HL Deb 31 May 1945 vol 136 cc298-300

3.17 p.m.


My Lords, I apologize for having kept you waiting for a few moments. Your Lordships will have read in the Press this morning the statement which my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made in another place yesterday evening as to the serious state of affairs in Syria and the Lebanon. He undertook on that occasion to keep Parliament informed as early as he could of the decisions taken by His Majesty's Government in connexion with these deplorable incidents. He is making a statement in another place this afternoon in fulfilment of this undertaking, and he has asked me to give your Lordships a statement in similar terms. I shall therefore, with your Lordships' permission, read precisely what the Foreign Secretary is stating at this moment in another place.

The situation has deteriorated still further since last night. Our Minister in Damascus reports that there was very heavy fighting and shelling during the night and that two great fires were burning in the centre of the city, about a mile apart, but spreading. All telephone communication has been cut between Damascus and the sea coast and we are only in touch with him through the Army. An armistice was arranged with the French military authorities yesterday afternoon and the British and United States civilian colonies were evacuated from Damascus. After that the centre of the city was subjected to the heaviest and most concentrated shell fire yet directed upon it. It was also bombed from the air. The Governor of Hama has appealed to the Ninth Army to arrange an armistice in order that the many dead and wounded may be evacuated. The fighting has spread to other parts of Syria, and notably to Jebel-Druze, where French officers have been taken prisoner. The President and the Government of Syria have sent an urgent appeal to His Majesty's Government reminding us that we had endorsed the promise of independence and that we had said that the Treaty negotiations with France should be conducted freely and not under duress.

The greatest concern has been caused in the Middle East and serious fears are entertained for the state of tranquillity which is necessary in that area if a vital line of communication to the Far East is not to be disturbed. Every possible effort has been made to enjoin calm on both sides and I do not think that any further appeal in this sense would have any effect. In all the circumstances, His Majesty's Government have come to the conclusion that they cannot any longer stand aside, and the Prime Minister has accordingly to-day sent the following message to General de Gaulle: In view of the grave situation which has arisen between your troops and the Levant States, and the severe lighting which has broken out, we have, with profound regret, ordered the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, to intervene and to prevent further effusion of blood in the interests of the security of the whole Middle East which involves communications for the war against Japan. In order to avoid collision between British and French Forces we request you immediately to order the French troops to cease fire and to withdraw to their barracks. Once firing has ceased, and order has been restored, we shall be prepared to begin tripartite discussions in London. That is the end of the telegram to General de Gaulle.

I feel sure that the House will agree with me in deploring these events and will share my hope that, once order has been restored, we shall be able to resume the diplomatic initiative and to arrange a peaceful settlement which will be satisfactory to the parties concerned. We have also in mind, of course, arrangements by which the Syrian and Lebanese Governments will be associated with these discussions. We are in the closest touch with all the Governments interested, including the American Government, but I would not wish to say more about the diplomatic arrangements which we contemplate at this stage. I feel sure the House will also share my hope that nothing should be said at this stage which would make that diplomatic initiative more difficult.

3.23 p.m.


My Lords, it is a grave statement that has just been made on behalf of His Majesty's Government. I agree with the noble Lord that in a situation of such seriousness and such delicacy it would be most unwise to make any comment without an opportunity for due reflection, and indeed without further information not now available. But this I feel I can safely say, that there is not one of your Lordships in any part of this House who will not deplore the unhappy position with which we are confronted. We must hope that wise and friendly counsel may yet be accepted by all the interests concerned and the situation he speedily and satisfactorily resolved. Meanwhile, I am sure that I speak for all my colleagues on these Benches when I say that His Majesty's Government may rely on the support of my noble friends in all such steps as may be calculated to allay passion and to be effective to restore and maintain order in the areas affected and to ensure the safety of the essential lines of communication.

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure your Lordships' House will be grateful to the noble Lord the Acting Leader of the House for this early communication on the grave turn of events in Syria. Unhappily, friction between the French and the Syrians is not new. I had the honour to be High Commissioner in Palestine some twenty years ago and was well aware even then of the tension that existed between them. Happily we were not involved in any of these disagreements and our own relations with the French authorities were excellent. Those who know the delicate position in that part of the world and how disturbances May spread like wildfire over large areas cannot but feel a deep concern at the present condition of affairs. Your Lordships will not regard this as an occasion for a discussion in this House of these events. Our position is indeed a sad one. Allies of the French we are also friends of the Arabs, and deeply regret that there should arise disagreement between those two parties. The only object of His Majesty's Government will be to promote pacification and in that they may be sure of the support of my noble friends who sit upon these Benches, in common with all other members of your Lordships' House.