The Syrian-Lebanese operation (code-named “Exporter”) was a strategic military operation of the British armed forces against Vichy France during World War II, with the aim of establishing control over the French colonies of Syria and Lebanon.
After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, its Middle Eastern possessions were divided between Great Britain (Mesopotamia and Transjordan, modern Iraq and Jordan) and France (Syria, which also included present-day Lebanon). During the war, the Arab population in its majority supported the military operations of the Entente troops against the Turks, expecting to gain independence after its defeat in the war. The coming to power of new colonizers caused a wave of protest and a national liberation movement. The apotheosis of the struggle was several armed uprisings, crushed by the French with great cruelty.
After the defeat of France in 1940, Germany retained the puppet Vichy government in power, instructing the latter to exercise control over the colonial territories. Subsequently, Hitler planned to work closely on developing the raw materials of this colony, and counted on it as a springboard for the seizure of oil-rich Mesopotamia and access to India, to bring down the British empire.
The number of French troops in Syria was 35,000. Thus, Hitler made a serious political mistake. The reduction in the number of French troops in Syria after the defeat of France triggered a new wave of liberation movements.
The head of the government of “Free France”, General de Gaulle, planned for the separation of French colonies from Vichy and the creation of armed forces on their base. In October, 1940, he sent his representative to Egypt, General Katra, who deployed a powerful propaganda apparatus in Syria and began training French units assembled in Egypt.
It should be noted that at the request of the Germans, the Vichy government also sent its representative, one of the most pro-German generals, Henri Dentz, to Syria. The Germans deployed their propaganda among the Arabs and started the creation of pro-German political and armed formations. The Vichy government and General Dentz began close cooperation with Germany and Italy. In May 1941, Syria was used as a foothold for the Axis to incite an anti-British insurrection in Iraq. In response, Britain on May 14, 1941, began bombing military facilities in Syria, demanded that “Free France” start hostilities in Syria, and provide troops for the operation. After German military advisors were withdrawn from Syria, Churchill decided to begin the invasion.
For the operation, the Allies concentrated three infantry divisions, three separate battalions, and a small amount of military equipment. The strength of the troops was 34,000 (18,000 Australians, 9,000 British, 2,000 Indians, 5,000 French and French colonial troops), supported by 103 aircraft, two cruisers, eight destroyers, an air defense cruiser, and an auxiliary vessel. The offensive was planned to start from three directions: from the south, from Palestine, and from central Iraq along convergent directions to Damascus. The main blow was going to be inflicted from Palestine. Vichy troops in Syria reached 35,000 men, including 27,000 colonial troops, 90 tanks, and 120 guns. The fighting was led directly by divisional general Henri Dentz.
On the night of June 8, 1941, the southern contingent crossed the border and advanced northward. Defeating de Gaulle’s expectations, Vichy troops resisted stubbornly. So, when the advancing units of 9 June seized the large city of Quneitra, the Vichy, using superiority in tanks, repulsed them on June 15, while capturing the British battalion. The attempt to take Damascus on the run was a failure. The Indian units that arrived were counterattacked and surrounded in the suburbs.
On June 21, the main Allied forces reached Damascus, then Vichy troops left the city. A good decision by the British command was to attack central Syria from the desert on the border with Jordan, where the forces of the British Arab Legion successfully occupied the mountain passages with minimal losses and took the city of Palmyra on July 3. On July 6, allied groups, advancing from Palestine and from central Iraq, joined forces. The northern grouping went on the offensive on July 1 and advanced towards the Mediterranean.
By July 9, the advanced allies from the south reached Beirut, breaking through a powerful defensive line near the city of Damour. The loss of Damur determined the outcome of the entire campaign, after which the commander of the Vichy forces in Syria, General Dentz, began negotiations for surrender. On July 11, fighting ceased. On July 14, an agreement was signed on the cessation of hostilities, the terms of which allowed the Allied troops to occupy the whole of Syria.
During the talks, Dentz managed to send all his aircraft and warships to France and to flood previously captured British ships. Under the conditions of surrender, all the soldiers and officers of the Vichy were offered a choice to repatriate to France or join the troops of “Free France”.
The Results of the Operation
As a result, allied soldiers completely took control of Syria and Lebanon, depriving the Axis countries of influencing the extraction and transport of oil from the Middle East. The enemy lost its only bridgehead in the eastern Mediterranean. de Gaulle’s statement about granting independence to Syria and Lebanon after liberation from the enemy was influential (then he tried to delay or cancel these plans, but was forced to grant these countries independence in 1943).
On the other hand, as in Gabon, De Gaulle failed to significantly increase his army at the expense of the captive Vichy.