As the situation in Syria continues along its dire path the discussion, Mat Hardy looks at Australia's long history of military involvement in the region.
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The Conversation
20 Sep 2012 - 2:00 PM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 10:48 AM

By Mat Hardy, Deakin University

As the situation in Syria continues along its dire path the discussion of a possible military intervention also persists. According to the UN Secretary General, there is no feasible military means of ending the conflict, an assessment that has been blindingly obvious since the start of the meltdown. With an election year in America and the Europeans burnt by involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, no-one is willing to stick their hands in the meat grinder.

But perhaps the Australians could go? After all, we have a strong track record of successfully invading Syria.

With all the focus on campaigns like Gallipoli and Kokoda, it's not well known that Australia fought battles in Syria during both World Wars. And in both these campaigns Diggers were present at the capture of Damascus.

The Australian Light Horse monument in modern-day Beer-sheva

In WW1, Australian units were part of the Sinai-Palestine campaign, a British effort to drive the Ottomans out of the Middle East. Running for nearly four years, some of the Anzac troops that ended up in Gallipoli had their first taste of action defending the Suez Canal from a weak Ottoman thrust. But most of the Australian glory in this part of the war gets heaped on the units of the Anzac Mounted Division and the famous charge at Beersheba.

However, as the Ottoman grip on the region began to really unravel in the final months of the war, the horsemen were at it again. After the climactic battle of Megiddo in late September 1918, Australian Light Horse units trotted into Damascus unopposed on the 1st of October and took the official surrender of the thousands of Ottoman troops garrisoned there. This incensed Brits like T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), and the propaganda of the time deliberately covered up the Australian coup.

Perhaps even less well known is that Australian forces fought some bloody battles in Syria during the Second World War. And bizarrely, this was against the French. Vichy forces were occupying Syria and the Brits wanted them out. Based in Palestine, the Australian 7th Division was part of the team and fought a series of battles in the drive through Lebanon and Syria.

If there is a famous aspect to this campaign it is probably the action of Lieutenant Roden Cutler, whose last ditch stand against some attacking French tanks and cool direction of artillery fire lost him a leg but gained him a Victoria Cross in compensation. He later went on to become Governor of NSW and was knighted three times.

Roden Cutler VC

Another celebrity of the Australian campaign was Moshe Dayan. A Jewish resident of Palestine, he served as a scout and interpreter with a small Australian reconnaissance unit operating covertly behind enemy lines. During the Battle of the Litani River, Dayan was looking through binoculars when they were struck by a sniper's bullet. He lost an eye, gained a piratical patch and a long military career, becoming Israel's most recognisable general before moving on to becoming Defence Minister and Foreign Minister.

Australian troops move through an old Crusader castle in Sidon, Lebanon.
Following in their fathers' footsteps, Australian forces were involved in the capture of Damascus in June 1941. Most of the heavy fighting was done by British and Indian troops against a determined Vichy defence. Arriving as reinforcements, the Australian were just in time to take part in the occupation of Damascus and its suburbs as the Axis collaborators finally collapsed. The Diggers went on to further battles before capturing Beirut in July, effectively ending the Vichy presence in the region.

The action in WW2 meant that Australian forces had been a part of successful campaign in Syria twice in 23 years. Their two-time involvement in the capture of Damascus makes them only the last in a long list of conquerors who have over-run this, one of the oldest continually-settled locations in the world.

Who will be next on the list is anybody's guess.

Mat Hardy does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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