Grudging rescue

After the Ottoman empire signed an armistice with the Allies in October 1918, British and French armies in the Middle East both took the opportunity to move into zones beyond what they’d occupied in the final year or two of the first world war. Britain, with troops in Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia, took the opportunity to add the oilfields of Mosul province to its gains—the incorporation of a large Kurdish zone in the north of the new state of Iraq was the result. And in 1919 France occupied what was referred to as Cilicia, an important and agriculturally wealthy region around the city of Adana in southern Anatolia.

The multiple foreign invasions of the defeated empire (Greece sent an army into western Anatolia, expanding out from the port of Smyrna; Italy took the islands of the Dodecanese; a combined Allied force occupied Istanbul and the Straits zone; and an Armenian republic declared itself in the Caucasus) triggered a rapid resurgence of popular and organized opposition among its Muslim population. Across Anatolia, ‘societies for the defence of rights’ sprang up and were rapidly coordinated around elements of the Ottoman state bureaucracy and military—the imperial government in Istanbul, which signed a humiliating treaty with the Allies at Sèvres in 1920, was soon marginalized by this emerging nationalist movement. One by one, the nationalists defeated or came to terms with their enemies, until all foreign armies had been driven back and the ‘national’ claim to rule all of Anatolia had been asserted on the ground, and accepted internationally.

For Turkish nationalism this is a heroic story of rebirth, leading to the emergence of the modern Turkish Republic, free of both foreign intervention and the empire’s disloyal erstwhile possessions. For historians who aren’t Turkish nationalists, the story is more complex. The Turkish victory in the wars of independence, culminating in the murderous destruction of the recaptured city of Smyrna in 1922, was no simple triumph. Some of the most notable cadres of the nationalist movement had, during the first world war, been closely involved in the genocidal deportations of Ottoman Armenians, and benefited from the expropriation of their possessions.

Kerr, Armenian men reaping wheat

Armenian villagers reaping wheat in the village of Kishifli, south of Marash (today’s Kahramanmaraş), 1919,
taken by Stanley Kerr and included in his book ‘The Lions of Marash’

Click image for source (Joyce Chorbajian collection)

It wasn’t surprising, then, that when the French government decided to end its war with the Turkish nationalists and hand Cilicia over to them, the Armenians resident there decided to get out. The French estimated their numbers at about 60,000: some who had originated from the region and returned to their homes after surviving deportation during the genocide; others from elsewhere in Anatolia who had settled there during the French occupation, hoping either to return to their own homes or to make new lives in what the French briefly promised would be an Armenian state in Cilicia. These hopes were short-lived. The local population was mostly Muslim: hostile to the French occupation, profoundly suspicious of Armenians (who were integrated into the occupying forces, and therefore closely associated with France), and increasingly persuaded by the claims of the new Turkish national movement based in Ankara. The French forces were overextended, with a long front line and too few troops to maintain control over the restive and divided population of the occupation zone. As the Ankara leadership increasingly demonstrated its ability to channel the loyalties of Muslims across Anatolia and overturn the postwar settlement, Paris decided to come to terms: the diplomat Henry Franklin-Bouillon travelled to Ankara and negotiated a peace accord. French officers in Beirut and Cilicia were not part of the discussions, and had mixed feelings about them. The commander of the occupying forces felt that he and his men had been sold out (though France, bankrupt after the first world war and having seen perhaps a quarter of its working-age men killed or mutilated, was hardly in a position to sustain a costly overseas conflict). The High Commissioner in Beirut, still ‘on the ground’ but at one remove from the occupation, recognized the military and diplomatic necessity of ending it but warned that France would also have to bear important consequences in the region. One of these was taking responsibility for Cilicia’s Armenians.

The handover period was set at eight weeks, covering the last two months of 1921. In this time the French forces had to recover hundreds of prisoners of war, evacuate their forces, withdraw (or abandon) their military equipment, and publicly hand authority over to representatives of Ankara. They did so in the face of persistent needling from armed groups in the local population, quite probably working in collaboration with the nationalist forces. The French military cemetery at Ayntab (modern Gaziantep) was vandalized, for example, a humiliating attack on French symbolic authority that the commander there—isolated from the main occupation force around Adana—could do no more than protest about.

As the French forces organized their own withdrawal, they also warned that Cilicia’s Armenian population was also preparing to depart. The French government in Paris insisted that the Ankara accord included guarantees for the safety of Armenians in the handover zone: Franklin-Bouillon reiterated these as he travelled through the region, and petulantly condemned anyone who cast doubt on them as working against France and the peace agreement. The High Commissioner in Beirut, General Gouraud, also travelled to Cilicia and publicly affirmed these pledges—but he himself knew that the Armenians would not believe them. Through November 1921, while the French foreign ministry issued endless reassurances (to other governments; to the Vatican; to Armenian and philarmenian groups across the world) that the Armenians in Cilicia could safely remain, French officials in the region were already watching them leave. Perhaps half of the entire Armenian population departed on their own account, for Cyprus, Egypt, Palestine, Smyrna or Constantinople—all of which, under pressure of numbers, closed their ports to Cilician Armenians. These people were refugees, but they left in good order, with laissez-passer issued by the French authorities in Adana.

By early December, the strident reassurances of Paris—echoed by Gouraud even as he reported on the Armenian exodus—were ringing increasingly hollow. Half the Armenians had left; almost all the rest were gathered, waiting, around the port of Mersin or at the railway town of Dörtyol near the Syrian border. These were the Armenians who didn’t have the resources to travel further afield under their own steam. Gouraud recognized, well before Paris admitted it, that Syria and Lebanon were the only possible destinations for them—and that the French authorities would have to take responsibility for their transportation.

What seems to have triggered an official change of mind was an action of the refugees themselves. As November turned to December, nearly 350 of them, packed into a barely seaworthy vessel that had crossed the Mediterranean amid wicked early-winter storms, arrived at Alexandria to be refused entry by the British authorities in Egypt. Other ports were closed by now. Rather than allowing themselves to be sent back to Mersin, they took control of the ship, insisting that they be sent to the French mandate territories. After a stand-off of a few days, during which the British authorities in Egypt refused to intervene, this was agreed; and soon afterwards the decision was taken not only to allow the remaining Armenians of Cilicia to enter Syria and Lebanon, but to transport them there. A relay of three large passenger vessels transported at least 13,000 from Mersin in the final two weeks of December, while the 7,000 or so concentrated at Dörtyol were brought in overland.

Risk and perilWhat was behind this grudging, and costly, rescue? I’m still thinking about it, but here are some of the themes I’ll be trying to explore when I present a paper on this subject at SOAS in a couple of weeks’ time, and here at Birmingham in the Eastern Mediterranean seminar series on 21 November.

It’s an interesting episode for a variety of reasons, though you will have noticed by now that I’ve approached it entirely through French sources—and if these pay some attention to Armenian voices, and to the Turkish nationalists, they noticeably ignore both the Muslim majority population of Cilicia and the inhabitants of the mandate territories. But in the different pressures (from other states, from a concerned and international public, and from observers in France) that led the French government to recognize that it was morally on the hook for the fate of the Armenians, we can recognize the emergence of a modern humanitarian consciousness, to borrow a term from Keith Watenpaugh—with all the blind spots and biases that humanitarianism has always displayed in practice. I don’t know of any previous examples of a state taking responsibility for the humanitarian evacuation of a foreign population, albeit one that the state’s own actions have placed at risk, though there may be such examples. The British would certainly make no such moves on behalf of Assyrians threatened in Iraq at the end of their mandate there a decade or so later. Deciding when, where, and how to take responsibility for saving humans is always complicated, and questions of self-interest are always involved. Meanwhile, the way the Armenians were kept within the bureaucratic embrace of state authorities—laissez-passer, ship’s passenger manifests—even as state authority was changing hands illustrates the importance of displaced populations as a site where state authority itself can be exercised. In different ways, this dynamic would continue once the Armenians of Cilicia were resettled in Syria and Lebanon. At a time when Syria is exporting refugees by the million, it’s worth remembering that a century ago the then-new country was a haven for refugees from elsewhere in the Middle East.

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