I had to inform the House last night of a very serious situation which has developed in Syria, where there is fighting between Syrians and French troops, and I promised to keep the House fully informed, as early as I could, of any decision His Majesty's Government might take. The situation has deteriorated still further since last night. Our Minister in Damascus reports that there were heavy firing and shelling during the night, and that two great fires were burning in the centre of the city, about one mile apart but spreading. All telephone communication has been cut between Damascus and the sea coast and we are only in touch with His Majesty's Minister by wireless. An armistice was arranged with the French military authorities yesterday afternoon and 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. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] 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, notably Jebel Druse, 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 have endorsed the promise of independence and that we have also said that the treaty negotiations with France should be conducted freely and not under duress. The greatest concern has been caused throughout the Middle East and serious fears are entertained for the state of tranquillity which is so 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 a 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 fighting which has broken out, we have, with profound regret, ordered the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, to intervene to prevent the 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 here in London.'
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 abe to resume the diplomatic initiative which I mentioned last night, and to arrange a peaceful settlement which will be satisfactory to the parties concerned. We also have in mind, of course, arrangements by which the Syrian and Lebanese Governments will be associated with. these discussions. We are. in closest touch with all the Governments concerned, including the United States 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 shall be said at this stage which would make that diplomatic initiative more difficult.
I am sure everybody will agree in deploring these events and the bloodshed between our Allies, and, under those circumstances, we have no option, with our responsibilities, but to endeavour to restore order. We all hope that negotiations may be resumed, and I would ask the Foreign Secretary—I am sure he will agree—that if we can get this settled, the sooner we can get both the French troops and our own out of Syria the better.
I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said, and I am in entire agreement with everything that he has said. Our desire throughout has been to get a settlement of this troublesome business, and I think it is abundantly clear to all—and I am glad he has underlined it—that we desire to withdraw our troops the moment a settlement can be reached.
I would like, if I have any influence, to use it to get the French Government—the strong Government in this situation—to ease off. It is a terrible thing that there should have been such a situation, and I hope the effort to get the French Government to ease off and to allow negotiations to take place will succeed, but I would like above everything else to impress on the Leader of the House, arising out of the letter sent by the Prime Minister—which I hope will have a good effect—that we must, at all costs, avoid a further extension of the conflict in the form of the British Forces coming into conflict with the French Forces. That would be very terrible.
I think the House, which has watched the events for some weeks, and especially in the last few days, will understand how immensely anxious we have been to avoid this very situation. We have not acted until our over-all responsibility was so serious that we simply had to act, or stand by and see a situation develop which would have shamed us all. I need not tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no one more anxious than I am to see that this matter does not result in any serious injury to Anglo-French relations and, if our French Friends will do as we have asked and asked them repeatedly to do, to resolve these difficult issues, they will be welcomed in London and we shall do our utmost to make those conversations a success.