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The New International, November 1943

Notes of the Month

France and England in Lebanon

Imperialist Intrigue in the Middle East


From The New International, Vol. IX No. 10, November 1943, pp. 293–296.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


When the Chamber of Deputies of Lebanon voted unanimously on November 8 to proclaim its full sovereignty and independence, the police occupied the newspaper offices and confiscated the native press in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, and troops arrested Lebanon’s President, Premier, Cabinet members, members of the Chamber of Deputies, shot down scores of Lebanese and proclaimed martial law. They did not wear the uniform of the Third Reich nor that of the Son of Heaven. Their uniforms were French.

Pétain-French? Laval-French? No, de Gaulle-French.

Which de Gaulle? Why, the very one who is the reincarnation-in-the-flesh of Joan of Arc, the idol of the liberal school of Dorothy Thompson-Johannes Steel-Edgar Ansel Mowrer-Samuel Granfton-Frieda Kirchwey and other journalistic droolers.

Is that possible? Is not de Gaulle the self-dedicated chief of the French Committee of National Liberation? And is it not precisely national liberation that the Lebanese proclaimed? Then why ...?

The Lebanese are indeed fighting for national liberation. The answer to the “why?” is that de Gaulle is in reality chief of a Committee to Free France from German Domination So as to Restore the French Empire to the Poor French Bourgeoisie. After the experience of North Africa and now of Lebanon, there is not the slightest possible excuse for anyone making a mistake about the real title of de Gaulle and his committee, or about their real rôle.

The French Record in Syria

After France capitulated to Germany, de Gaulle’s General Catroux declared, in June 1941, just before the Allies began the reconquest of Syria, “Free France, identifying herself with the real traditional France and in the name of General de Gaulle, will come to put an end to the mandatory regime and proclaim you free and independent.”

It goes without saying that this pledge was not kept.

Upon sending Catroux back to Beirut after the November 8 vote of the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies, the de Gaulle committee proclaimed again that it has always intended to grant complete sovereignty to the peoples of Syria.

This “intention” is worth exactly as much as the solemn pledge of June 1941; or the Treaty of 1936, a scrap of paper on which the French swore that “the states of Levant are to receive all attributions of sovereignty”; or, for that matter, all similar promises, pledges and oaths made before and since.

The Lebanese and other Syrian peoples are perhaps the most advanced, politically, of all the Arab countries. From the very beginnings of French rule they have sought their freedom in one armed rebellion after another, all of which were savagely, if not always easily, suppressed by the French overlord. It took years, and bloody ones, before the French would even permit a simulacrum of democratic rights to the people or any kind of serious personal rights. Martial law, established by General Allenby during the First World War, was not abolished by the French in Syria until 1925. Imprisonment, expulsion and deportation of natives were not only everyday measures, but could be employed at will by any French officer. The country was artificially split into administrative units in order to keep the people divided against their oppressors. Protests and those who made them were treated with summary brutality.

Isolated insurrections, which occurred year in, year out, were crushed without mercy. A first-rate uprising in the mountain state of Jabal Al Druze (sometimes “Jebel Druse”) began in 1925 and lasted for two years before the imperialists could quell it. Out of a population of some 50,000 Druzes, the French killed 6,000 in the two years of warfare – not one less than were slaughtered by the Turkish Valis in the Druze rebellion of 1910.

In October 1925 came the massacre of Damascus. To clear the Syrian capital of “bandits,” the representatives of French tenderness and culture, Generals Gamelin and Sarrail, turned their artillery upon the civilian population, its homes and places of business with such devastating effect as to make the later Nazi bombings of Rotterdam and Warsaw look like mere reconnaissance flights. More than 1,500 men, women and children perished in this grisly fusillade, their graves a monument to exactly the same kind of civilization as are the ruins of Warsaw’s ghetto. Fifteen hundred murdered in a few days, in one city of a country whose total population barely numbers 2,000,000 persons. The number of armed rebels in Damascus at the time was never estimated by any responsible source at more than 500!

The long-suffering Lebanese want their freedom from these delights of French rule. They want to take that freedom now, when French imperialism is weak. They are intelligent enough to understand that it is better to try for freedom today, rather than when French imperialism regains its strength and its impudence.

But no – that is obviously an error. French imperialism does not need to gain an impudence which it has never lost. Could there be a cooler and more cynical display of impudence than that shown by de Gaulle, Catroux and their committee?

At the very moment when they are wailing and spluttering about how the Hun has deprived their people and their nation of freedom and independence, they imprison and shoot down the people of another nation who are really fighting for freedom and independence. At the very moment when they proclaim that for the Frenchman sabotage, arson, terror and all other forms of battle are a sacred duty against those who occupy his native land against his will – they denounce as desecration that most mild of attempts – a legislative vote – by the Syrian to free his native land from a foreign oppressor. Blum and Herriot in prison? Outrageous! President Bechara el Khoury and Premier Riad Solh in prison in Beirut? It is for their own good, believe me! A German general in Paris? Barbarous boche! A French general in Damascus? The triply-distilled essence of civilization, a benefaction, a dove of peace in gold braid and stripes!

Yet there can be a cooler and more cynical display of impudence than de Gaulle’s, and there is. By whom? Churchill!

The British Are Indignant

By the sheerest coincidence – who can believe it could be more than coincidence? – Mr. Churchill delivered an address at the Lord Mayor’s luncheon in London one day after the vote for independence of the Lebanon Chamber of Deputies, in which he went out of his way to emphasize that, to England, “the French National Committee are not the owners but the trustees of the title deeds of France. These must be restored to the French nation when freedom is achieved,” and more of the same sanctimonious wish-wash. This on November 9.

Immediately afterward, a rather extraordinary thing took place, not only in the pages of the London press, but most importantly in the office of the news censor in Cairo, controlled, of course, by the British and hitherto notoriously tight-lipped and restrictive. The Cairo censor let down all the bars. The “uprising” of the Lebanese and the justice of their demands was emphasized in every dispatch to the press. The censor did not seem perturbed by the bluntest and most fulsome criticism directed at the French. In both London and Cairo, correspondents were even urged by the British not to pass the Syrian events by lightly. On November 13, the Associated Press reported from London:

“While the French-controlled Beirut radio announced that the situation in Syria and Lebanon was quiet and charged that reports of disturbances were ‘enemy propaganda,’ the British showed that they definitely did not share this view. Correspondents here were told that they could not exaggerate the importance that the government attached to maintaining order in the Near East.”

On November 9, the New York Times correspondent in Cairo, A.C. Sedgwick, sent a dispatch which opened with the observation, cleared by the censor, that “the present political crisis in Lebanon raises ... the question of France’s rights and privileges in the Levant”; and went on to show, as casually as you please, that France, the de Gaullists in particular – yes, our allies, the de Gaullists – had deceived the Syrian people, lied to them, failed to keep their promises, and in general had not behaved in a manner befitting a sacred trust toward a nation put in their charge. In other words, they had not acted like, let us say, the decent British.

On November 12, the British Foreign Office announced that the government had protested vehemently to the French Committee of National Liberation (do not laugh – that is its official name) against its conduct of affairs in Lebanon. It reminded the de Gaullists that the British Ambassador in Cairo had declared in June 1941 “that his government supported and associated themselves with the assurance of independence given by General Catroux on behalf of General de Gaulle to Syria and Lebanon. The British government stand firmly by this declaration. The Lebanese government has a nationalist majority of forty-eight to two.” Only people with a proud record of righteousness as long as your right arm, like the British Foreign Office, could employ such a severe tone of moral reprimand.

Three days later, Algiers made public the information that the United States government had joined the British in “strong representations to the French Committee of National Liberation when the disorders in Lebanon broke out. The committee was reminded that the United States would be unable to understand how a nation suffering from oppression on its home soil could lake a step that might infringe the liberties of another people.”

A perfectly beautiful formulation! The British could not possibly take exception to it. What the United States “would be unable to understand” is “a step that might infringe the liberties of another people – but only, you see, by a “nation suffering from oppression on its home soil.” And inasmuch as England is not “suffering oppression on its home soil,” Washington is perfectly able to understand a “step that might infringe the liberties” of ... India! The people of India have voted for independence and demonstrated for it, just like the Lebanese. They have been promised independence, just like the Lebanese. All sorts of British Catroux and Helleus and Illes have been sent to India to crush the people’s fight for independence, just as their French counterparts have been sent to Lebanon. What makes it good for the British goose and not for the French gander? The fact that the former is not “suffering oppression on its home soil”?

Surprising as it may seem, that is the fact. More accurately, the kernel of the truth is contained in the fact that the French ruling class has no “home soil” over which to rule. Or, more simply, French imperialism is no longer a second-rate power but a tenth-rate power lying on its broken back. And who is more easily fleeced of his last possessions than a thief lying on his broken back?

A Chapter of Imperialist Intrigue

The relations between France and England in the Near East form one of the dirtiest chapters in the history of imperialist intrigue. To know it is to see that Mr. Churchill is covered not with the oil of unction and piety but with the much richer and, if an impiety may be permitted, more profitable oil that is piped and refined from the earth.

England controls most of the extensive, rich and strategically important oil fields that run from Mosul, in Northern Iraq, down along the western frontier of Iran.

When the British suffered a catastrophe at Kutel-Amara at the hands of the Turks in 1916, they desperately offered the French the greatest possible concessions in the undefined territories of Syria and Mesopotamia in exchange for active French participation in the Turkish war theater to relieve the pressure on the British. The bait was all the land beyond the Euphrates, up to and including Mosul. The French accepted, although they never engaged the Turks in action.

After the war the British discovered to their consternation that Northeast Mesopotamia (now Iraq), centering around Mosul, was one of the world’s richest oil fields. They shyly asked the good French to revise the frontier ever so slightly, so that the oil fields would become part of Britain’s Mesopotamian mandate. The polite but thrifty French declined. Whereupon the British became intensely interested in national freedom for Syria – just like today. They prompted or at least helped the son of the former King of Hedjaz, Emir Feisul, a British jumping-jack, to proclaim himself “King of Syria” in 1920. This compelled the greatly pained French to undertake a mission against him under General Couraud, who took Damascus in the summer. Feisul fled, and, by accident, turned up in London.

Then began a long contest between England and France to jockey for the most favorable position with the Turks, who laid claim to the disputed territory and were ready to fight for it. The struggle finally broke out into a bloody war in the summer of 1922 between Turkey, supported by French money and munitions, and Greece, supported by Lloyd George and the pound sterling. The Greeks were humiliatingly smashed, lost all their Asiatic possessions, lost their King Constantine; and Lloyd George lost his job as First Minister of His Britannic Majesty.

Later the same year, the tireless British made another attempt. The British press suddenly began reporting meetings and resolutions of Bedouin tribesmen presenting the “thousand-year-old historical claim of Iraq,” defined as its rule over “the Assyrian Kings’ seat of royalty at Nineveh.” The Assyrian Kings had had the miraculous prescience to pick their seat of royalty on the eastern bank of the Tigris, right across the river from Mosul. Nobly determined to set aright this thousand-year-old injustice, Anglo-Indian officers entered the disputed territory that October at the head of numerous Iraq tribesmen “to defend and liberate their countrymen from the cruel oppression of the Turks” and, of course, with disdainful unconcern over the lakes of oil lying right underneath the ancient seat of Tiglath Pileser I, Tiglath Pileser III and Sennacherib, whose depredations twenty-six and thirty centuries ago were more modest than those of Lloyd George, Lord Curzon and Winston Churchill, but not one whit more knavish.

The supple British, facing the adamant and scoffing Turks of Kemal Pasha, soon restored Sennacherib and Assurbanipal to their proper place in the Second Book of Kings and proceeded to more mundane business. At the second Lausanne Conference in 1923, they made the best deal they could. Turkey received every possible concession in return for an agreement on the Mesopotamian frontier by which the League of Nations in 1921; finally awarded the Vilayet of Mosul to Iraq on condition that the British mandate continue for twenty-five years. The award was fortified by a British agreement with the by-no-means satisfied French and Americans. The Turkish (i.e., British) Petroleum Company was reconstructed and its share capital of a billion pounds – no trifle – “allotted in four equal parts to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, Royal Dutch Shell [both British], seven American oil companies (including Standard Oil), and sixty-five French companies.”

Oil Does Not Stink

The Mosul oil field is not the greatest producer in the world, but neither is it inconsiderable. By 1939, it had been developed to the point where it almost exactly equalled the Iran fields in production. The former ran 30.78 million barrels to the 30.8 million barrels of the latter. For Britain, dependent upon other countries for oil, Mosul is a treasure.

The trouble is that the commercial (and now the military) value of Mosul oil is reduced by the long haul: so, for that matter, is the oil of the rest of Iraq and all the oil of Iran. It must be hauled all the way down to the Persian Gulf, shipped through the Gulf, then around the coast of Oman, Hadramaut and Aden at the south of the Arabian peninsula then up the Red Sea through Suez and out into the Mediterranean.

A pipeline right across the Near East deserts would pour it right into the Eastern Mediterranean. Such a pipeline was laid out by fhe British to connect Kirkuk, another field just southeast of Mosul, with the first-class port of Haifa, in Palestine. A branch line was marked out to run from the Iraq-Syrian border to Tripoli, a big port in French Syria.

In the eyes of the British, the trouble with the branch line is that it is laid out through French Syria. This is very vexing at best. How easy to dispose of the vexation by ousting the accursed French oppresor of Syria and substituting the exalted British liberator!

India? No. She has already been liberated, at least as much as she will ever be by the British.

Syria? Yes. She sorely needs liberation from the French, and Mr. Churchill is just the paladin for that crusade.

And when it is considered that the issuance by the Foreign Office of statements of outraged indignation at the felonies of the French in Syria will not hurt the faltering stock of British imperialism in the Arab world; that demonstrations in the streets of Cairo and elsewhere shout “Down with the French!” instead of “Down with the British!” (as is, alas! usually the case) – then the crusade becomes a downright bargain. General de Gaulle’s despairing – we almost said demagogical – attempt to checkmate the British by issuing statements expressing a somewhat tardy sympathy for a “Pan-Arabic Federation,” will only make the desert camels laugh fit to bust.

It is possible that de Gaulle and Churchill will arrange themselves, as the French say. For the time being, the British may content themselves with wresting some humiliating and weakening concessions from the French, with a simple warning that next time they will not get off so lightly. “Of all the crosses I have had to bear, the cross of Lorraine is the heaviest,” said Churchill. This de Gaulle is an infernally assertive fellow who dreams of ruling France without the benefit of Anglo-American supervision. He must be cut down to size before he gets too big for his boots.

Some mischievous compromise may be reached, especially because of the fact that the British and American imperialists are playing with fire. The harrassed de Gaullists hint that the British arranged or stimulated the whole Lebanon affair. Who would put it past them that knows the record of Albion and its many Emir Feisuls?

But whether or not they did, what started in Lebanon is not so easily controlled as it develops. Millions of colonial and semi-colonial peoples in the Arabic world alone reacted to the Lebanon events like prairie grass to a spark. A very little bit of that kind of reaction may prove useful to British imperialism in its drive against the French. More than a little bit can put the British in even greater jeopardy than the French, for a thousand Lebanons are ruled from London.

Lebanon is not just the latest example of the noisome hypocrisy of all the imperialists, particularly the more unctuous of them. It is a sign that the world of colonial revolt against imperialism is not dead. The more the imperialists unmask each other, the closer comes the day when the people will proclaim: Lebanon for de Gaulle? No. Lebanon for Churchill? No. Lebanon for the Lebanese! And Syria for the Syrians! And all the peoples who have been deprived by imperialism of their birthright of freedom – united to wipe the scum of foreign oppression from the face of their lands.

In the imperialist countries, these peoples will find in the revolutionary socialist movement their unswerving champion.

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