Damascus cafe in 2010

Damascus cafe in 2010

Anzacs and War – Considering a Syrian Perspective

By Susan Dirgham


Australians have had a connection with the people of Syria since the First World War, when the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or “Anzacs,” fought in Greater Syria under the Imperial Forces. Syria was then part of the Ottoman Empire, but beyond the Great War, the defeat of Turkey and the assent of the League of Nations enabled France to enforce its mandate on Syria with guns and bombs. It wasn’t until 1946 that Syria became an independent, sovereign nation. But its independence soon came under threat. It was in Damascus that the CIA orchestrated its first successful military coup. After this, Syria faced decades of instability and peril, instability marked by foreign interference and peril as a result of wars and conflict in neighbouring countries, which led to Syria’s providing a safe haven for millions of refugees. Since October 1918, when Anzacs were in the vanguard of ‘liberating’ troops in Damascus, foreign countries have routinely trampled on the independent spirit of Syrians expressed in their national anthem.

“Guardians of the homeland, upon you be peace,

[our] proud spirits refuse to be humiliated.

The den of Arabism is a sacred sanctuary,

and the throne of the suns is a preserve that will not be subjugated.”

Today, Syria’s borders and the nation’s very existence are under threat. For one hundred years, Australia’s support for its allies’ overt and covert actions in Syria and the propaganda accompanying it has meant Australia has helped determine Syria’s fate; hence, the lives of millions. This is truer today than ever.

Australia’s response to the war in Syria may determine the nation we become in the 21st century. How much has Australia’s stand on the war in Syria been cynically determined by Australia’s perceived economic and strategic interests? Have the values we profess been compromised through our official response to Syria, reflected most in the narrative of Australia’s principal public broadcaster, the ABC?

Can we continue to be disingenuous and dismissive of Syrians who are the victims of not only an extremist ideology but also the interference of foreign powers? Today, Australia’s population includes hundreds of thousands who are linked through family and/or faith to the Middle East, some enmeshed directly in wars there. If we continue to be dishonest, ungenerous and cynical in our approach to Syria, we jeopardise our social cohesion.

One hundred years ago, the connections between Australians and Syrians were loose. In fact, records suggest that generally Anzacs had no regard for the welfare of the people of Syria. Today, to compromise our values and so continue to dissemble and dismiss the pain of people in a weaker position vis-à-vis our powerful friends greatly imperils us.

Relying on the Anzac tradition to determine a dominant picture of our country perpetuates a moribund myth and is dismissive of the contributions millions of non-Anglo Australians make to the wealth, traditions and well-being of our nation. Indigenous Australians must be at the core of a new Australia. Australia can afford no longer to be exclusive and parochial. It needs old and new heroes. Australia needs a heart. Syria challenges us to find a beating one.

Australians and Syrians Connect

On a crisp winter’s morning in December 2008, a group of university students from Melbourne began their tour of Syria with a visit to the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Damascus, where over 250 Australian soldiers are buried.  I had organized their itinerary and I’d invited an Australian Army officer to speak to the students. (The officer, a veteran of the war in Iraq, had been seconded to the UN Peace-keeping Mission in the Golan Heights and was based in Damascus.)

In both world wars, Australian soldiers had been pivotal in helping ‘liberate’ Damascus from two foreign armies: first the Turks in 1918, and then the Vichy French in 1941. The well-tended graves and the signatures of Australians in the Visitors Book at the cemetery in Damascus, reputedly the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, have been a testament to the connection between the two peoples.

On that sunny winter’s morning in Damascus, the young officer especially commended the people of Syria.

“…The truth of it is I’ve made friends here that I’ll keep for life and the hospitality which I think you guys will see over the next couple of weeks while you are here from the Syrian people is unrivalled.  They will give you the shirt off their back, literally. …The Syrian people are amazing … they have a real strength about them and you can’t help but admire that aspect of their personality and their psyche as a culture.  They’re very, very good people.  And very, very welcoming….So the things that I will remember fondly … is the people, certainly.”

Like this soldier, I hold the people of Syria in high esteem. It is the hundreds of Syrians I met while teaching English at the British Council in Damascus that motivate me to be an anti-war activist today.  Neither the soldier nor I categorized Syrians as Muslim or Christian or Sunni or Shia or Protestant or Catholic or… or… . It was the Syrian people we honoured.

Commonwealth War Cemetery in Damascus

Commonwealth War Cemetery in Damascus

Anzacs Fought for their “Lord the King”

My family connection with Syria began almost 100 years ago. The war records of my maternal grandfather, a member of the 8th Light Horse Regiment (which joined other regiments to form the 3rd Light Horse Brigade), reveal he was in Damascus on 4 October 1918, the day T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) departed it.

When he joined the army, my grandfather signed the following oath:

Norman Lees, a member of 8th Light Horse, photo taken in Cairo in 1915

Norman Lees, a member of 8th Light Horse, photo taken in Cairo in 1915

I, Norman Lees, swear that I will well and truly serve our sovereign Lord the King in the Australian Imperial Force from 6 January 1915 until the end of the war, and a further period of four months thereafter…  I shall resist his Majesty’s enemies and cause his Majesty’s peace to be kept and maintained…

Was it a simple matter of King and country for my grandfather? Or, like me, did he give consideration to the aspirations of the people of Syria? I guess not. Norman Lees was a Melbourne plumber; in 1918, there would have been an impenetrable cultural and racial gulf between him and his counterparts in Syria. My grandfather never gave me reason to believe he was a bigot or a racist. However, even in the early 1970s when I spent a summer holiday with a family in Bougainville, some Australian expatriates in PNG might have said accusingly I had ‘gone native’, a term coined to indicate someone had taken on the point of view or lifestyle of an allegedly less civilized people. Hence, in the second decade of the nineteenth century, Norman Lees was not likely to have befriended any locals in Syria, unless, of course, he was instructed to do so for the empire.

A War for Supremacy or A War for Freedom?

On 1 October 1918, Anzacs in the 3rd Light Horse Brigade were the first of the British Imperial Forces to enter Damascus.  The legendary T.E. Lawrence and Arabic fighters were close behind.

The Ottoman Empire had ruled Greater Syria for almost four hundred years, but with the increasing oppression and cruelty of the Turkish forces, the people of Damascus had little reason to regret their departure. Even intellectuals from prominent Turkish Syrian families were prepared to join the Arab revolt against Constantinople’s rule.

With the departure of Turkish forces, Syria had a chance to become an independent nation. However, a secret agreement (the Sykes-Picot Agreement) between British and French governments determined the carving up of Greater Syria by these two colonial powers.

Any promises of freedom and independence that Lawrence of Arabia may have made to persuade Arab leaders to fight against the Ottomans were not to be honoured. Although it distressed Lawrence to deceive Arab friends he had made, he was not conflicted in his loyalties: he was an Empire man. However, his vision for Arab countries was that they be members of the British Commonwealth, not countries subjugated by colonial powers.

Despite his sensibilities, as an Arabist and as someone with ambitions for the British Empire, T.E. Lawrence proved ideal for his work in military and political espionage. At the start of the war, it was thwarting French ambitions in the Middle East that obsessed Lawrence. England and France were traditional foes, and he would have studied the Anglo-French wars, which dotted British history over centuries. But in WW1, they were on the same side. In Syria, the British Imperial Forces (so the Anzacs), the French and their local allies were fighting the Turks, the Germans and their local allies.

Yet, Lawrence’s obsession with France early on reminds us that the Great War was a battle between European empires for hegemony. Politicians and military strategists knew that for a country to extend its empire, it needed a strong navy. Consequently, after the introduction of Dreadnought battleships – ships that relied on oil rather than coal – control over Middle East oil resources became critical. Because of its strategic position in an oil-rich region, Syria then, as today, was inevitably going to become a battle field.

Making Use of Arab Nationalism

During the war, Lawrence used Arab nationalism as a means to unite tribal leaders and overthrow the Turks.  At the time many urban Syrians intellectuals, some who had studied abroad, were fired with enthusiasm to develop their country. But Lawrence didn’t support efforts for modernization or development, and he had contempt for the ‘townsmen’, though most Syrians lived in cities or towns. His vision for Syria may have been romantic, but it was ultimately regressive and his focus was on recruiting tribal leaders, not scholars or public servants.

Britain, which had a grand design for a new-look Middle East, set a pattern for rewarding those Arab leaders they favoured, those that complied.  The British plan included the break-up of what was termed the Islamic ‘bloc’ to ensure the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.  The Anzac Light Horse regiments were the ‘shock troops’, necessary for the success of this plan and British and French dominance in the region.

Ironically, the Arab forces fighting with T.E. Lawrence flew the Flag of the Arab Revolt, a flag reportedly designed by the leader of the Arab nationalists, Hussein ibn Ali, and British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes, who had been a signatory to the secret agreement carving up Greater Syria. An independent, free Arab nation was not on Sykes’ mind when he worked on the design of the flag.

What Syrians Wanted

So my grandfather along with his comrades in the 8th Light Horse Regiment entered Damascus on behalf of the Empire. But after the expulsion of the Turks, Syrians did not want to submit to another great power. For them, the end of the war meant they could create a nation free from foreign interference.

In 1919, an American Commission sought the views of people across Greater Syria, which then included Palestine, Lebanon, areas of Turkey, and, of course, Syria as we know it today.  The subsequent King-Crane Report indicated that the vast majority of Syrians wished for “complete political independence for Syria”.  The recommendations of the report were ignored, and it wasn’t made public until three years later.

The American Commission’s efforts to ascertain the wishes of the Syrian people seemed benign, even worthy. However, the 20th century gave cause for Syrians to suspect the intentions of all great powers, including the U.S.

The seeds for the foreign interference in Syrian affairs today were planted a long time ago.

War Propaganda and the U.S.

The United States didn’t officially enter the First World War until April 1917.  By participating in the war even at that late stage, America was in a position to ‘shape the peace’.

Today, what is most relevant about America’s participation in WW 1 was the U.S. government’s reliance on a sophisticated propaganda machine to ensure mass support for its participation. The Committee on Public Information (CPI) was created by President Wilson to promote the war and it successfully used newspapers, academics, artists, and filmmakers to do just that:

“The CPI blended advertising techniques with a sophisticated understanding of human psychology, and its efforts represent the first time that a modern government disseminated propaganda on such a large scale.  It is fascinating that this phenomenon, often linked with totalitarian regimes, emerged in a democratic state.” (Ref: Of Fraud and Force Fast Woven: Domestic Propaganda During The First World War)

There were guidelines for journalists who wanted to stay in the ‘official loop’ and there was virtual censorship of dissenting voices.

The United States may not have had a direct stake in Syria’s future immediately after WW 1 as France and Britain plotted to control Greater Syria. However, the U.S. did interfere directly in Syrian affairs once France finally withdrew its forces.

In 1949, two years after Syrians had voted in the first elections held since Syria became an independent state, the CIA helped orchestrate the first successful military coup in the new nation, so helping to usher in two decades of political instability.

The introduction to the 1982 CIA report, “Syria: Muslim Brotherhood Pressure Intensifies”, indicates why the United States might have an interest in undermining the Syrian government. (Some reading between the lines may be necessary.):

“Syria is a crucial player in the Middle East equation because of its involvement in the Arab-Israeli problem, its presence in Lebanon, and its unique relationship with the Soviet Union. The stability of the Assad government is an area of extreme concern since it could have a direct impact not only on the Middle East peace process and regional stability, but on US-Soviet relations as well.”

Foreign Interference in Syria

As it does today, foreign interference in Syrian affairs dominated the history of Syria in the 20th century. This is something Syrians would be well aware of; however, timelines presented to a western readership today tend to ignore it, and instead focus on the ascension of the Ba’ath Party in Syria with particular emphasis given to the coup that brought Hafiz al-Assad to power in 1970. Focusing on the interference of great and regional powers in Syria over the 20th century can present a perspective closer to that of a Syrian citizen’s. For example, it helps explain why Syrians might be dubious about any French or British claims to represent their interests, and highly suspicious, too, of the intentions of the United States and any ‘opposition’ groups it funds in the 21st century. For mainstream Syrians, fighting for Syria against countries intent on forcing it into submission has defined national heroes.

Timeline – Syria in the 20th Century

  • 6 May 1915: Twenty-one Arab intellectuals and nationalists were hanged by Turkish authorities in the city squares of Damascus and Beirut. It is commemorated as Martyrs’ Day, a national holiday in Syria
  • 16 May 1916: The Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed; it was a secret British and French agreement to divide Greater Syria between Britain and France
  • 1 Oct 1918: The Anzac 3rd Light Horse Brigade entered Damascus, followed soon after by T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Forces
  • 31 Oct 1918: Armistice concluded with Turkey but there was trouble in towns north of Aleppo as Turkish forces under the command of General Ali Ihsan created disturbances (NB: General Ihsan had been implicated in the massacre of Armenians)
  • 10 Dec 1918: A Massacre is committed by Anzacs in the village of Surafend, Palestine, then part of Greater Syria
  • July 1919: The General Syrian Congress declared Syria sovereign and free. Arabic became the official language of Syria
  • March 1920: Syrian nationalists declared Syria’s independence; the Kingdom of Syria was established with Faysal al-Hashimi as king
  • April 1920: The Arab world was partitioned into mandates; the San Remo Conference imposed French governance over SyriaJuly 1920: The French army entered Syria; King Faisal surrendered. However, Yusuf al-‘Azma, Faisal’s minister of war and chief of staff, ignored the King’s surrender and led a small army to confront the French advance not far from Damascus. Yusuf al-‘Azma was killed and his forces defeated
  • 1 Sept 1920: The French High Commissioner declared that the ‘State of Greater Lebanon’ was thereby separated from Syria; hence, overnight families found they lived in different countries
  • 24 July 1920: The League of Nations formally approved the French Mandate of Syria
  • 2 Dec 1922: The King-Crane Report was published, but too late for the views of Syrians to be heeded
  • Sept 29, 1923: The League of Nations officially assigned Syria and Lebanon under the French Mandate
  • Oct 1925: French aerial and artillery bombardment led to the destruction of a large section of the old city of Damascus and many deaths
  • March 1926: French Governor-General Maurice Sarrail bombed Damascus for 48 hours; around 1,500 people were reportedly killed
  • 1925-1927: The Great Syrian Revolt; To weaken Arab nationalism, France divided Syria into states based to some extent on the sectarian make-up of regions. Most Syrians opposed the French mandate and the division into states, so there were revolts in all the Syrian states
  • 1938: The Syrian national anthem was written – its words reflect the independent and proud spirit of the people of Syria
  • 1939: In the lead up to WW2, to discourage Turkey from allying with Nazi Germany, France ceded the Syrian province of Alexandretta to Turkey; Turkey signed a mutual aid pact with France and Britain
  • June 1941: Indian and Australian soldiers together with British and Free French forces defeated the Vichy French in Damascus
  • 1941: Syria declared itself an independent nation, but de Gaulle’s Free French considered Syria came under French rule still
  • July/Sept 1944: Despite French opposition, first the Soviet Union and then the United States granted Syria unconditional recognition as a sovereign state
  • March 1945: Syria became a charter member of the United Nations
  • May 1945: (Free) French troops shelled the Syrian parliament and attempted to arrest government leaders; around 500 people were killed
  • Feb 1946: A UN resolution called on France to evacuate Syria
  • April 15 1946: All French troops were off Syrian soil
  • April 17 1946: Syria celebrated Evacuation Day, which became a national holiday.
  • July 1947: The first democratic elections in Syria were held
  • 1948 and onwards: Tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees fled their towns and villages to Syria
  • 1949: The CIA organized its first successful military coup in Syria; it was authorized by President Truman; a key CIA agent involved was Miles Copeland Jnr, a former trumpet player in the Glenn Miller band; Syrian Army Chief of Staff Husni Zaim overthrew President Shukri Quwatly.

In 1949, Deane Hinton, a State Department political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, declared: “I want to go on record as saying that this is the stupidest, most irresponsible action a diplomatic mission like ours could get itself involved in, and that we’ve started a series of these things that will never end.” Washington’s Long History in Syria, by Ernesto J. Sanchez, July 12, 2013

  • 29 Nov 1951: U.S.-backed military coup installed a president friendly to Washington (Ref: Douglas Little)
  • June 1955: Those charged with the assassination of Col. Adnan Malki in April 1955 reportedly planned a coup to overthrow the government and approached U.S. authorities for support
  • March 1956: British PM Anthony Eden and Foreign Minister Selwyn Lloyd decided to authorize the British Secret Intelligence Service to mount Operation Straggle to “establish in Syria a Government more friendly to the West”, using covert operations which included staged border incidents in Turkey, the mobilization of various rural tribes, the use of right-wing guerrillas, and even perhaps the Iraqi military; the Iraqi government gave financial support to ‘opposition’(Ref: Bonnie Saunders)
  • 1957: ‘Harold Macmillan and President Dwight Eisenhower approved a CIA-MI6 plan to stage fake border incidents as an excuse for an invasion by Syria’s pro-western neighbours and then to ‘eliminate’ three leading figures in Damascus. This was in response to concerns that Syria was pro-Soviet and the fact that Syria had ‘control of one of the main oil arteries of the Middle East, the pipeline which connected pro-western Iraq’s oilfields to Turkey’. (Ref: Macmillan backed Syria assassination plot, by Bed Fenton, The Guardian 27 Sep 2003)
  • Aug 12 1957: The Syrian government announced the discovery of an American-engineered coup attempt. Syrian army surrounded the U.S. embassy in Damascus; “the U.S., along with Turkey and Iraq, was considering an action that could have escalated into a full-scale, Soviet-U.S. confrontation” (See Wikipedia: The Syrian Crisis of 1957)

“The American mistake in Syria from August through November of 1957 was representative of recurrent post-World War 2 actions cloaked in containment doctrine that consistently mischaracterized local, national struggles in much larger, and inappropriate American Cold War terms.”   THE SYRIAN CRISIS OF 1957: A LESSON FOR THE 21st CENTURY, by Kevin Brown p.23

  • Feb 1958: Syria and Egypt (under President Nasser) united to form the United Arab Republic
  • Sep 1961: The UAR broke up after a right-wing coup backed by Jordan and Saudi Arabia (Ref: Patrick Seale)
  • 1962: Egyptian agents, funds and explosives poured into Syria across the Lebanese border
  • 1963: A state of emergency was declared by Amin al-Hafez, president of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command
  • 1964: Amin al-Hafez crushed a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama
  • 1965: Amin al-Hafez ordered the execution of Eli Cohen, a Mossad spy who had befriended him
  • 1966: Following a coup, Amin al-Hafez took refuge in Iraq
  • June 1967: Israel destroyed the Egyptian and Syrian air forces; killed 10,000 Egyptian soldiers in four days; attacked the USS Liberty, killing American sailors; attacked and occupied Syria’s Golan Heights, expelling around 120,000 inhabitants (Ref: Patrick Seale)
  • Nov 1967: UN Security Council Resolution 242 was passed

In 2008, Robert Fisk wrote the following about Resolution 242: “It was passed in November 1967, after Israel had occupied Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Sinai and Golan, and it emphasises “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and calls for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict”…. The Israelis say that they are not required to withdraw from all the territories – because the word “all” is missing and since the definite article “the” is missing before the word “territories”, its up to Israel to decide which bits of the occupied territories it gives up and which bits it keeps.”

Mention of Syria in Yidon’s essay: “The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unqiue areas such as in Lebanon, is Israel’s primary target on the Eastern front in the long run, while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short term target. Syria will fall apart, in accordance with its ethnic and religious structure, into several states such as in present day Lebanon, so that there will be a Shi’ite Alawi state along its coast, a Sunni state in the Aleppo area, another Sunni state in Damascus hostile to its northern neighbor, and the Druzes who will set up a state, maybe even in our Golan, and certainly in the Hauran and in northern Jordan. This state of affairs will be the guarantee for peace and security in the area in the long run, and that aim is already within our reach today.”    Ref: “Greater Israel”: The Zionist Plan for the Middle East, The Infamous “Oded Yinon Plan“. Introduction by Michel Chossudovsky (Global Research, 29 April 2013)

This 20th century timeline focusing on some of the foreign interference in Syria indicates that whether Australia’s role in regards to Syria is magnanimous or perfidious depends on the allies we choose, not on any good intentions we may have towards Syrians.

Then and Now

The possible reasons presented below explaining American and British covert action in Syria would not impress proud Syrians, nor should they impress decent Australians.

“In 1949, the US orchestrated a military coup in Syria to oust its Nationalist president and bring to power a more compliant government—one amenable to a trans-Arabian pipeline to bring oil to the US and Europe, and one amenable to negotiations with Israel and receipt of Palestinian refugees. A pattern of coups followed as the American and British intelligence services sought to hold back the Syrian impetus toward socialism and nationalism. By the late 60’s Syria was able to defy flagrant Western interference, but not its scorn. . . .” (Ref: Hezbollah: An Outsider’s Inside View, by Brenda Heard)



  1. The Australian Light Horse, by Roland Perry (Hachette Australia, 2009),
  2. Lawrence of Arabia, The Selected Letters, edited by Malcolm Brown (Little Books Ltd, 2005)
  3. The King-Crane Report – World War 1 Document Archive
  4. French Syria (1919 – 1946), University of Central Arkansas  (webpage)
  5. Cold War and Covert Action: The United States and Syria, 1945 – 1958, by Douglas Little, Middle East Journal, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Winter, 1990), pp. 51-75
  6. The United States and Arab Nationalism: The Syrian Case, 1953 – 1960, by Bonnie F. Saunders, Greenwood Publishing Group
  7. ASAD, The Struggle for the Middle East, by Patrick Seale (University of California Press, 1988)
  8. “Greater Israel”: The Zionist Plan for the Middle East, The Infamous “Oded Yinon Plan“. Introduction by Michel Chossudovsky (Global Research, 29 April 2013)
  9. Of Fraud and Force Fast Woven: Domestic Propaganda During The First World War, essay by Aaron Delwiche


By Susan Dirgham, July 2015. Susan taught for 2 years at the British Council in Damascus and is the National Coordinator of “Australians for Reconciliation in Syria”

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