1941 Allied Invasion of Lebanon & Syria: an Assemblage of Accident and Design in Aerial Bombardment



This research observes the controversial strata of accident and design that occurs in aerial bombardment, focusing on this evolving lived material condition in Lebanon and Syria. A long history of perpetrated violence, understood through the risk of armed conflict effects the built environment, domestic spaces and the people that live within this context. Creating an assemblage, whereby the intentional engineering of destructive force becomes disguised behind a series of state-led legitimating factors, which manipulate and make elastic, restrictions imposed through international laws on war. In the case that weapons are engineered to forcibly produce what might be considered “an accident” — inducing a break, fissure, or crack — a process of distantiation occurs, whereby the effects of violence are perceived to be beyond human control.

A detailed observation of the nuanced interplay between the accidental, or designed, destruction of the built environment in Lebanon attempts to produce a better understanding of the relationship between violent force and the value and profit it incurs through the necessary redevelopment of a city. Although aerial bombardment is largely understood as a spectacular form of violence, it also manifests and evidences itself structurally, through the evolving materiality of the urban environment, which rebuilds itself in response to both the worst-case-scenario (that has just occurred) and the further potential continuation of this violence into the future.

Accident and Design in Aerial Bombardment ///

In 1912, whilst Italy and Turkey were engaged in the Tripolitan War, two Turkish warships named the Awnullah and the Ankara, stopped at the Port of Beirut. The Italians soon followed and on the morning of February 24, three warships, the Garibaldi, Ferruccio, and Varese, arrived. Having challenged the Turkish warships to surrender with no answer, the Italians opened fire, engaging the Turkish ships in battle. After some resistance, the Turkish ships surrendered and the Ankara was sunk.

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Damage done to the Salonica Bank, the Ottoman Bank, and the Customs House as they were left by the bombardment of Turkish warships named the Awnullah and the Ankara by Italian Forces / Illustrated London News of 16 March 1912.

The backdrop to this battle was the town of Beirut. The “misdirected fire” from the Italian squadron had killed and wounded a large number of civilians along with many buildings on the harbor front. The Italian forces declared that the damage caused to the town was unintentional, and appealed to the terms of Article 2 of 1907 Hague Convention, which stated that a naval commander is not answerable for unintentional damage caused by bombardment. The Turkish Government protested against this violation of The Hague Convention with no outcome as Article 2 allows specifically for the bombardment of “men-of-war in the harbor” in an undefended town or state. Therefore no accountability was incurred for damage or lives lost to the Port of Beirut, establishing it as a very early example of how international laws on war have been manipulated to legitimize violence.

International laws of war are rationalized around the desire to humanize war. They attempt to balance humanitarian concerns with military necessity. There are two fundamental principles that international law adheres to in keeping this balance, that of distinction and proportionality, which restricts belligerents from causing a disproportionate amount of damage for the advance of military gain. The changing nature of war between the First and Second World Wars, spurred on by advances in new technologies and developing rivalries between newly formed nation-states, first revealed the potential difficulties in applying international law as a restrictive force. The laws drafted in the 1899 and 1907 Hague conferences produced the fundamental foundation of modern laws on war, however the reluctance of the states involved in developing international law as a limit to sovereign power, meant the laws served to uphold rather than restrict the limits of military necessity.

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Commander Searle pointing out bombs of different weight during Aleppo Spitfire Week in 1944.

It was the development of new technologies, in particular the airplane, that enabled the erosion in the distinction between non-combatant and combatant between the First and Second World War. These developments resulted in the advent of “total war,” wherein war was fought by entire nation-states, ostensibly bringing all non-combatants, or civilians into the battlefield as combatants. The airplane was the primary weapon in the arsenal of total war. The advent of the Second World War as total war was essentially the advent of military airpower. In a reciprocal relationship, the infrastructures that became necessary in engaging these burgeoning new technologies drew the vital importance of the Middle East as the second front of the Second World War.

Oil and The War Machine ///

It has been argued that the spread of Western influence across the Middle East, which caused fundamental social, political and economic change for Lebanon and Syria, came as a result of the Sykes-Picot Agreement ratified on May 16, 1916. However the proposition of this research is that it was the newly developed, mechanized terror of aerial bombardment, and the need for oil to feed this aspect of the war machine during the Second World War, which inflicted an unprecedented shift by entering Lebanese and Syrian civilians onto the battleground for the first time through a series of conflicts that took place between the Allied forces and the Vichy French across the Middle East in 1941.

The strategic importance of the region at this point is widely contested, but in a Top Secret British government document circulated at the time between London and the War Offices in Lebanon and Syria, it clearly states:

Iraq and Iran and Arabia contain the last great oil-producing areas of the world: and are vital to the Empire. It is necessary therefore to render secure our wells, pipe-lines and refineries.

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Map of British war operations carried out during Operation Exporter, as drawn out by the British Military. / British National Archives

After the fall of France in 1940, Britain’s control over parts of the Middle East that it had colonized and divided up through the Sykes-Picot Agreement became insecure, as the French authorities in Lebanon and Syria aligned themselves with the new Vichy government. There was soon concern that the Vichy French authorities operating in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon were slowly gaining control over Allied oil supplies. Churchill decided that in order to preserve British strategic interests in the region, it was necessary to regain control. In this sense, the architecture of the Second World War started to invert, as the conflict’s need for fuel to be fought for and won enabled and produced the need for the conflict itself. The necessity of extracting resources not only fueled the conflict, but also became what shaped and induced its effects in the Middle East. 

Operation Exporter ///

Having invaded Iraq in May 1941 to secure its oil refiners, following a month of fighting, the Allied forces entirely occupied the Iraqi territory. Unsettled by the fact that the German aircrafts going to fight in in Iraq were allowed to stop at the Syrian airbases to refuel, Churchill ordered an armed intervention into Syria and Lebanon. ‘Operation Exporter’, as the Syria and Lebanon campaign became named, was the Allied invasion of Vichy French-controlled territories between June and July 1941.

For the invasion into Lebanon and Syria, the British agreed to join forces with the Free French Army, which had formed in opposition to the Vichy French. In this coalition, Britain promised to aid the conflict with as much military and air support as the Allied forces could provide. However, to give legitimacy to the invasion, the Free French Army had to declare their promise of independence for Syria and Lebanon. This meant that the invasion into Lebanon and Syria was to be regarded as a political coup rather than a military operation. This became important in order to dissuade too much resistance on the ground. The tension in this situation is recognized in this excerpt from a letter by General Spears, the First British Minister of Lebanon and Syria who wrote at the time stating:

how do we secure the good will of the people? It seemed to me that the most obvious as well as the simplest way to do this, is to promise them independence in a manner that would carry conviction, so that they would forget how often it had been promised before but always withheld.

The attitude of the Lebanese and Syrian population at this point was of distrust and apathy. Mostly, there was apprehension that the experience of the First World War, with its famine and disease, would be repeated. There was consensus at this time that even if both the Allied and Axis forces might evoke the noblest of principles to justify the violence of war, in reality both sides were operating equally in their own self-interest. The tension in relation to this observation came to a head in early 1941, as strikes and demonstrations took place across Syria and Lebanon against the sanctions that the British had put on food imports and trade in in the region. At this point, it was clear that independence from all foreign domination was necessary. In the same correspondence, Spears writes:

So I watched these heartbroken children of the free air and the burning sands come forward to French officials to give up their independence in exchange for a few acres of land, which were to be their prisons and those of their children.

This description of the Bedouins in Syria, giving up their independence, to become imprisonment through land ownership, acts as a counter image to the proclamation of independence that Spears as the figurehead of the British had pressured the Free French into promising, and to some extent, reveals the hidden nature in the process of nation state building.

At 2 am on June 8, 1941, British, Australian and Free French Forces, having secured Iraq, crossed into Lebanon and Syria. At the same time Catroux made his declaration of Syrian and Lebanese independence, with British guarantee. Following the evacuation of civilians from the area, the armed forces advanced north from Palestine, along the Lebanese coast toward Beirut, whilst a second branch of armed forces marched into Damascus with further support from the Royal Air Force to occupy Rayaq Airfield. Upon completion of that phase, the strategy required these combined units to direct their efforts towards Tripoli, Homs, and Palmyra.

Troops on both sides of the conflict found the mountainous terrain of Lebanon and Syria challenging, as the landscape itself became a major line of resistance in the conflict, in particularly the mountains of Bekaa. However, on the June 21, Damascus fell to the Allied forces and after intense aerial, land bombardment, and further escalation of fighting in Lebanon, on July 8, British forces had managed to reach the outskirts of Beirut.

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Bombardment of Business premises, Rue de la Victoire in Damascus, Syria (July 7, 1941)

On July 9, 1941, as Allied forces were about to occupy Beirut, the Vichy French asked for Armistice terms. The armistice was then signed at the Acre in Cairo on July 14, which brought Syria and Lebanon under Allied control. This meant that the Allied forces were to occupy the Syrian and Lebanese territory, with all war materials to be transferred over to the British, this included all public services, including means of communication, port installations, naval establishments, ships, aircraft, air installations, equipment and fuel stocks. Therefore even as the British put pressure on the Free French to implement their promise of Independence for the two countries, in practice they had already begun a process, which took the state of exception imposed in the invasion, as a way of taking control over all key infrastructure across the two states. Perceivably this might have undermined the process towards Independence, which didn’t take place smoothly or straight away.

Control by Influence ///

In the statement of intent given by the Free French leader General Catroux, with the full support of the British, on the morning of the invasion he declares:

Inhabitants of Syria and Lebanon! At the moment when the British Empire, as her ally, is entering your territory, I assume the powers, responsibilities and duties of the representative of France in the Levant. In this capacity I come to put an end to the mandatory regime and to proclaim you free and independent.

He goes onto say,

The British Government in agreement with Free French has promised to grant you all the advantages enjoyed by the free countries, which are associated with them. The blockade will be lifted and you will enter into immediate relations with the sterling bloc, which will give you enormous advantages from the point of view of your imports and exports. You will be able to buy and sell freely with all the free countries.

It becomes clear following the end of the war, that aid from Britain in the reconstruction process as well as the free trade agreement given in independence, becomes a way to gain influence in the governance of these soon to be nation-states. This is revealed in the following sinister passage from a British Top Secret report, Notes on Post-War Settlements in the Middle East, published on November 15, 1942, which states:

This system is necessitated by the fact that we have declared independent certain small Middle Eastern states, which are incapable of independence. Thus the representatives of His Majesty’s government in these countries are faced with a situation of quite extraordinary difficulty. With little or no official standing, they must really dominate and control these countries from behind the scenes.

We are dealing with an entirely new and unprecedented method of control. Control by influence is a new art, which all who serve in these countries must learn. Basic features characterises the situation in Arabia today: the division of the Arabs into two classes the governing and the governed.

It is difficult to keep an objective view of the information in these reports, however this passage makes clear that aid and the free trade agreement given by Britain was intended as a method of “control by influence.” What took place following the invasion is that British forces used the state of exception they inflicted upon these territories, orchestrating the destruction of key infrastructure by aerial bombardment, to apply a state of governance that encompassed all aspects of life. The moment of total war brought into the region, by the Second World War and its mechanic violent force, brought also a newly developed method of “control by influence.”

To underline this point, correspondence by General Spears goes some way to show how this strategy was deployed, as further evidence found in archived top secret government documents reveals British influence in negotiations over the trade of oil from Kuwait, banking, pharmaceuticals, the development of Haifa Beirut Tripoli Railway, and the reconstruction of Tripoli harbor. Where communication openly discusses “the building and exploitation of the port of Tripoli.” Here postwar redevelopment becomes a material extension of the violent force exerted in conflict and aerial bombardment, as a further mode of governance.

Conclusion: The Structural Legitimation of Violence ///

A memorandum distributed in the days following the end of the conflict by the British Foreign Office reads:

I, General Sir H. Maitland Wilson, Allied Forces in Palestine and Syria, hereby declare that anyone burning or otherwise destroying, or concealing any documents or archives relating to the Government business of Syria and the Lebanon, or related to the exercise of the Mandate, either of a Civil or Military nature, will be tried by Military Court.

In the careful and detailed narration of these events and the political conditions out of which they were born, an important historical blind spot is revealed. With the purposeful destruction or concealment of evidence relating to this military campaign, the mechanisms by which the “control by influence” takes place is largely unknown. In this sense, the destructive erasure exemplified in this historic case-study is multiple: as it takes place both in the burning of government documents relating to the history of events, and further in the reconstruction of the built environment. The following modernization of these cities, with Western influence, served to erase most material evidence of these violent events. This period, in which Beirut is often referred to as the Paris of the Middle East, marks a time of vast economic, political, social, cultural and architectural change.

The assemblage of accident and design that occurs in the invasion of Lebanon and Syria by the Allied forces during the Second World War manages to obscure the violence that was perpetrated, producing a largely overlooked discourse on these events. Where Allied democracies made strategic choices and broke democratic values, to overthrow these governments, and to prevent the influence by Axis power. All in the pursuit of control over extraction and distribution of oil found in the region.

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Before and during the bombing of the Residency in Beirut. / Photograph taken from British warplane, June 1941

The historical blind spot that occurs in relation to the affects of this conflict in Lebanon and Syria is part of a larger issue of the wider recognition of the violence perpetrated through aerial bombardment. The Nuremberg Trials, the war crimes tribunal that took place following the end of the Second World War, did not focus attention on criminalizing the widespread use of aerial bombardment. There is some legal argument that this reluctance was based on the Allied forces’ unwillingness to face legal scrutiny of its own conduct. The ability then to act with impunity and a lack of accountability for these actions set a precedent for the effective use of this method of perpetrating violence: making “military necessity” elastic in relation to the legal justification of the use aerial bombardment. What springs from the closer examination of the destruction caused by total war at this point, is an understanding of a new mode of governance instigated through the reconstruction and development of the city. This impasse, or limited capacity to restrain such violence, is witnessed then in a material layer that attempts to forms instead to control and protect the civilian against this violent force. With no real sustainable capability, as weapons continue to be designed with ever more powerful and targeted capacities. The necessity for this material shelter, however, in turn becomes a way to govern a state.

In this sense, the destructive erasure exemplified in this historic case-study is multiple, as it takes effect in the materiality of the built environment, but also in the burning of government documents relating to the history of events, and further in the manipulation of international law to legitimize this violent action. To this day the ability for international law to restrict belligerent actions during warfare particularly in relation to aerial bombardment is still progressively difficult. The precedent set at this historical moment during and after the Second World War, continues to unfold in temporal and spatial terms. As to this day the threat of aerial bombardment as a result of challenges around criminalizing this violence through international law, becomes a risk perceived by the civilian, in some circumstances, as an almost unnatural and uncontrollable force for material change. Perhaps then, can this research have more agency than merely re-narrating these events, but rather allow us to rethink these military campaigns as criminal and therefore potentially as war crimes. And what could this mean then, in terms of the way that we view the conflict being fought in the region today?