Commentary: Historic Anniversary of Hope and Despondence


By Edmond Y. Azadian

On August 5, a bell rang in Hiroshima exactly at the hour when 65 years ago the first atomic bomb was dropped, scorching to death 145,000 people in a brief moment. The tolling of the bell reverberated around the globe through the electronic media, reminding the world of the anniversary of a great human tragedy of historic dimensions.

The same day, another anniversary came and passed, almost unnoticed, even by Armenians whose lives it had impacted irreversibly. Only the state TV channel in Armenia broadcast a three-minute footage remembering the 90th anniversary of a political act to restore home rule in Cilicia, now called Chukur Ova, situated on the Mediterranean Sea Coast of the present Republic of Turkey.

Indeed, August 4 and 5 were eventful days in Cilicia, raising hopes of achieving home rule by the Armenians, who were promised by the Allies, especially as a  compensation for Armenian participation in World War I on their side.

What happened on August 4 and 5, 1920, has a long and sometimes intricate background.

Armenians had inhabited Cilicia many centuries before Seljuk Turks appeared in that region. An Armenian kingdom even ruled that territory between the 10th and 14th centuries, when the Memluks deposed the last king, Levon VI Lousignan, and took over the country, in 1375 AD.

After centuries of subjugation, a historic opportunity was presented in the 20th century, right before the signing of the Sevres Treaty of August 10, 1920, to restore home rule in Cilicia.

The Armenian National Delegation, headed by Boghos Nubar Pasha, was negotiating with the victorious Allies the future of Armenia. Before the war ended, the Allies requested from the Armenians to form a legion and fight against Turkish-German forces, under the Allied command.

In 1916, the French government under President Aristide Briand, had promised home rule for Armenians in Cilicia, during negotiations leading to the formation of the Armenian Legion.

Victory has many parents, while defeat is always orphan. After the failure of the Cilician dream, some historians, including Armenian ones, claim that there was no formal document signed by the Allies to that effect.

After the French government pledge, Armenians demonstrated a rare expression of unity. Indeed, Nubar Pasha commissioned a delegation comprising the representatives of three political parties and dispatched them to the US to recruit volunteers to fight in the legion. In 1917, Mihran Damadian (Ramgavar), Stepan Sabahgulian (Hunchak) and Ardavazt Hanemian (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) headed to the US to raise funds and to recruit volunteers. (At that time Constitutional Ramgavars and
Reformed Hunchaks had not united yet; therefore four parties combined their forces to achieve the mission.)

Despite the tensions of traditional Armenian disunity, the mission was accomplished. Twelve hundred volunteers, survivors of the Genocide, who had already achieved security and comfort in this land of opportunity, returned to the Middle East in cargo ships, defying German gunboats in the Atlantic. They were joined in Cyprus, by the survivors of the battle of Musa Dagh. They were trained and armed and joined the Allied forces in Palestine, numbering about 4,000. By comparison, today, one would not venture to guess how many volunteers from the diaspora joined the Karabagh forces to fight the Azeris.

At that time, patriotic fervor and the sense of revenge were overwhelming.

The Armenian Legion spearheaded the assault on unified Ottoman and German forces, fortifying a hilltop in Palestine called Arara. Armenians made history by breaking the backbone of the enemies on September 19, 1918, turning the tide of World War I in the region.

It was agreed that the volunteer legion would become the nucleus of the Armenian Army after autonomy was granted under a French mandate in Cilicia.

After the Legion entered Cilicia victoriously, 150,000 Genocide survivors returned to their homes there. Nubar Pasha appointed Mihran Damadian as the Cilician  representative vis-à-vis occupying forces.

Euphoric optimism reigned throughout Cilicia, as Armenians prepared to achieve their dreams.

It was a historic moment. The Allies were forcing on the defeated Germans and Ottomans the Treaty of Sevres, which included an independent Armenia crafted by President Woodrow Wilson. Yet Cilicia, where Armenians had been reassembled, was not part of the deal. An elusive historic opportunity was to be missed had the Armenians failed to act.

The defeated Turks had already regrouped on the ground, under Mustafa Kemal and were planning a comeback. Damadian assembled all the minorities — Armenian, Greek, Arab, Assyrian and others, and a declaration was drafted to be submitted to the French Commander Bremon. They were trying to create a fait accompli, like the Turks had done, six days before the signing of Sevres Treaty. The next day, on August 5, a delegation headed by Damadian occupied the government office and announced the formation of the Armenian government in Cilicia under a French mandate.

Damadian named himself prime minister and formed a cabinet to reflect the ethnic diversity of the region, which the French statesman George Picot had defined as a “purely Armenian territory” and where 100,000 other Christian ethnic groups had joined the 150,000 Armenians.

At the dramatic moment of achieving statehood, the French commander dispatched a battalion who forced the Armenians out of the government House at the butt of bayonets and then later in October and November evacuated their forces secretly from Cilicia, leaving the Armenians unarmed and defenseless before marauding Kemalist forces, who came to finish the grizzly mission which the Ittihadists had began during the war, by exterminating Armenians.

“Cilicia is destined to become Armenia’s future window open to the sea, to Europe and to civilization,” wrote Damadian in his memoirs — a dream that never realized.

The August 5 act may have been a last-ditch desperate initiative, but it was a historic necessity, which any prudent leader, with a sense of history, would and should have taken, regardless of the consequences. The French betrayed their formal pledge, because they had negotiated a secret deal with the Turks, not realizing that the Kemalist Milli nationalist movement was also financed, supported and armed by the newly-rising Lenin’s communist forces.

Damadian has a sad yet realistic commentary about this act of betrayal: “The conscience of diplomacy is broad and very flexible. If need be, it can level with rebels and rascals, and can even sit down to negotiate with people like Mustafa Kemal and his cohorts, vile thugs and blood hungry killers and sign armistices.”

The Cilician home rule was a dream so close to being realized, but it was sacrificed by the treachery of the French government. The Cilician dream may be lost forever, but valuable political lessons are learned which can be implemented today in the Karabagh conflict. Muster your forces and don’t trust even the closest allies, because they may sell you down the river for their selfish interests.