The Syria–Lebanon campaign, also known as Operation Exporter, was the British invasion of Vichy French Syria and Lebanon from June–July 1941, during the Second World War. The French had ceded autonomy to Syria in September 1936, with the right to maintain armed forces and two airfields in the territory.
On 1 April 1941, the 1941 Iraqi coup d'état had taken place and Iraq had come under the control of Iraqi nationalists led by Rashid Ali, who appealed for German support. The Anglo-Iraqi War (2–31 May 1941) led to the overthrow of the Ali regime and the installation of a British puppet government. The British invaded Syria and Lebanon in June, to prevent Nazi Germany from using the Vichy French-controlled Syrian Republic and French Lebanon as bases for attacks on the Kingdom of Egypt, during an invasion scare in the aftermath of the German victories in the Battle of Greece (6–30 April 1941) and the Battle of Crete (20 May – 1 June). In the Western Desert Campaign (1940–1943) in North Africa, the British were preparing Operation Battleaxe to relieve the Siege of Tobruk and were fighting the East African Campaign (10 June 1940 – 27 November 1941) in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The Vichy French made a vigorous defence of Syria; but, on 10 July, as the 21st Australian Brigade was on the verge of entering Beirut, the French sought an armistice. At one minute past midnight on 12 July, a ceasefire came into effect and ended the campaign. The Armistice of Saint Jean d'Acre (Convention of Acre) was signed on 14 July at the Sidney Smith Barracks on the outskirts of the city. Time magazine referred to the fighting as a "mixed show" while it was taking place and the campaign remains little known, even in the countries that took part. There is evidence that the British censored reportage of the fighting because politicians believed that hostilities against French forces could have a negative effect on public opinion in English-speaking countries.
In May 1941, Admiral François Darlan on behalf of Vichy France signed the Paris Protocols, an agreement with the Germans. The protocols granted Germany access to military facilities in Vichy-controlled Syria. The protocols remained unratified, but Charles Huntziger, the Vichy Minister of War, sent orders to Henri Dentz, the High Commissioner for the Levant, to allow aircraft of the German Luftwaffe and Italian Regia Aeronautica to refuel in Syria. Marked as Iraqi aircraft, Axis aircraft under Fliegerführer Irak landed in Syria, en route to the Kingdom of Iraq during the Anglo-Iraqi War. The Germans also requested permission from the Vichy authorities to use Syrian railways to send armaments to Iraqi nationalists in Mosul. General Archibald Percival Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief of Middle East Command, was reluctant to intervene in Syria, despite government prodding, because of the situation in the Western Desert, the imminent German attack on Crete and doubts about Free French pretensions.
Dentz was Commander in Chief of the Armée du Levant (Army of the Levant), which had regular metropolitan colonial troops and troupes spéciales (special troops, indigenous Syrian and Lebanese soldiers). There were seven infantry battalions of regular French troops at his disposal, which included the 6th Infantry Regiment of the French Foreign Legion, the 24th Colonial Infantry Regiment and eleven infantry battalions of "special troops", including at least 5,000 cavalry in horsed and motorized units, two artillery groups and supporting units. The Vichy garrison numbered 45,000 troops, comprising 35,000 regulars including 8,000 French and 10,000 Syrian and Lebanese infantry. The French had 90 tanks (according to British estimates), the Armée de l'Air de Vichy (Vichy French Air Force) had 90 aircraft (increasing to 289 aircraft after reinforcement) and the Marine Nationale (French Navy) had two destroyers, Guépard and Valmy, and three submarines.