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La France en Cilicie et en Haute-Mésopotamie Review


The formal French colonial presence was quite short in the Levant: just some twenty years or so, from the French colonization of the region following the end of the First World War in 1918 and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, to being expelled from Syria and Lebanon in the 1940s in the context of WW2 and the rise of anti-French nationalism. But it is still regardless a fascinating period and an excellent way of exploring how colonial powers used auxiliary soldiers and population movements for both political and economic reasons. This is the principal topic of Vahé Tachjian in his book La France en Cilicie et Haute-Mésopotamie: Aux confins de la Turquie, de la Syrie et de l'Irak (1919-1933). This excellent work, wel structured, effectively and clearly written, and cogently argued, is a very good examination of French policy and the evolution of French colonialism in a diplomatic, political, and economic context in the region. It does tend to neglect humanitarian and domestic politics, and focus excessively on the population movements of the Armenians and Kurds during stages when this was not linked to French policy, and with a long term impact which is not clearly explained. However, other than this - perhaps stemming from the author's personal focus on the subject - but otherwise it is a thoroughly superb work which manages to pack in a tremendous amount of detail while remaining focused and understandable.

The ethnic diversity of French Syria and Lebanon was rather staggering

The ethnic diversity of French Syria and Lebanon was rather staggering

There are three main subjects of the book, which are treated successively, although Tachjian has split it up into numerous more parts.

In the first section there is an analysis of French rule in Cilicia, showing that the French under the colonialist command of Colonel Brémond wished to settle a non-Turkish population of Christian Armenians and various non-Turkish Muslims to produce a population favorable to the region being under French control, in an effort to ensure control over the economic resources of Cilicia such as its cotton. This plan however, came apart in the context of a changing French general strategy, propelled by the French diplomatic service, to create friendly relations with the new Turkish national government, married with a French defeat at Marach in 1920 (perhaps occasioned by political motivations of the commanders on the scene who were aware of this changing mood), which undermined the viability of the French project and led to a French withdrawal from the region.

The second general theme is about the treatment of ethnic minorities and populations in these border regions between Turkey and Syria, particularly the Armenian and Kurdish populations. He shows the choices of resistance or flight of the Armenians, and the growing anti-Turkish resistance of the Kurds in the context of Turkification, analyzing their internal structures and social organization. This is placed into the context of French policy with a key theme being that France desired to ensure the stability of Syria and Lebanon during the early years of the French mandate and prevent a massive influx of refugees, leading to French efforts to moderate Turkish treatment of its minorities, a continually failing approach.

In the third theme, this strategy was reversed, as the French sought to utilize the changing loyalties of the Kurds to draw them to their side, and to carry out a population settlement scheme in northern Syria, Upper Jazira, near the Turkish border. This project of minority resettlement would counter the growing influence of Arab nationalists in the cities of Syria, and economically develop the region. It proved to be a marked success, but one largely incompatible with the preferred historical memory of Syria nowadays.

Armenian deportees

Armenian deportees

Vahé Tachjian has managed to assemble an impressive amount of sources to write a very comprehensive history. French colonial sources are the foundation of his work, exploring the internal logic of French colonialism in the Middle East, well written with excellent and clear reasons and summaries of French intentions, but he also does a very good job of discussing objectives and goals of other powers and regional ethnic groups, such as the British, Turks, and the Armenians and Kurds, among their power nexuses, be it the military, administrative, or diplomatic arms, or political parties and religious leaders for the Armenians or tribes for the Kurds. This is concrete and on the ground: he shows the actual mechanisms administrative decisions taken by the French, in Cilicia under the command of the fervent colonialist Colonel Brémond, in relation to attempting to create an entente with local actors, such as the non-Turkish Muslim population of Cilicia. This continues on with the later Kurdish politics of France in Syria, which brilliantly shows how the French were able to profit from the support that it won among the Kurdish tribesmen to evict the Turks from what they perceived as Syrian territory, analyzing with minutious care how this was carried out by local French policy makers, and then French policy of settlement of these minorities in the territory. He also does a splendid job of showing the splits in French opinion, such as between the French colonialists who desired to annex Cilicia and the Eastern Territories, and the French diplomatic service which wished for a policy of rapprochement with Turkey.

The policy of divide and rule is famously associated with colonialism. Using one ethnic group to advance the cause of colonial objectives against another made for excellent strategy: the British used it in India, backing the Muslims against the Hindus, the French used it in Indochina, backing the interior Laotian and Montgeard people against the Vietnamese, and in the Middle East, minority groups like the Armenians, Kurds, Assyrians, and others made excellent partners against the Arabs and Turks. French colonialism in the region made particularly heavy usage of this, to provide the demographic and strategic weight needed for French colonialism, and the book is an admirable exploration of how this strategy operated in practice. And a grim one: the French seemed to constantly betray their local allies whenever the situation turned against them, particularly the Armenians - who despite this poor treatment by the French, had no one else to turn to.

Central to the book's theme is the population transfers and settlement policy of France. This is demonstrated through the discussion of population movement, showing that the French purposefully attempted to shift and settle populations to increase the minority and particularly Christian populations in their desired regions of control, while simultaneously, in no way intending to create independent states belonging to these nationalities. This could have been improved via the addition of maps, particularly for the ethnic population composition of the region, but in the textual and process side of things it does an excellent job.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of long term impact of the settlement policies. Syria today is riven by significant ethnic tensions, and if these doubtless existed in some form prior to the French intervention - after all, the Armenian Genocide happened in the final years of the Ottoman Empire, before French colonial control - surely the French policy of favoring settlement and migration with the underlying objective of political control and to establish a non-Arab, non-Turkish, majority or workable population in strategic border regions has influenced Syria's history. Particularly relevant, although probably not as visible at the time the book was written, is the settlement of the Kurds in the "Bec du Canard," the "Duck's bill," a region of Syria jutting out into Iraq, where nowadays a de-facto Kurdish state exists. Did the Kurdish population to some extent pre-date the French involvement, even if they and other minority populations saw their numbers increased by French policies? Increased statistics and quantitative data, as well as maps, could have helped to better demonstrate these changes, which are mostly discussed in qualitative terms in the book.

At times, the movement, expulsion, extermination, and repression of the Armenians and Kurds goes beyond what is supposed to be the remit of the work, that of French colonialism. It has a monotonous and excessively detailed focus on this in the middle of the book, and these parts are not well integrated with their impacts upon French colonial policy and settlement. This can be very interested for the political cooperation between Armenians and Kurds, a subject within the book's remit due to Kurdish settlement in what is now the Al-Hasakah governate. Furthermore, the beginning of the book is also very well done on this subject, showing the treatment and state of the Armenian population and differing French and British approaches to their welfare.

A clear argument expressed in the book is that the French colonial party was relatively uninterested in the humanitarian side of operations, if they were interested at all - their focus was power politics, and French control, and their objective above all else was to conquer and control Lebanon, Syria, and if they could have it, Cilicia. But how did they interact with humanitarian organizations such as the Near East Relief? How did they deal with the press and public back in France in an attempt to drum up support? Brushing this aside on the author's part leaves a rich potential subject mostly unexplored.

Despite these two omissions, this is a thoroughly excellent book, heavily recommended to understand French colonial policy, the mechanisms of manipulation of minority groups, the creation of modern Syria and Turkey, and the history of Armenians, Kurds, and other minorities. Clearly written, cogently argued, and rich with a very extensive source documentation, it is an irreplacable book on this subject.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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