Australian troops just before they advance into French-mandated Syria in collaboration with Free French forces, 10 July 1941.
In 1936 French Premier Léon Blum promised Syria its independence, but his government fell before the decision could be carried out. After the defeat France in FALL GELB in May–June 1940, Syrian mandate authorities and the local Foreign Legion garrison sided with the Vichy governor, Henri Dentz, against the Free French. Syria became a battleground when Free French, British, Australian, and Indian Army forces—some shipped north from East Africa—invaded on June 8, 1941. After five weeks of fighting that required British reinforcement from North Africa, Dentz agreed to an armistice on July 4. Charles de Gaulle was enraged to learn the surrender of Syria and the Levant was made to the British rather than to his delegate. The dispute nearly led to a breach between “Fighting France” and Winston Churchill. A compromise was reached in which de Gaulle agreed that the Middle East theater of operations was a special case: liberated territories of the French Empire in the Middle East would be administered by the British, whose pressing and wide security interests required direct authority. Suspicions about London’s intentions for the rest of the French Empire were allayed after British forces liberated Madagascar and handed the island to de Gaulle. After the war, the French sought to return to the status quo antebellum in Syria, fighting to repress local nationalists and Ba’athists until April 1946. Then they withdrew and Syria became independent.
Syria was then turned over to the Free French authorities. The French recognized Syria’s independence but continued to occupy the country, which was used as an Allied base for the rest of the war. Free French Commander General Georges Catroux became Syria’s Delegate-General and Plenipotentiary. French authorities declared martial law, imposed strict press censorship, and arrested political subversives.
In July 1943, following pressure from Great Britain, France announced new elections. A nationalist government came to power that August, electing as president Syrian nationalist Shukri al-Quwwatti, one of the leaders of the 1925–1927 uprising against the French. France granted Syria independence on 1 January 1944, but the country remained under Anglo-French occupation for the remainder of the war. In January 1945, the Syrian government announced the formation of a national army, and in February it declared war on the Axis powers.
Syria became a charter member of United Nations in March 1945. In early May 1945, anti-French demonstrations erupted throughout Syria, whereon French forces bombarded Damascus, killing 400 Syrians. British forces then intervened. A United Nations resolution in February 1946 called on France to evacuate the country, and by 15 April, all French and British forces were off Syrian soil. Evacuation Day, 17 April, is still celebrated as a Syrian national holiday.