‘seize all the Anglo-Persian Oil Company employees and hold them as hostages’ or worse the ‘danger of the oil wells being destroyed rather than they should fall into our possession’.44 The British landed at the Abadan refinery at dawn on August 25, having assembled the 8th Indian Infantry division under General Harvey, the 9th Armoured Brigade under General Slim, one Indian regiment of tanks, four British battalions and one regiment of British artillery.
‘At Abadan there was considerable opposition’, wrote Sir John Hammerton: ‘For seven hours hand-to-hand fighting continued between the Persian soldiers and Indian troops’.45 According to the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ‘the Royal Air Force bombed military targets such as Ahvaz, Bandar-Shapur and Korramshahr, taking pains however to avoid petroleum plants’. 46 H.M.S. Shoreham sank an Iranian frigate off Abadan, while the Soviet Air Force bombarded Tabriz, Ghazvin, Bandar-Pahlavi, Rasht and Fezajeh. ‘Some parts of the country will take some time to disarm’, worried British Ambassador Reader Bullard.47 ‘A brief and fruitful exercise of overwhelming force against a weak and ancient state’, boasted Churchill, though ‘the deep and delicate questions about oil, Communism and the post-war future of Persian lay in the background’. Churchill warned Stalin that ‘there are in Persia signs of serious disorder among tribesmen, and of breakdown’ of authority.48 More difficult was the hostility of the King Rezā Shāh, who denied British and Russian authority.
Under threat of a column of Russian troops marching on Teheran, Rezā Shāh abdicated (‘do you think I can receive orders from some little English captain?’ he asked his son49), and was sent into exile, in Mauritius, and then later South Africa, where he died in 1944.