Damascus During World War II

Epsidode 5: Churchill’s Man in Damascus

Dimashq Blog | Fadi Esber

The new Syria that emerged in the midst of World War II was now run not by a Frenchman but an Englishman named Edward Spears. He was Great Britain’s new ambassador to Syria and Lebanon, handpicked for the job by Churchill. Spears knew almost nothing about Syria when first setting foot in the country in the spring of 1941. He was a close Churchill protégé, and this gave him direct access to the British Prime Minister, often over the head of his superiors at the Foreign Office. He was fluent in French, knew French society inside out, and had served as a liaison between the intelligence services of Paris and London during World War II. After the occupation of Paris, he masterminded the escape of Charles de Gaulle to London, right under the nose of Marshal Petain.

Shortly after his arrival to Syria, General Spears argued that winning Syrian support at this stage of the war was more important for Great Britain than pleasing the Free French. “De Gaulle will require most careful handling. If he were given a free hand in Syria in the mood in which he now is, the country would be out of hand within a fortnight. Spears added, “Success difficult to achieve. Disaster possible” (FO 371/31481, File 292, Spears to Hamilton, 9 March 1942). Something different had to be done in Damascus to prevent the country from falling apart, on the contrary it had to be strengthened, which would provide a safe base for British armed forces to operate from. He knew that the French were viewed with resentment and hatred throughout Syria. Trying to re-legitimize them would be a waste of time, he argued. The population was restless and an armed insurgency was brewing. The British needed to prevent a spill over of violence from Syria to neighbouring Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan. Otherwise, Spears cautioned, Britain would have to use force “against those very Arabs whose goodwill we are so anxious to cultivate (Seale, The Struggle for Arab Nationalism, 437).

General Spears disliked the manner in which the mandate had been run since 1920. He argued that the Third Republic had created a weak government in Damascus based on a colonial mentality from a bygone era. The Syrian state’s foundations were too feeble, he said, for Syria to stand alone and serve as a proper cornerstone for London’s future schemes in the Arab world. Spears was unwilling to expend efforts to craft the Syria he desired. To do so, he argued, power had to go to the nationalists who truly represented Syrian popular opinion. Men like Shukri al-Quwatli suddenly became the focal point of Britain’s interests in the Middle East. Instead of driving them into the underground and sending them off into jail or exile, Spears pushed for engagement and empowerment. He wrote to the Foreign Office, warning that Catroux “will turn Shukri back at the border if he attempts to cross (from Iraq).” He warned that such action would do British interests great harm and noted, “my impression is that Shukri al-Quwatli is a sincere patriot who wishes to cooperate with us.” Another British report tells more: “Shukri has been lying low for the past six months. There is no evidence that he has been in touch with the Axis during this period” (FO 371/31481, File 292, Spears to Hamilton, 9 March 1942).

Charles De Gaulle and Edward Spears

Charles De Gaulle and Edward Spears

That same month, Charles de Gaulle arrived in Syria. From his office in al-Muhajreen, which later became the French Embassy, he received 112 top politicians of different parties, including Shukri al-Quwatli, who would shortly afterwards rise to become the new president of Syria, with the initial backing of Great Britain. In a remarkable communication campaign, de Gaulle toured every single Syrian town and city, polishing his image and that of the Free French after so much damage had been inflicted upon them by Vichy propaganda. In Homs he took photos with children, who presented him with flower necklaces. In Deir ez-Zour he had lunch with the city’s notables. In Damascus he gave a speech at the main auditorium of the Syrian University, attended by all the notables of the Syrian capital. The mood was highly anticipatory, and Syrians were waiting to hear a major policy shift from the leader of Free France. Instead, de Gaulle poured quashed the aspirations of the Syrian nationalists. In his speech, he announced that he had no intention whatsoever of ending the Mandate. Far from it, he was working on re-asserting French control of the Levant. The time for Syrian independence had yet to come, he boldly asserted.

De Gaulle watched the rising influence of Spears in Syria and Lebanon with displeasure. Edward Spears was becoming too independent, too immersed in local politics, and too sympathetic with the nationalists, to the extent that he now represented a threat to Free French interests in the Levant. In March he was knighted by the King of England, making him more powerful than ever before. He had also been promoted to “minister” of Great Britain to Syria and Lebanon, no longer a mere envoy to the Free French. Upon his return to Damascus, he called on Syrian officials to present him with his new title and credentials, but completely ignored General Catroux, acting as though the French officer, and the entire mandate, no longer existed. When Catroux appointed Alfred Naccache as president of Lebanon against the will of Lebanese nationalists, Spears commented, “as if we were holding down the Lebanon to be raped by the Free French” (Gaunson, The Anglo-French Clash, 80).

On 14 April 1942, de Gaulle sent a note to Churchill protesting the current situation in the Middle East. The sad deterioration, de Gaulle noted, was due to Spears’ misdealing in Syria. De Gaulle recommended that he be dismissed at once. Churchill brushed aside the advice, reminding the French leader instead of his earlier pledge to grant Syria its independence. Great Britain, he added, could not turn away from the pledge it had made before the entire world to give Arabs their independence. In September, Churchill went a step further, instructing the British Treasury not to pay a penny to de Gaulle. Until then, London was paying £300,000 to the Free French on the ninth of every month, followed by another £200,000-300,000 for affairs of the Levant (Seale, The Struggle for Arab Independence, 454). On 30 September 1942, the two leaders met in London. They both lost their tempers and a harsh exchange of words followed as they argued about Spears and Syria. De Gaulle clearly saw him as a threat to France’s interests. Churchill reminded him of Catroux’s pledge, dropped in leaflets over Damascus and Beirut few months earlier. De Gaulle said that this did not affect the legality of the Mandate. It only meant that the process ought to start now, but not necessarily end in the near future. Churchill firmly stood by his Minister to Syria, saying: “Spears has certainly defended, with great energy and ability, British rights in Syria” (Seale, The Struggle for Arab Independence, 454).


Fadi Esber is the editor of Dimashq Journal

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