The defeat of pro-Axis Iraqi regiments led by Prime Minister Rashid Ali Al-Gaylani and the British effort to end the siege of the Habbaniya Air Force Base led to reevaluation of asymmetric agitation in the Middle East by Axis powers. Although the European, Russian and North African fronts in World War II garnered much attention, it is vital that obscure campaigns such as the one in Syria be reexamined. It offers potential lessons in the current war on terrorism that now occupies three major fronts in Iraq, Afghanistan and recently Lebanon. British military planners designed Operation Exporter, which was to put an end to German influence and agitation in the Middle East theater of operations. British military and political leaders were concerned that Vichy (pro-Nazi) French occupation of Syria was a strategic threat to surrounding Allied oil supplies in Iraq, Iran, and the Persian Gulf region. Operation Exporter combined British forces and Free French forces in a plan to invade Syria in June 1941. The aims were to occupy Syria and Lebanon, preventing the establishment of an Axis presence that could threaten British bases in Palestine and oil refineries at Abadan. Consequently, the operation was to enhance Britain's broader strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean. Disentangling the Middle East's complex modern history is important to instilling awareness among America's future military leaders.
During World War II, Syria and Lebanon were French protectorates and had been so since 1919. From 1920 British colonial policymakers worked diligently to create in Iraq a centralized government ruling over a population that was disparate and heterogeneous in the extreme. It had no ties of loyalty to the nation-state of Iraq or affection for its ruler King Feisal I; the only constant were tribal allegiances. Syria, on the other hand, was governed by France's colonial policy and did not face the same problem as British-mandated Iraq. The French were able to pursue a more traditional policy of divide and rule. In the old Ottoman Turkish province of Lebanon, with its Christian majority, small enclaves were divided from Syria to form what would become Lebanon. Areas inhabited by the Druze and Alawi minorities were formed into the enclaves of Jebel Druze and Latakia. The former province of Alexandretta, with its Turkish population, was granted autonomous rule. Syria was originally divided into two states, Damascus and Aleppo, and was reunited in 1925 partly as a result of nationalist pressures and civil unrest. Shaykh Salih ibn AIi led the Alawis; Shaykh Ismail Harir rebelled in the Hawran; and in the Jabal Druze, Sultan Pasha al Atrash, kinsman of the paramount chief of the Druze, led continual resistance, most notably in 1925, calling for unity. On February 9, 1925, to pacify these factions, the French permitted the nationalists to form the People's Party. This party was led by Paris al Khuri, and demanded French recognition of eventual Syrian independence. After the Nazi defeat of France in June 1940, French authorities in Syria recognized the Vichy Government of Field Marshal Philippe Petain and appointed a new Syrian cabinet headed by Khalid al Azm, a son of the Ottoman Minister of Religious Affairs and member of a wealthy Damascus family, as acting president and prime minister.
Reasons the Vichy French Reshuffled the Syrian Cabinet After June 1940
The Vichy French sphere of influence over Syria provided safe passage and refueling for Luftwaffe planes that were en route to aid in an Iraqi revolt that began in 1941. This was suppressed by the British that same year. Vichy France allowed Germany and Italy:
* Full landing and provisioning rights in Syria;
* The right to establish a Luftwaffe base at Aleppo; and
* Permission to use ports, roads, and railways for transport of equipment to Iraq and train Iraqi soldiers in Syria with French weapons.
The Vichy French High Commissioner Henri Dentz had been convinced by Admiral Jean-Francois Darlan, Minister of the Navy, to allow German and Italian aircraft an airbase for logistical support. …