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The Historian's Corner

The Zouaves of the Gulf War

In the 1830's, a new kind of uniform cropped up in the French army: the Zouave. Distinguished by its bright colors, an azure coat and crimson trousers, and its flamboyance, the sash and fez being most distinctive, it soon became all the rage among military fashion mavens.

Zouave units began cropping up in armies everywhere, including the American. Zouave units worldwide became famed for the intensity of their drills and ferocity in combat. Zouaves were the best of the best in their day, and wore their dashing uniforms with pride and distinction.

Then came the First World War. Zouave units were cut to ribbons by machine-gun fire. See, the bright red trousers tended to contrast sharply with the ground and could be seen rather clearly through smoke and fog, making them ideal targets for the rapid fire of the machine-guns. Consequently, those who wore the bright red trousers suffered disportionate casualties. After 1914, the Zouave outfits went by the wayside as high fashion succumbed to the hard realities of camouflage.

Well, not all Zouave units went away. One French garrison in Morocco refused to let go of its proud tradition. To keep the uniform and yet comply with new orders from above to better camouflage his forces, the local commander ordered his troops to paint the surrounding country in alternate stripes of red and blue. Once the painting was finished, the Zouave uniform had to be retained in order for the forces to blend in with the terrain.

The top brass in Paris was none too pleased with this fait accompli and ordered the garrison over to Syria after that area was granted to France as a League of Nations Mandate. The rationale behind the transfer, of course, was that the unit would have to decommission its Zouave costumes in order to be better camouflaged with the local terrain. The wily commander had an ace up his sleeve, though.

The French were not popular among the Syrian Arabs and needed goodwill more than bullets. While other garrisons settled into an uncomforatble watch over the locals, the Zouaves strode in with their full regalia and became a hit all over Aleppo. Their daily drills drew people from far and wide to marvel at their precision and excellence. How could they decommission their uniforms when they were the centerpiece of the French occupation force? Reluctantly, the French High Command permitted the last Zouave unit to keep its uniforms.

In 1941, the Zouaves joined the Resistance after British commandos won the rest of the territory over. Although they did not engage in active combat during the Second World War, they did help to keep Syria secure for the Allies.

After the war, Syria became independent. While other French units were withdrawn, the Syrian government requested the Zouaves remain to form a cadre to help build the Syrian army around it. The French government acceeded and the Zouaves handed over their traditional ways to a new generation. Although the Zouave uniforms were finally retired from the French army after their job in Syria was finished, the Syrians kept them in their martial wardrobes.

The Syrian Zouave regiment was posted on its long, desert border with Iraq. They did not face any Israeli forces in any of the Arab-Israeli conflicts, but they did play an instrumental role in preserving the blockade of Iraq in the Gulf War.

It is not widely known, but Saddam Hussein ordered huge convoys of halftracks across the Syrian desert in a desperate bid to acquire military supplies from supporters in Lebanon. Although the convoys were painted in desert camouflage colors, they stuck out like sore thumbs when they arrived in Zouave-guarded country. Not only did the French forces hand over their traditional uniforms, but their traditional means of preserving their unit. The Syrian Zouaves had painted the entire area in alternating red and blue stripes. The Iraqi convoys were totally unprepared and were annihilated completely in perhaps the most ironic conflict in the history of military camouflage. For perhaps the first and only time, a military force not entirely colored in azure and crimson was cut down because it did not match its surroundings.

Travelers to eastern Syria can view Zouave forts, provided they receive permission from the central government, which requires a 50-year waiting period as they make sure the visitors are not foreign spies bent on undermining the regime.

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