Home History The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Anatolia and Cilicia
As British forces came under attack in Iraq, the French Armenian Legion in Cilicia was nearing defeat. A major French force had been besieged and defeated at Maras by a popular uprising of Ottoman Muslims in February, and had been further decimated during a retreat through snow-covered mountains toward the Cilician coast. The French left fifty wounded behind in the care of an American missionary school in Maras.48 According to historian Robert Zeidner, Mustafa Kemal had requested Ottoman officers and units to coordinate their efforts to expel the French from the region on both sides of the armistice line (today’s Turkish Syrian border).49
Three who heeded this call were well-known “Arab” nationalist heroes Salih al-cAli and Ibrahim Hananu in Syria and legendary “Turkish” nationalist hero Ali Sefik Ozdemir. Ozdemir was born in Egypt, Hananu was born three kilometers south of today’s border with Turkey, and Salih al-cAli hailed from the cAlawi mountains, which extend from today’s coastal Syria north into Turkey. In April, French forces evacuated their positions at cUrfa after engaging not only popular insurgents, but reconstituted Ottoman army units under command of Kemal himself. General Gouraud at Beirut initially requested reinforcements for Cilicia, but within two months, French commanders had decided that their commitment to their Armenian allies might foment a renewed alliance between Anatolian and Syrian insurgents.50 French forces sought and received a ceasefire agreement from Mustafa Kemal in late May, agreeing to withdraw all French forces west to the Mersin Adana line. The agreement was negotiated on French initiative, with representatives of Kemal claiming to speak for the Ottoman government, at both Beirut and Adana.51
The British Armenian Committee protested vehemently that France and Britain were again abandoning their countrymen in order to placate the Ottomans. Erivan, an Armenian newspaper in Istanbul, under British censorship, defied the censor and published a banned editorial, announcing the independence of Armenia in Cilicia, and proclaiming a war against the Turks.
The Armenians have been deceived by false promises. When the French came to Cilicia and hoisted their flag, the Armenians never expected that the future would bring such disastrous results. Now the French are hauling down their flag and leaving us alone in the hand of the Turks, whose sanguinary appetite has become keener.52
French forces needed to retrench in order to occupy and hold Syria. General Gouraud knew that a renewed Ottoman army presence in Syria would make French colonial objectives impossible.
With revolt in Iraq, France facing defeat in Cilicia, and armed insurrection in Syria, British and French observers feared they would be unable to retain control of the region. France reached accord with Kemal to withdraw from Cilicia, allowing General Gouraud to concentrate his forces on consolidation in Syria and Lebanon. In late June of 1920, after continuous guerilla fighting on the border with the French-occupied coastal region, soon to be named Greater Lebanon, a French army marched over the Lebanon mountains and east toward Damascus.
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