June 5, 1945
When regrettable incidents like those in Syria occur between nations so firmly attached to one another as are the French and British, and whose fortunes are so closely interwoven, it is nearly always a case of "the least said the better." On the other hand, I am assured that harm would be done by leaving some of the statements in General de Gaulle's speech to the Press of 2nd June unanswered by His Majesty's Government; and I feel also that the House of Commons would expect to be authoritatively informed.
The sense of General de Gaulle's speech was to suggest that the whole trouble in the Levant was due to British interference. I think my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has already made it clear that so far from stirring up agitation in the Levant States our whole influence has been used in precisely the other direction.
The most strenuous and, I think, successful efforts have been made by His Majesty's Minister in Beirut to produce a calmer atmosphere in which negotiations could be conducted for a settlement of outstanding questions between France and the Levant States. I myself impressed upon the President of Syria most strongly the need for a peaceful settlement when I saw him in Cairo in February. We were successful in persuading the Levant States to open negotiations, which they had previously been unwilling to do. They asked the French for their proposals. That was last February. While General Beynet was still in Paris awaiting his instructions it became known in the Levant in April that the French intended to send reinforcements. The Syrian and Lebanese Governments were greatly disturbed by the delay in receiving the French proposals and also by the prospect of reinforcements arriving. We had already represented to the French Government that the arrival of reinforcements, however small, was bound to be misunderstood as a means of pressure in these negotiations and to have serious repercussions, but our representations did not meet with success.
On 4th May, at the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, I sent a friendly personal message to General de Gaulle, who had expressed to our Ambassador his concern as to our ultimate intentions in the Levant States. I explained, as I have done on many occasions, that we had absolutely no ambitions there of any kind. We want only to be treated just like any other country would be treated. We seek no territory or any kind of advantage there that is not given to all the other nations of the world. I also explained that we had recognised France's special position in the Levant. That does not mean that we undertake to enforce that special position. We shall be no obstacle to it, either at the council table or in any other way. But, I explained, our commitments and duties extended throughout the Middle East where our main task was to ensure that Allied war communications were kept secure from interruption and disturbance. We could not, therefore, disregard events in the Levant States. His Majesty's Government had no designs against French interests in Syria and Lebanon and I was willing, I told General de Gaulle, to order a withdrawal of all British troops from Syria and the Lebanon the moment a treaty had been concluded and was in operation between the French Government and the Syrian and Lebanese Governments.
From this point of view, I expressed the opinion that it would be a great pity if the sending in of reinforcements above those which were needed as replacements were to cause unrest or a rise of temperature. I urged that the reinforcing of French troops at this moment when the Levant States had been waiting for treaty proposals would give the impression that the French were preparing a settlement to be concluded under duress and thus poison the atmosphere for the negotiations which were about to begin. General de Gaulle replied that General Beynet, the French Delegate-General, was returning with instructions to open negotiations but made no reference to the question of French reinforcements. When these arrived the effect was as we had feared and as we had warned him would be the case.
On 12th May, General Beynet returned to Beirut and started his discussions with the Syrian and Lebanese Governments. They informed him that they were prepared to negotiate, but not if reinforcements arrived. In spite of this and of our representations-I might almost have said entreaties, because it would have been no exaggeration-French Forces began to arrive on 17th May and on account of that and because Levant States considered that the French proposals went further than they were prepared to discuss, the Syrian and Lebanese Governments broke off negotiations
The internal situation became very tense. In the towns of Damascus, Beirut and Tripoli the bazaars and shops were closed on 19th May and there were demonstrations in Damascus involving some firing from the grounds of the French hospital. About a dozen people were injured but none were killed. On the next day, 20th May, a serious riot took place at Aleppo. Three French soldiers were killed and some injured. French armoured cars entered the town and cleared the streets after a good deal of firing. It was estimated that at least ten civilians were killed and thirty injured. In all the main towns in Syria the bazaars remained closed for some days, and in Aleppo both the Syrian gendarmerie and French troops patrolled the town. In the Lebanon the towns of Beirut and Tripoli re-opened their shops on 23rd May following an appeal by the Lebanese Government to the population to carry on their business and to leave it to the Government to defend Lebanese independence.
Throughout these events we contently counselled patience on both sides, and we were endeavouring to arrange diplomatic discussions at which the whole situation produced by the breakdown of negotiations could be discussed and if possible settled. The Syrian Government appealed earnestly to us to supply further arms for the gendarmerie to enable them to keep order in spite of the popular excitement. They could, they said, retain control of the situation provided the population were not unduly excited by too ostentatious French military precautions and provided that the gendarmerie, who were becoming tired, were reinforced. Nevertheless the French authorities persisted in their objection to our supplying any further arms to the Syrian gendarmerie for their reinforcements, presumably because they were afraid they might be used against themselves. By 24th May the French had had to evacuate their troops from the citadel in Aleppo, but disorder was feared in the process and the French General threatened to shell the town if any shot were fired.
On 25th May His Majesty's Minister was instructed by the Foreign Office to represent to the Syrian Government at once that it was essential that they should maintain control of the situation, especially at Homs and Hama where great tension had developed. Strong representations were also made in Paris and in the French Embassy in London drawing attention to the extremely tense local situation and urging that the French Government should suspend the dispatch of the contemplated further reinforcements. It was pointed out that French armoured car and lorry patrols continued in the streets of Aleppo and Damascus, that aircraft were flying low over the mosques during the hour of prayer, and machine guns were prominently placed on the roofs of buildings. This naturally excited the population. We represented very strongly the unfortunate consequences which further disturbances might have in the Middle East as a whole, which incidentally would affect the communications of the war with Japan.
Serious fighting broke out in Hama on 27th May. The gendarmerie, under the orders of the Syrian Government, at first protected the railway station from being interfered with but were eventually overpowered. This was disappointing as only the day before the British political officer had been able to arrange a meeting between the various parties and a diminution of tension. I need not detail the subsequent spread of disorders, but on 28th May the Syrian Minister for Foreign Affairs informed His Majesty's Minister that events had overtaken him and he could no longer be responsible for internal security. At Homs and Hama there was shelling by the French and the situation got quite out of hand. Disorders spread to Damascus where French shelling began on the evening of 29th May-into this open and crowded city-and continued off and on until the morning of 31st May. The official casualty figures for Damascus are: Killed, gendarmes 80, civilians 400; seriously wounded 500; injured 1,000. Those are, of course, approximate. The Foreign Secretary has already explained to the House how these very unfortunate events overtook our proposals for international discussions of the position and how a tense situation was created throughout the Middle East, which made it inevitable for us to intervene to restore a situation which had got out of hand and might spread almost without limit.
I should like here to express my regret that the message to General de Gaulle informing him of our intervention reached him some three-quarters of an hour after my right hon. Friend had made his statement in the House. I need hardly say that no discourtesy was intended. I should also like to say that it was a pity that General de Gaulle did not see fit to inform His Majesty's Government of the instructions which, I understand, he has said were sent to General Beynet late on 30th May to cease fire. At the moment when we took our decision we had no reason to suppose that that was the case, and the shelling of Damascus was certainly continued on the morning of 31st May.
I hope it will be clear from the information which has been given to the House that it is not true, as has been suggested, that we have endeavoured to stir up agitation, but that the very opposite is the truth. We have done our utmost to preserve calm, to prevent misunderstandings and to bring the two sides together. My promise to General de Gaulle to withdraw all our troops as soon as satisfactory arrangements were made which would prevent disorder in Syria and the Lebanon was a serious step in policy and ought completely to have removed from the French mind the idea that we wished to supplant them or steal their influence. We do not intend to steal the property of anybody in this war, though a caveat may be necessary in respect of foreign enemies and that not for our own benefit. General de Gaulle also suggested that after the recent breakdown of negotiations disturbances were caused by bands armed with British weapons attacking isolated French posts. As the House has been informed by the Foreign Secretary, the Syrian gendarmerie and police were last year supplied, by agreement with the French, with some modern rifles and equipment.
I wish to make it clear here and now that until we had to intervene no arms were issued by us to the Syrians or Lebanese except by agreement with the French, although in the opinion of our military authorities the Syrian Government would have been better able to maintain order if more arms had been issued to their gendarmerie. For the sake of maintaining order we are now doing that. We have now issued some arms. It is unfortunately true that some 200 men of the Sixteenth Arab Battalion of the Palestine Regiment were involved in minor disturbances in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, on VE Day, which is a long time ago compared with these events, and the day after. There were a number of other disturbances in Beirut at that time and it would be absurd to suggest that these instances had the smallest connection with the subsequent serious disturbances in Syria. An immediate inquiry was held and the unit concerned was withdrawn from the Levant States at once. There is no evidence at all to support the allegation that the men carried a Swastika flag.
Finally, I feel that I must answer the insinuation that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carlisle (Sir E. Spears) was recalled from his post as His Majesty's Minister at Beirut at the request of General de Gaulle. The reasons for which my hon. and gallant Friend wished to relinquish his post, namely, to return to his Parliamentary duties before the General Election, were fully explained in communiqués issued at the time, and the suggestion that he was recalled to please General de Gaulle is entirely unfounded. I may say that my hon. and gallant Friend was selected by me a long time ago for this appointment in the Lebanon because, among other qualifications, he wears five wound stripes gained in his work as liaison officer between the French and British Armies during the last war. He is the last person on whom General de Gaulle should cast reflections, because he personally secured General de Gaulle's escape to England from Bordeaux in his motor-car and airplane on 18th June, 1940.
MR. VERNON BARTLETT: May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, in view of General de Gaulle's Press statement that he informed the Ambassador here that it was eleven o'clock on the night of Wednesday the 30th that the cease fire had been ordered, whether he could say when he first heard from the French that the cease fire had been ordered?
THE PRIME MINISTER: Not until after the Foreign Secretary had made the answer which he did in this House, not until some time after. Indeed, when I woke up the morning after the Foreign Secretary's statement, I was delighted to see "cease fire" written in the headlines of the newspapers. We had no information.
MR. ATTLEE: The House will have been glad to have had a full account from the Prime Minister of the position in Syria. Can he give us any indication of what proposals there are now for obtaining a settlement, and will he before the House rises, if there is any further information that he could give the House, take an opportunity of making a further statement?
THE PRIME MINISTER: Yes, Sir. Our acceptance of the idea that there should be a conference between the British, United States and French Governments still stands and we hope that it will not be cast aside. I have seen suggestions that it should be a five Power conference bringing in Russia and China. This would certainly cause a great deal of delay and require very careful consideration-on many grounds. If there is anything to tell the House while it is in being, I shall certainly take advantage of any opportunity I may be given.
MR. A. BEVAN: Is not France in conjunction with us in the war against Japan? and is she not equally concerned in maintaining proper communications?
THE PRIME MINISTER: Yes, Sir, that is perfectly true, though I do not know in which direction the intervention was directed.