Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In an article published in Haaretz (here), Dr. Meir Zamir, a professor of Middle East history in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, traced a Mandate incident regarding a clash of British and French interests in Syria, which had potential quite negative ramifications for Zionism.

The Irgun is mentioned in passing and below are relevant extracted passages:

Britain's treachery, France's revenge
1 February 2008

In the summer of 1944, when soldiers of Free France were still fighting alongside the British against the Nazis in Europe, the two colonial powers were engaged in a clandestine struggle in the Middle East. That summer, French intelligence scored a major coup over its British counterpart in the region. The French recruited a Syrian agent who had access to top-secret correspondence between Syrian leaders - among them President Shukri al-Quwatli and Foreign Minister Jamil Mardam (who later became prime minister) - and leaders of neighboring states. French intelligence also obtained reports sent by Syrian diplomats in London, Washington, Moscow, Paris and a number of Arab countries.

...After the war the French sought to regain control of Syria and Lebanon, but Syria constituted a distinctive problem, in that its independence had been declared already in 1941, after joint forces of Britain and Free France liberated the country from the rule of the Vichy regime. From then until 1945, de Gaulle tried to force a treaty on Syria that would ensure France privileged status. After he understood that a Syrian-French agreement was not possible due to Syrian and British opposition, de Gaulle decided in April 1945 to send military reinforcements to Syria and Lebanon. This move, coupled with the harsh response of the French on May 8 in the city of Setif, Algeria, where French forces massacred thousands of Algerians who were demonstrating for their country's independence, badly rattled the Syrian president. Quwatli feared that he would suffer the same fate as Emir Faisal, who was expelled from Damascus by the French in July 1920.

At the end of May 1945, French forces attacked governmental institutions in Syria. On May 30, General Bernard Paget, the commander in chief of the British forces in the Middle East, issued an ultimatum to the French to hold their fire immediately and return to their barracks, or face a confrontation with far superior British forces. De Gaulle and the provisional French government had no choice but to comply. In the weeks that followed, with the tacit consent of the British, Syrian nationalists massacred scores of French citizens, and looted and destroyed the offices of French companies and French cultural, educational and religious institutions. Thus did French rule in Syria reach its violent and abrupt end.

In one of the most dramatic moments of the Syrian crisis, General de Gaulle told Duff Cooper, the British ambassador to Paris: "We are not, I admit, in a position to open hostilities against you at the present time. But you have insulted France and betrayed the West. This cannot be forgotten." On that same day, June 4, 1945, Cooper wrote in his diary: "He is genuinely convinced that the whole incident has been arranged by the British so as to carry out their long-planned policy of driving the French out of the Levant in order to take their place."

It now emerges that de Gaulle had concrete proof that "perfidious Albion" had struck again. That proof is contained in Syrian documents from 1944-1945, and some from 1947, which are preserved in the French archives and have now been made available to researchers. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and the rest of the British diplomatic corps persisted in their denials. Britain, they asserted, had no surreptitious motives in Syria and Lebanon, and in fact had mediated between Syria and France in an effort to reach an agreement. Britain's dsision to intervene was the direct result of de Gaulle's aggressive policy, and his suspicions concerning Britain's role in the Levant bordered
on paranoia and Anglophobia.

...Arab historians have described the crisis of May-June 1945 as a heroic uprising by the Syrian nationalists, who expelled the French from their country and thereby ensured its full independence....

...On August 5, 1944, Spears sent Riyad al-Sulh, the Lebanese prime minister, on a secret mission to Damascus. So strict was British security that Sulh learned the exact purpose of his mission only when he met with the British consul in the Syrian capital. The consul dictated to Sulh a proposal from His Majesty's Government to the Syrian government; Sulh was to convey the proposal to Saadallah al-Jabiri, the Syrian prime minister, who was also Sulh's father-in-law.

The British proposal included, among other points, Syria's unification with Transjordan and Palestine to create "Greater Syria."...To persuade the Syrian leaders to agree to these terms, Britain was ready to commit itself to defend Syrian independence in the face of external aggression, continue the White Paper policy in Palestine and put a complete halt to "Jewish ambitions."

This clandestine British proposal to the Syrian government shows that, contrary to what has been believed until now, in August 1944 the British government gave its representatives in the Middle East the go-ahead to implement Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said's "Fertile Crescent Plan." This entailed forming Greater Syria by integrating Syria with Transjordan, Palestine and Lebanon. At a later stage, Greater Syria would be united in a federation with Iraq. The Christian minorities in Lebanon and the Jews in Palestine would enjoy autonomy.

The document elaborating the British proposal shows that after three years of objecting, Churchill and Eden finally accepted the approach of their representatives in the Middle East and adopted a strategy congruent with the surging force of pan-Arabism. The obstacles were formidable: Britain had to oust France from the Levant, violate its commitments to the Zionist movement just when the scale of the Holocaust in Europe was becoming apparent, and depose Jordan's Emir Abdullah...

...The final stage in this British campaign of intrigue, provocation and pressure was played out in May 1945, with the aim of coercing Quwatli to sign an agreement with Britain. The secret British efforts to expel France from Syria were coordinated by Colonel Walter Stirling (who sometimes operated in the guise of a correspondent for The London Times).

...The British continued to exploit Damascus' fear of the return of the French and further heightened it by emphasizing the Zionist and Soviet threats, as well
as the ambitions of Emir Abdullah to crown himself king of Greater Syria.

At the end of 1945, the new Labour government took advantage of Syria's fears of a possible change in British policy to ensure that Damascus would uphold its May 1945 undertakings to Britain...However, the major obstacle to the Anglo-Iraqi-Syrian plan was not France, but the thrust of the Zionist movement to establish a Jewish state in Palestine.

...In the period 1945-1948, the most effective French weapon against Britain in the Middle East was its support for the struggle of the Zionist movement. In a meeting held on October 6, 1945, with Marc Jarblum, head of the Zionist organization in France, de Gaulle stated that "the Jews in Palestine are the only ones who can chase the British out of the Middle East." On November 10, in a visit to Paris, David Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency, was told by foreign minister Bidault that France supported the Zionist cause.

Syrian documents recently uncovered shed new light on events that led to the establishment of the State of Israel and call for a reexamination of certain basic beliefs concerning British policy in Palestine from 1945-1948. The British proposal to Syrian leaders in August 1944 and the secret Anglo-Syrian agreement of May 29, 1945, reveal that Britain had assured Syria - a country not previously known to have been under British hegemony - that it would limit Jewish immigration and thwart the emergence of an independent Jewish state in Palestine. The agreement also reveals that by the summer of 1945, Britain had already formulated a Middle East policy based on an Iraqi-Syrian alliance, which included a plan for the formation
of Greater Syria, which was to include Palestine. That policy patently could not accommodate the creation of an independent Jewish state in any part of Palestine.

...The Syrian documents enhance understanding of two significant events on the road to Israel's establishment: President Harry S Truman's letter of August 31, 1945, to British prime minister Attlee, demanding that Britain allow the immigration of 100,000 Jewish refugees from camps in Europe to Palestine; and the well-known speech by Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko in the United Nations on May 14, 1947 endorsing the establishment of a Jewish state.

...According to one diplomat, the British were responsible for the chaotic situation there, and he cautioned his Syrian interlocutor that Britain was exploiting the Jewish-Arab conflict in order "to achieve control in all the Arab states."

...A more intriguing question is whether the French passed on information from their Syrian source to the heads of the Jewish Agency, David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett. Was Ben-Gurion?s almost prophetic ability during 1945-1948 to foresee regional and international developments and prepare the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) for a military confrontation with the Arab states based on prior knowledge of British and Arab secret intentions? Did his distrust of Britain's role in Palestine, portrayed by historians as "obsessive" and "paranoid," derive, like de Gaulle's suspiciousness, from accurate intelligence? Was Ben-Gurion?s belief that the British were involved in a secret conspiracy with Arab leaders to prevent the
establishment of a Jewish state based on information provided by the French? And did his fateful decision to declare the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 - and later to impose major operational decisions on his generals - stem from secret information he received from the French about the Arabs' military plans?

Initial research was carried out in the last two months in three archives (the Ben-Gurion archives in Sde Boker, the Haganah archives in Tel Aviv and the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem), and Ben-Gurion's diaries, particularly his war diaries for December 1947-July 1949, were also consulted, with the aim of discovering whether information from the Syrian documents was made available to Ben-Gurion and whether he knew its exact origin. Also examined were the modes by which intelligence information was transmitted and those who were possibly involved on the Israeli side.

...By September [1945], it had become apparent that the Labour government did not intend to modify British policy in the Middle East. The French learned this from the Anglo-Syrian correspondence. On October 1, Ben-Gurion sent his well-known directive from Paris to Moshe Sneh, the head of the Haganah, instructing the defense forces to cooperate with Etzel and Lehi in armed resistance against British rule. The establishment of the united resistance movement was seen at the time as an extreme measure and was strongly criticized by some of Ben-Gurion's colleagues, as this ended a quarter-century of close cooperation between the Zionist movement and Britain.

In the next two weeks, Ben-Gurion placed the Yishuv on alert; forces were mobilized and sent to the Galilee, and Jewish settlements were fortified. Some historians have viewed this as an overreaction and a sign of panic, while others see it as merely a military exercise intended as a warning to the British. But if we take into account the information obtained by the French from their Syrian source on the close collaboration between Sulh and Clayton, which they had surely conveyed to Ben-Gurion or to the Haganah, Ben-Gurion's reaction is more readily understandable.

...These examples, and others not cited here, do not by themselves necessarily constitute unequivocal proof that the French shared information they gleaned from the Syrian documents with the Israelis. However, if we take into ccount the secret Anglo-Syrian agreement, the intense French hostility toward the British in the aftermath of their expulsion from Syria and Lebanon, and the close collaboration between France and the Zionist movement during 1945-1948, this possibility appears quite reasonable. In any case, the Syrian documents uncovered so far in French archives will oblige historians to reassess British policy in the postwar Middle East in general, and in Palestine in particular.