The Armenian Weekly Magazine
An overwhelming majority of today’s Syrian-Armenians are the descendants of Ottoman-Armenians who survived the 1915 Armenian Genocide. The 120,000–150,000 deportees in Ottoman Syria, who had hoped to return to their homeland as soon as World War I was over, returned to Cilicia, which, by the time of the Mudros Armistice (Oct. 30, 1918), had come under French occupation. All hope of rebuilding their communities, however, vanished with the Turkish National Liberation War (1919–21) and the ceding of Cilicia to the Turkish Republic following the formalization of the Turco-Syrian border in the Ankara agreement on Oct. 21, 1921.
During these years, the killing, intimidation, abduction, and stigmatization of Armenians in Cilician cities—such as Adana, Mersin, Tarsus, as well as in cities like Urfa, Kharpert, Malatya, Diyarbekir, and Arabkir—continued, culminating in a second Armenian exodus towards French Syria and Lebanon. Between 1921–23, 80,000 new refugees arrived in Syria and Lebanon by land or by sea. Richard Hovannisian estimates that by the end of 1925, approximately 100,000 refugees were living in Syria; 50,000 in Lebanon; 10,000 in Palestine and Jordan; 40,000 in Egypt; 25,000 in Iraq; and 50,000 in Iran.1
The third wave of expulsion towards French Syria, in particular north-eastern Syria, in Jazira, took place following Turkey’s military suppression of the Kurdish Sheikh Saïd Revolt in 1925. According to figures compiled by the League of Nations, between 8,000 and 10,000 Kurdo-Armenians, as named by the French sources, from the rural parts of Diyarbekir, Mardin, Shirnak, Siirt, Bitlis, and Cizre, joined the Armenian deportees who had arrived in Syria earlier, in 1915–16 and 1921–23.2
The history of the post-genocide world in Syria has not yet been critically assessed. Very few scholarly works have incorporated the social and political history of the Armenian refugees into the general history of Syria. It seems that the politics of fear is also quite pervasive among researchers. Accordingly, the scholarly field inevitably silences and marginalizes controversial historical phenomena from scholarly scrutiny, such as the issue of sectarianism or the refugee issue. This piece will shed some light on the Armenian refugee experiences upon their arrival to their new residence in French Syria.
In the Syrian-Armenian memory, 1915 is seen as a decisive event, a violent ending, but also as a new beginning, and a new period of struggle in a hostile and foreign setting. The violence of the genocide—while it took different forms in social, class, cultural, and geographic terms—constitutes the foundation of all the historical narratives of that time. And they all begin with the violence the survivors were exposed to in their home towns or on the deportation routes to Syria, namely an entire life was left behind and would never be returned; Its fields, trees, rivers, and climate are remembered with extreme grief, and the new refuge is never really accepted as a substitute.
The French mandate (1921–46) rule in Syria and the colonial agency are obscured, or rather assimilated, into a survival narrative where the main provider is depicted as the “Syrians” if not the “community” itself. The new life in French Syria indicates a positive change from bad to good, namely from insecurity, fear, instability, and oppression to security, stability, and tolerance. Generosity and respect on the part of the Syrian Arabs are presented as the underlying factors in this safety and security. No mention is made of the distress felt by the local Syrians due to the refugee flow to French Syria; nor of the dominant French colonial perspective on the Christian refugees and the fragile bargaining between the two; nor of the tacit agreement between the Arab nationalists and later the Armenian leadership of the early 1930’s.
Obscuring the colonial period as well as the current state of things in Syria while underscoring the 1915 memories is not a mere coincidence. Neglect of the post-genocide Armenian experience in Syria is apparently related to the repressive conditions that have existed there since independence (1946). Equally important, the genocide is actually the main event underlying the uprooting and deportations of the majority of Armenians to Ottoman/French Syria between 1915 and the late 1930’s. Being the “unacknowledged” victims of the Turkish nationalist venture, and given the lack of space for the Syrian-Armenians’ narratives to be recognized in Turkey, the Syrian-Armenian memory can be considered, as de Certeau reminds us, as “unrecognized reminders of a historical and still ongoing repression.”3 In other words, the omnipresence of the memory of 1915 is also a response to the current denialism on the part of the Turkish state and a segment of Turkish society. Moreover, the genocide is the main event underlying the deracination, uprooting, and deportations of the majority of Armenians to Ottoman/French Syria between 1915 and the late 1930’s.