890D.01/617: Telegram

The Consul at Beirut (Gwynn) to the Secretary of State

258. Reference my 246, July 13, especially to part concerning British Free French relations in this territory. Iraqi Consul General29a has spoken to me on this subject on several occasions and at some length. He thinks situation most serious and that French and British by constant quarreling and bickering are preparing ground here perfectly for action by fifth column, when their vital interests would require them to present solid front. In his opinion British officials here wish ultimately to force French out of Levant and then take their place under one guise or another; however, they can’t act openly toward this end as they must consider reaction which would ensue in other parts of world particularly in France and England itself. They are [Page 602] therefore pushing Lebanese and Syrians to insist on independence as means of diminishing French position here without disclosing their hand too openly. This however they do only spasmodically as their policy is not settled but seems to go by fits and starts. Consul General thinks British don’t want to make any real decision re this country at present time but wish to keep all possibilities open for later period when sailing may be smoother. … he judges policy now being followed by local British, or rather their lack of fixed policy, most severely. He would prefer British rather than French have dominant position here but thinks it of paramount importance that they make up their minds at once as to what they want, that they work together and that one person be given unquestioned authority to act. At present country is in state of anarchy and anything can happen.

The Consul General is anxious to have me undertake campaign to convince British that policy they are pursuing, including as it does a series of promises of independence to which they themselves do not take seriously and which local people see through, can only lead to disaster. He thinks I might also serve as useful intermediary between British and French. While naturally most anxious to help I am very hesitant about putting myself forward until I have a clearer idea than at present of Department’s attitude as to future of Levant States. I am aware that United States Government has consistently refused to place these territories in same category as French colonies and surmise that recent declaration of our policy as regards Free France does not necessarily apply to Levant States.

I should also hesitate to interject myself into Franco-British quarrels unless definitely asked to do so. As Department is aware Mr. Engert shortly before leaving here30 went to considerable lengths in trying to patch up their affairs, see his telegrams especially 151, April 29, but I fear without concrete or favorable results.

Relations between Catroux and Spears seem worse than ever. I think things have reached such a pass that no satisfactory arrangement can be reached while they are both here. They see each other seldom and their correspondence is only superficially polite. Their differences are taken up by subordinates and not even simple problems can be solved satisfactorily as political consideration is always present. Catroux told me July 14 he would ask me to call soon for long talk. He has not yet done so, probably being occupied with recent riots.

Same day I visited President of Lebanon at his request. He wished to know if it might not be possible for United States Government to do something to restore order in this country. His complaints were all against Spears who is making visits to local, particularly religious, authorities in effort to overthrow Naccache government. President [Page 603] said he had refused to see Spears for last 2 months and he thought spectacle of Minister of foreign power engaged openly in overthrowing Government to which he is accredited must be unique in history. I told President whom I have known for years that situation was so complex I should prefer to have written documents before sending such request to Department. He said he would send me communication so secret it would be in his own writing but it has not arrived yet.

I may add parenthetically that Naccache told me that Spears speaking of the Free French had asked him “What are you waiting for to kick them out of the country, they are living at our expense and cost us a lot. Give them a little something in the way of an indemnity and they will leave content”.

For the last week all of the attention of the French and Lebanese officials has been given to the question of bread. The riots and strikes reported in my 255 of July 18, noon [8 a.m.],31 came to an end on Sunday the 19th, the authorities having scraped together enough wheat to satisfy the most urgent needs of Beirut for a few days but the situation remains most grave and much more serious trouble is to be expected very shortly.

The Wheat Office is apparently going to be a failure. I am told by a source who is certainly trustworthy that a large part of the wheat crop has already been smuggled out of Syria into Turkey where prices are four times as high as the officially established prices here. The frontier is uncontrollable, it being chiefly the railroad itself, and once the wheat is on the north side of the tracks it is Turkish wheat. The same person said that the Germans have established purchasing officers along the frontier. Wheat is also smuggled into Iraq and shipped by rail to Turkey as Iraqi produce. Word has been spread from Damascus to the villages that the English and French wish to store all the country’s wheat in large centers so that it can easily be destroyed when they evacuate the country and “scorch the earth” and the peasants are advised to keep their wheat at any cost. The large land owners and big merchants are of course opposed to any governmental interference in their money making and these persons are very powerful in Syria. The Minister of Ravitaillement in that country, Hikmat Vey Haraki, owns 30 villages in northern Syria and is known to be combatting the Wheat Office in an underhand manner. He and many others are possibly more interested in their own fortunes than in public welfare.

The population thinks of little but its daily food which among the poor is normally almost exclusively bread, and the fear of a famine winter has become a general obsession particularly among the Lebanese where the memory of mass starvation during the last war is still most vivid.

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Every thinking person here is agreed that very hard times are ahead. To face the situation there should be one person in charge whose authority is recognized and unquestioned. That will not be the case I think until the relations between the British and the French are satisfactorily settled and I doubt whether this can be done at Beirut as long as both Catroux and Spears are here. I should think it would have to be done in London and it is quite possible that our influence could make itself very usefully felt there.

At the risk of repetition I should like to emphasize that there seems to be nothing but good feeling and mutual respect between General Catroux and General Wilson, head of the Ninth Army. I do not think that the high French officials here are systematically anglophobe. They appear most reasonable but to have decided that there is no getting along with Spears. They speak highly of his Counselor of Legation, John Hamilton, a Foreign Office career man with whom things went smoothly during Spears’ long absence last winter. He, however, has been allowed to do nothing since Spears’ return. It has come to my knowledge that some of Spears’ assistants have no sympathy with him and speak most disparagingly about him.

The Free French personnel and administration are not above criticism and General Catroux may be weak. I am told that he appears to dislike being assailed with the many difficulties that are forced upon him. However he is very generally and highly respected as a gentleman and soldier. It is [agreed by?] most that he and his staff could give a better account of themselves if they did not have to face constantly the opposition of certain Britishers and that instigated, encouraged or condoned by them.

If the British and the French could sincerely agree, the opposition displayed by a part of the Lebanese and Syrians would probably ebb to comparative insignificance unless the military position takes a decided turn for the worse. In any case the situation will be serious.

  1. Tahsin Qadri.
  2. Mr. Engert relinquished charge as Consul General at Beirut on June 13, 1942, and went to Afghanistan to take up his duties as Minister there.
  3. Not printed.