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The ongoing chaos and violence that have come to define the Syrian civil war have not only pushed the names of ancient cities (Aleppo, Homs) back into today’s headlines, but have also served as a reminder that Syria has long been a major player not merely in the Middle East, but on the global stage.
In 1940, seven months before the United States entered World War II and nine months after Germany invade Poland, LIFE sent photographer Margaret Bourke-White to the young (and, as it turned out, short-lived) republic in order to document Syria’s pivotal role—cultural, geographical, military—in the region. More than seven decades later, in photographs that ran in LIFE and many more that did not, LIFE.com recalls Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and other Syrian cities and towns as they appeared in the middle part of the last century.
This is how LIFE described the situation to its readers in the magazine’s May 20, 1940, issue, published mere weeks before Paris fell to the Germans, leaving Syria (briefly) under the rule of Vichy France:
As it happened, of course, Syria and neighboring Lebanon did see action in WWII, during a month-long Allied campaign in June and July of 1941. The Free French took control of both countries after a rout of mainly Vichy French and German troops, and before the war was over, both Lebanon and Syria had become free states—and had declared war on both Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.