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Sam Adams

Big 4 Smell of Oil in Syria-Lebanon Dispute

(June 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 25, 18 June 1945, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

It would seem that the recent outbreak, of fighting between the French and Arab nationalists in Lebanon and Syria is of no great consequence since the countries are small and the population less than that of many of our states. But behind this conflict between French imperialism seeking to maintain a stranglehold on this area and Arab nationalism fighting for independence, is imperialist intrigue involving the big powers who are motivated by the large oil deposits in the Middle East.

The movement of the Arab peoples for independence is not only a struggle against France; it is in reality a struggle against all imperialism. The consequences of the fight in Syria and Lebanon is, therefore, not lost upon Great Britain, the United States and Russia. They see in this somewhat isolated event a danger to their plans for control and exploitation of the resources, not only of Syria, but of Iran, Iraq and the whole Middle East.

Britain’s sharp intervention, which was supported by the United States, and Russia’s intervention in behalf of France, are based on their common interest in oil – not the independence of the Arabs – and the fear that French policy endangers their penetration and domination of these countries.

Background History

The fight over control of the Middle East, and Levant in particular, has a long history which it is necessary to outline to enable one to understand the nature of the present conflict.

1. Syria (of which Lebanon and Damascus are an integral part) was for many years dominated by Turkey and ruled oppressively as all subject nations are. She obtained her “freedom” during the first World War when Great Britain enlisted the aid of the Arab nationalists to help drive the Turks out. Of course, Great Britain promised Syria independence in exchange for her assistance against the Turks.

2. The British forces, however, were weak and their campaigns against the Turks were not very successful. To enlist the aid of the French, the British made a gift to her of the Syrian area from the Mediterranean Sea to an undefined distance eastwards. How far was never quite determined because the British were then quite unaware of the existence of oil in this area and the extent of the deposits.

3. The French accepted this gift from England, a gift which England, of course, had no right to give. But such exchanges are commonplace among imperialists who trade nations and their peoples like so much merchandise. It goes without saying that the Arab people and the highly mixed other populations of the country had nothing whatever to say about this gift.

But the French, while ungratefully accepting Syria from the British, did not repay the latter’s kindness with the military assistance which they had expected. The only source of support the British did obtain were from the Arabs themselves. Under King Feisal, the Arabs pushed the War against the Turks, helped drive them out of Syria and thus redeemed British military honor. The British repaid Feisal by establishing him on the throne of Syria.

4. France, however, refused to give up this valuable possession and occupied the country despite British discomfort. Culminating the sharp struggle between them, the French drove out King Feisal and began the administration of the country with 90,000 troops. The British did the next best thing. They made Feisal King of Iraq, which adjoins Syria to the east, and which has great oil deposits.

Mandated States

From that point on the whole history of the Middle East turned into a conflict between the British and French against each other, and the two of them jointly against Arab desires for independence and a unified state of Syria, Iraq and Palestine.

The old League of Nations sought to organize the conflicts by establishing what was then called “A” mandates. “A” mandates gave total recognition to French domination over Iraq and Palestine.

The professed aims of the British and French in Syria and Iraq were “to emancipate them from Turkish oppression, to encourage and assist in the establishment of native governments, ‘freely chosen by the populations themselves,’ and to recognize these governments.” They stated this in the Anglo-French Joint Declaration of November 8, 1918. Article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant acknowledged that these countries “have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone.” These “A” mandates were regarded publicly as “merely transitional protectorates” to help lead the Arab states to full independence.

In the case of Syria, the mandate, specifically stipulated that an organic law and constitution should be established “in agreement with the native authorities,” and that France shall “enact measures to facilitate the progressive development of Syria and Lebanon as independent states.” Britain’s mandates over Iraq and Palestine were similarly worded.

Imperialist Intrigue

All this, like the Atlantic Charter, looked very good on paper. But twenty-five years have passed and these countries still do not have their independence. The British and French have done everything in their power to prevent such a development. As against the Arab people they were united. Simultaneously they engaged in severe struggle against each other, a struggle which is marked with, intrigue, double-cross, chicanery and hypocrisy.

The French, after driving out Feisal and the native Administrators, governed the country with a ruthlessness comparable to the British in their possessions. To strengthen its rule, the French divided Syria into five units: Lebanon, Damascus, Jebel Druse, Allepoo and Alaouite. This was for the purpose of weakening the unity of the people in their struggle for independence and to make it easier to defeat them militarily.

From 1920 on, there has been constant warfare between the French and the Syrians, just as between Britain and the peoples she dominates. The more skillful British have been able to overcome their difficulties by bribery and division in the broader areas of the territories they controlled. The French, confined to the small Syrian nation, were unable to overcome united opposition of all the Syrian people. In addition, the British, in an effort to drive the French out of the Middle East and thus leave herself in control over the whole area, have instigated, organized and financed movements against the French.

Struggle over Oil

Middle East

What makes the British and French determined to maintain their, respective control over the Middle East territories is the discovery of rich oil deposits since the last war. It is estimated that there are 213 billion barrels of oil located here. This explains not only Anglo-French interest, but the penetration of the area by the United States as well, and Russia’s new interest.

Pipelines from the rich oil areas in Iraq cross the French mandate of Syria and the British mandate of Palestine. The British want to get rid of the French, place a puppet regime in power in Syria similar to the one in Iraq, continue their control over Palestine and thus insure, not her lifeline to India as Churchill falsely maintains, but the oil deposits of Iraq and the whole Middle East.

The United States which has obtained large oil concessions in this area is supporting the British position. While Russia mouths phrases of “colonial independence” and settling the Syrian dispute among the Big Five, she threatens the independence of Iran and also seeks a share of the oil riches of the Middle East. “A wave of oil” has engulfed the Middle East and this is what the inter-imperialist struggle is all about.

The other powers are afraid that French imperialist policy in the Middle East, less subtle than their own, may create the kind of disturbance in this part of the world which could ignite the whole Arab independence movement. That is why the British sent troops into the fighting zones to “keep the peace.”

But in this dispute, the hypocrisy of the imperialist powers is brought to light. For example, when France was defeated in 1940, the Free French, in an effort to displace the Vichy rulers in Syria and Lebanon, promised independence to the countries. And when the Free French troops, together with the British, occupied the area in 1941, a promise of early independence was made to Syria. France was to be accorded special privileges similar to those held by Britain in Egypt and Iraq.

In 1943, independence was officially promised by treaty.

British Aims in Syria

The French now claim that Syria and Lebanon cannot have independence because the treaty has not been carried out. Syria and Lebanon say they cannot negotiate a final treaty unless they are fully possessed of their sovereignty.

The French charge that the British engineered the present fight to embarrass the French and get them out of the Middle East. The French add that they have as much right to maintain a stronghold in the Middle East to guard their lifeline to Indo-China as the British have to maintain a stronghold in Egypt, Palestine and Iraq to guard their lifeline to India.

The Arab League, a new organization presumably established for the purpose of fighting for Arab independence all over the Middle East and North Africa, and which has intervened in behalf of the Syrians and Lebanese, is really a creation of the British. All its efforts are directed against the Jewish immigration to Palestine and against France. None of its efforts is organized against the British.

The British hypocrisy in this case is in keeping with its imperialist tradition. But this time the United States and Russia chimed in. All of them pretended to be interested in the freedom of the peoples rather than in oil.

San Francisco and Oil

Britain maintains the same kind of control over Iraq and Egypt as the French over Syria and Lebanon. If we leave out for the moment the conduct of Great Britain in India, where for centuries it has engaged in the most cruel, violent and limitless exploitation of the population, and look only to Iraq and Egypt, we find:

  1. Britain “maintains similar unavowed protectorates over ‘independent’ Iraq and ‘independent’ Egypt.” Yet the British drove the legal Prime Minister of Iraq out of the country. British tanks surrounded the palace of the King of Egypt and forced him to maintain a Prime Minister he did not want. British troops remain in those two countries and there are more British troops in Syria and Lebanon than French.
  2. In Greece, the British, by military force, established the government they wanted over the protests of the Greek people.

But if the British this time acted in their own imperialist interests against the French, the two will unite if the Arab struggle for independence envelops the whole Middle East and North Africa. As the well know journalist, Edgar Ansel Mowrer, put it: “Imperialists will have to stick together to uphold their empires.”

The final interesting aspect of this struggle is the complete ineffectiveness of the World Security Organization in San Francisco to have intervened. On the basis of the decisions adopted there, France could have “legally” prevented, by virtue of Big Five veto rights, any intervention by the other powers, either military or economic. Moreover, it could have vetoed any investigations or inquiries. What then could this organization do? Just what happened: intervene by armed force and thus create war or the basis for war.

National independence, freedom of the peoples, the right of self-government, all these are but words in the mouths of the imperialists to fool the people of the world. Economic, political and military interests dominate the course of all the powers. In the case of the Middle East, the rights of the peoples are subordinated to oil imperialism.

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