The Middle Eastern Front refers to the campaigns fought in World War II in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, between the Axis forces and the Allies. In Iraq, a pro-Axis coup was defeated by the British, while in Syria and Lebanon the Allies successfully managed to wrest control from Vichy France, Germany’s puppet occupation government. Although Iran was officially neutral, the Allies considered the Shah to be friendly to the Axis powers. The British, in cooperation with the Soviet Union, invaded Iran and deposed the Shah. During these campaigns the Allies secured vital oil reserves for the war effort.
A military coup in Iraq brought the Anglophobic General Rashid Ali to power, whose government declared independence and besieged the British garrison in the Habbaniya air base on the Euphrates. The commander of the flying school there, Air Vice-Marshal Harry Smart, fought off the attack after three days, and a column from Transjordan captured Baghdad at the end of the month. Rashid Ali escaped to Iran and was replaced by a pro-British regent.
In the planning of German strategy, Iraq (like Egypt) came after, not before, the campaign in the East. It was assumed that a pro-Axis government under Rashid Ali would return to Baghdad in the wake of German tanks in the late fall of 1941. Whatever efforts Germany might make were further complicated by the position and ambitions of Italy. The Germans at least nominally recognized Italy's political hegemony in the Arab world.
Next it was Vichy-controlled Syria’s turn, which had agreed to supply Rashid Ali with German arms during the uprising. Together with the Free French, British forces attacked, and by an armistice agreed only weeks later established the right to occupy Syria for the rest of the war.
The turning of Syria over to the Free French did relieve the Germans of having to be concerned about French susceptibilities in promising pieces of Syria to Turkey if that should prove desirable, and in proclaiming their support of Arab nationalist demands. This was a subject about which they had agonized a good deal, and continued to debate among themselves and with the Italians for some time yet.
The balance of power in the region had shifted dramatically when Hitler invaded Russia, and Churchill automatically declared Britain to be in alliance with the USSR. After the Iranian Government had refused an Anglo-Soviet demand to expel German agents from the country, the two powers invaded, after which nationalist resistance collapsed. The Shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, and British and Russian troops occupied Tehran. The ports, railways, and truck routes across the country came to carry a small portion of British aid and eventually almost a quarter of American aid for the Soviet war effort.
On the Arabian Peninsula, the war's most significant impact was in the further strengthening it provided for the role of Ibn Saud and his family in the consolidation of their hold on what was increasingly referred to as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For now, the area deferred to British interest in the war, but the post-war years would be different.
During World War II, as before and after, most governments in the Middle East had, or pretended to have, a great interest in the developing situation in Palestine. The British had partitioned their mandate along the Jordan river in 1922, calling the east bank ‘Trans-Jordan’ for the obvious reason that it was on the other side of the Jordan river from the perspective of London. The other portion of the mandate was now called Palestine. Originally held by Britain as a protector for the northern flank of her position astride the Suez Canal, the Palestine mandate performed this function in World War II but only because the British were able to keep the Axis away from the canal by action elsewhere.
Although Iraq, Syria and Iran stayed firmly in the Allied camp for the rest of the war, with all that implied for British oil supplies, there is no doubt that had Egypt fallen to Rommel there was very little that Britain could have done to protect her gains there.