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Home arrow History arrow The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East


Popular Struggle after the Armistice

During 1919 and 1920 Britain and France moved to partition and govern the post-Ottoman region through proxies. Still reeling from the human and financial cost of the world war, and the bare victory they had managed, both powers resolved to pursue their imperial policies in the Middle East by use of proxy forces and various types of quasi-colonial client states. Governing elites in both Britain and France feared the potentially revolutionary wrath of metropolitan citizens if securing war gains began to cost the lives of more young soldiers and consume the depleted contents of the state treasury. Starvation and influenza threatened people everywhere. As popular revolution had toppled the Russian government, and the German monarchy, so too could popular upheaval potentially upend victorious states.

At the end of 1918, a force of 15,000 Armenian irregulars with 150 French officers landed in Cilicia at Mersin.14 The Armenian Legion troops occupied evacuated British positions at Adana and Alexandretta. In March 1919, French forces landed at the Black Sea ports east of Istanbul with an intention to seize and hold the Ottoman coal-mining region. In May 1919, 20,000 Greek troops disembarked from British and French naval ships at Izmir.15 The same month, the Istanbul government sent Mustafa Kemal to the Black Sea coast to organize the demobilization of forces required in the armistice. As the familiar story goes, rather than organizing a demobilization of forces, Kemal coordinated a new mobilization of Ottoman soldiers. He called upon stillserving Ottoman officers and used the still-operative Ottoman military telegraph system, to call local popular defense committees to action.

The public in all combatant powers were exhausted by war, and angry with political leaders who seemed to have brought years of pointless suffering. Millions of sons and fathers were never coming home, and British and French politicians faced an inability to mobilize men or money to occupy and hold newly won colonial possessions. By necessity, proxies and deputized imperial client regimes could police the partition of the Ottoman realms, but some prizes were too valuable to be ruled by natives, at least at first. Istanbul and the straits were placed under direct British French military occupation, and Iraq, its waterways, railroads, and oil fields were intended for direct British rule. Palestine, Egypt, and the Suez Canal, and the corridor between the Mediterranean and the Gulf, would likewise remain firmly under British control. There was some internal discussion of the difference between the emerging League of Nations mandates for Palestine, and Iraq, and the wartime proclamation of the British protectorate of Egypt. The Foreign Office, the cabinet, and the Colonial Office immediately agreed that any policy that served to diminish absolute British control over its imperial realms was a bad policy. Colonial Secretary Lord Milner objected strongly to any subordination of British control to native authorities, or the League of Nations, unless France agreed to even greater limits on its authority.16 The strategic prizes of the war, imperial waterways, and control of the Persian Gulf, and its oil fields, would be ruled directly as possessions. Iran would remain an informal protectorate, and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, majority-owned by the Foreign Office, would rule the south. This, anyway, was Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s evolving plan in 1919.

Before the Paris Peace Conference, Lloyd George had promised Clemenceau he would have Syria and Cilicia up to the central Anatolian town of Sivas. Having made his promise, and having extracted a promise of Mosul and Kirkuk from Clemenceau, Lloyd George reconsidered his options. By early 1919 Lloyd George decided he wished to deny possession of Syria or South Eastern Anatolia to France. But hanging on to Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Mosul, might require French cooperation and goodwill. Lloyd George’s commitment to Faysal and the integrity of Syria was slight. Faysal was a native client prince in a territory suddenly unimportant to Lloyd George’s larger imperial and strategic goals.

By mid 1919, Lloyd George instructed Allenby to cooperate with the French in occupying Syria and Cilicia. Allenby had already resolved to withdraw from Syria in advance of France, because he feared an outbreak and wanted to avoid being forced to combat a nationalist insurgency alongside French forces. Among allied generals, Allenby had a well-developed appreciation for the Ottoman military. Allenby may have felt some lingering commitment to Faysal, and he counseled Faysal to attend the San Remo treaty convention on the post-Ottoman partition, and assignment of the mandates, and to negotiate directly with France. Allenby also intervened to extend the financial subsidy to Faysal as long as possible.

SECRET. Withdrawal from Syria now decided upon, expenditure in territory destined for France should be reduced to absolute minimum forthwith, and when territory is handed over, should cease entirely. The question of Faisel’s subsidy is being referred to the Foreign Office.17

Allenby recognized that support for Faysal would help minimize the danger to the colonial settlement from nationalist insurgencies. As British forces withdrew to Palestine and Iraq, and before French forces could take their positions, armed revolts emerged in Cilicia in the area east of Adana, under the leadership of Kemal’s successor, Nihat Pasha, in the cAlawi coastal region, under the leadership of Shaykh Salih al-cAli, and in the countryside of Aleppo under former Ottoman officer Ibrahim Hananu. Both Hananu and Salih al-cAli drew weapons and support from Anatolian insurgents and from the arms cached by Mustafa Kemal’s never fully demobilized Third Army, and from officers in Faysal’s government. Yusuf al-cAzma visited his former Ottoman officer comrades in the Cilicia before the fall of Faysal’s government. French forces of the Armenian Legion occupied cUrfa and Maras east of Adana. Armenian nationalists understood that France would sponsor an Armenian state in Cilicia, as Britain was sponsoring a Jewish state in Palestine, and France a Maronite Christian state in greater Lebanon.

Allenby was well apprised of British intelligence on the Ottoman nationalist movement in Anatolia, and was unsurprised by the spread of armed opposition. He was determined to consolidate and reinforce his positions in those occupied Ottoman territories considered vital to the interests of Britain. Allenby was frustrated by Lloyd George’s willingness to abandon Faysal, not because he owed Faysal, but because he recognized the value of Faysal in calming patriotic outrage throughout the former Ottoman realms. But retrenchment and Lloyd George’s calculations demanded France, Faysal, and the Hashimites would be on their own, and by late 1919 Allenby had suspended the subsidy to Faysal’s government in Damascus and withdrawn his forces to Palestine.

Mustafa Kemal landed in Samsun in May 1919. The first “Societies for the Defense of National Rights” (Mudafaca al-Huquq) had already formed in various towns and regions under threat of partition, including Adana, Aleppo, Damascus, and many other places. Renegade Ottoman officers convened a series of congresses to organize resistance to the Allied occupation. The congresses and the successful armed resistance movement they fostered have been written into the official history of the Turkish Republic as marking both the birth of the Turkish nation-state and a break with the Ottoman past. Yet the proclamations, contemporary writings, and actions of many participants suggest nothing of the kind: the nation to be saved was a diverse collection of Ottoman Muslims under continuous threat from local and international forces of European imperialism. The emerging movement embraced all the Ottoman regions.18

The Sivas Conference convened in September 1919. Delegates came from all Ottoman regions and proclaimed their determination to struggle to resist the partition of what they called their “Ottoman fatherland.” They noted their attachment to the Sultanate and Caliphate, but argued that the institutions of the state were under the foreign control of the victorious powers, and consequently did not represent the will of the Ottoman nation. The central government was powerless to defend the national rights of the Ottoman Muslim people in their “undivided Ottoman fatherland.”19 British and French proxies in Greek and Armenian armed movements had violated the Ottoman-controlled territory within the armistice lines of October 30, 1918. The congress members maintained their intention to insure the rights of non-Muslims within the national territory, but the Ottoman nation was a Muslim nation. While the specific grievance was the violation of ceasefire lines, the Ottoman national movement did not define the limits of its territorial intentions.

In October 1919, General Henri Gouraud arrived in Beirut as commander of the Armee du Levant and first High Commissioner for the French Republic in Syria. His secretary-general and chief strategist was Robert de Caix.20 Premier Clemenceau’s choice of Gouraud defined the character of the French mission. Gouraud was a devout Catholic and advocate for a Christian crusade in the holy land for the glory of France. Robert de Caix was the leading member of the Parti Colonial, and represented the commercial interests of Lyonais textile industries and the policy of favoritism for Oriental Christians and minorities. Both men were members of the so-called “revenge generation” steeped in the national trauma of the Franco-Prussian war defeat in 1870, and both left an indelible mark on sectarian division and conflict on Syria and Lebanon.

Two months after the Sivas Conference, in November 1919, Mustafa Kemal addressed a proclamation to the Syrians:

Respected Brothers,

I speak to you with a beseeching voice, emanating from a heart full of sorrows, caused by the oppression, torment and treachery of the enemy, and the divisions between the sons of one religion ... Let us put an end to this misunderstanding, and point our arms towards the traitors who wish to tear up Islam . Our Mujahidin [Muslim warriors] will very soon be the guests of their Arab brothers, and by their union they will conquer and destroy their enemies. Long live our brothers in religion and may the enemy be conquered.

The proclamations of 1919 reveal much about the durable appeal of liberation movements led by former Ottoman officers. Kemal repeated the familiar ideological pillars of the Ottoman military educational system in evoking the language of Ottoman patriotism and the duty to defend Muslim lands. A leaflet distributed in both Aleppo and

Damascus in late 1919 and attributed to Mustafa Kemal and the nationalist movement read in part:

We do not want to have a war with foreigners.

We do not want to have a foreign Government in our country.

We shall defend the rights of our nation until death, in order to avoid its fall into the hands of the foreigners.

We wish to join together the parts [of the Ottoman state] against Wilson’s principles.

Let everyone keep to his work and business. Our aim is justice.

We shall put to death without mercy everyone who stands against what we have already mentioned, whether he be a Muslim or a Christian.

The Muslims who love our Sultan, have a right to the Caliphate. Our nation has taken up arms for this cause, from east to west ...21

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