Mihran Damadian (oil painting by Sukias Torosyan)

Treaty of Sèvres and Cilicia Special Section: A Missed Opportunity and the Revenge of History


World War I and its aftermath represent an era complicated to understand, analyze and make sense of. It was even more challenging for the Armenian people, who had experienced the Genocide.

This planned mass murder by the Ittihadist regime was intended to annihilate the Armenians for good, eliminating all chances for their recovery. This destruction was an ideological necessity as the Ittihadists, before them the Sultan, and after them the Kemalists, had similarly subscribed to an overriding philosophy of creating a unified state comprising Muslims only. That way, they could bar once and for all any interference by Christian powers under the guise of protecting the minorities of the empire.

The plan for the Genocide was executed with mathematical accuracy so that there would be no survivors, let alone a leadership that would plan a recovery.

But the defeat of the Ottomans in the war left many questions unanswered about the perpetrators of the crime.

Armenians, after losing their homeland and two-thirds of their population, were able to rise again and attain their independence in the Caucasus and strove to create a home rule in Western Armenia, particularly in Cilicia, where an Armenian kingdom had existed from the 10th to the 14th centuries.

It is this saga of Cilician Armenians which has not been properly studied and understood, for a variety of reasons.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

During World War I, the Allies (Britain, France, Russia and the US) fighting the Ottoman-German forces approached the Armenians and in particular, Boghos Nubar Pasha, who was heading the Armenian National Delegation, to join the Allied forces and as payment, rule over their lost homeland of Cilicia.

Some historians claim that the Allies had never signed a document with the promise of home rule in Cilicia and thus it was not valid. However, the Armenians did not have an independent entity which could represent the nation under international law. As well, the Allies had repatriated the dispersed Armenians to Cilicia, through their own means, which indicates more than a promise.

The Allies expected the Armenians to join the war effort. A legion would be created under Allied Command to be named the Legion of the Orient (later to become the Armenian Legion) to recruit volunteers. Three Armenian political parties undertook the task of recruitment, sending their representatives to the US.

The delegation was composed of Mihran Damadian, Ardavast Hanumyan and Stepan Sabah-Gulian. They traveled to the US, braving German gunboats, and visited many cities where the immigrant Armenians had been starting new lives. They recruited young men who first were trained in New Jersey and later in Cyprus, where they joined volunteers from Musa Dagh.

The Musa Dagh youth had already acquitted themselves valiantly, saving the lives of their people and had barely escaped the Turkish scimitar; now they were asked to once again put themselves in harm’s way to recover Cilicia.

Almost 5,000 Armenian volunteers were sent to the front in Palestine. They served as the vanguard of the Allied forces in Arara, where they assailed the Ottoman-German fortifications, which crumbled immediately on September 19, 1918. Thus, they served as impetus for the beginning of the end of the Ottoman defeat.

The Allies used a similar tactic with the Arabs. The Arab revolt, led by British Intelligence Officer Thomas Edward Lawrence, known better as Lawrence of Arabia, is well documented. That revolt reinforced the Allied victory.

As a result of the effort, 150,000 Armenians and 100,000 other Christian minorities returned to their homes in Cilicia, under the supervision of the French forces.

On the way back to Cilicia, the French authorities began to disarm some of the Armenian volunteers. Unsuspecting Armenians were not aware that by 1919, the French had entered into backroom dealings with Mustafa Kemal, the leader of the Ottoman forces.

In May 1919, Boghos Nubar Pasha dispatched Mihran Damadian as the representative of the Armenian National Delegation to the French colonial headquarters. There he was asked to organize the resettlement program for the repatriates.

Damadian was one of the rare breed of leaders who was both a consummate, erudite intellectual as well as a hero with 30 years of death-defying revolutionary activities under his belt. He was an inspiring statesman and captivating orator.

Beyond the resettlement program, Damadian was pursing the old dream of Armenian home rule in Cilicia, under a French mandate.

Meanwhile, intense diplomatic activity was taking place in Paris and other European capitals. The Treaty of Sèvres was being drafted to dismember the defeated Ottoman Empire and grant independence to all nations under its yoke, including the Armenians, who were given most of historic Armenia within a territory of 160 square kilometers with an opening to the sea in Trebizond.

The Treaty of Sévres did not include Cilicia, where a quarter of million Christians were brought back with the promise of home rule. The Armenians put too much credence in the French promises, while France was all the while negotiating with the Turks, behind their backs.

Mustafa Kemal was either a supreme diplomat or a bold opportunist. Instead of disbanding the Ottoman army, which he was tasked to do by the Allied leadership, he reinforced it and played off the competing interests of the Allies. He negotiated with Lenin in Russia, promising the rise of communism in Turkey, and for which he received arms, money and food, all the while making similar guarantees to the Western powers.

As the date was approaching fast to sign the treaty (August 10, 1920), the Armenians in Cilicia were getting impatient.

Damadian had gathered all the leaders of the Armenian groups, as well as the leaders of the other Christian groups and formed a shadow government.

Time was of the essence and the Armenians planned to preempt the signing of the Sèvres Treaty. Therefore, Damadian gathered his cabinet members and the leadership of the communities and headed to the city hall in Adana and occupied it on August 5, 1920. He proclaimed Cilicia’s independence under the French mandate. He sent his proclamation to the commander of the French forces in Cilicia, Gen. Edouard Brémond, who in return, sent a contingent of Senegalese forces and ordered Damadian and his cabinet to vacate the premises, where a huge tricolor flag was already hanging.

Damadian made a last stand, believing that the French would appreciate his valor. He cited the words of one of the leaders of the French Revolution, Honoré Mirabeau: “If you have been instructed to make us leave this place, you should seek permission to use force, for only the power of bayonets will dislodge us.”

Sure enough, the bayonets were pointed at Damadian, who was forced to leave.

This intriguing chapter of history has not been thoroughly studied. Damadian himself has left scant memoirs, insufficient to develop a sound theory.

To this day, a lot of controversies remain and many questions are left unanswered. Damadian, in the last pages of his memoirs, answers only some of the questions:

  • The Armenians had to take their defense into their own hands, as the Kemalist forces were harassing the Armenians.
  • Cilicia’s independence movement did not take place to counter the independent Republic of Armenia, as blamed by Avedis Aharonian and Alexander Khadissian. On the contrary, it was supposed to complement the Republic of Armenia by acting as its window on the Mediterranean.
  • Armenians did not create the Cilician issue. It was thrust on us by the international community, which then failed to defend us.

The controversy will certainly continue, because as the saying goes, success will have many godfathers, while defeat is always an orphan.

Indeed, how many real and fake founders do we have for the First Republic? Too many. But the historic fact is that independence of the First Republic was thrust upon Armenians, when they were least ready to embrace it.

One major factor in the collapse of the Cilician dream was French treachery. The French government not only refused to inform Armenians about its intentions, even the local army officers were unaware of what was going on in the corridors of power back home.

The French retreated from Marash, for example, on a snowy night, silently, leaving the Armenians to the mercy of the marauding Kemalist hordes. Many Armenians who were alarmed by the French retreat tried to follow the soldiers, but they froze to death.

One weakness in the Armenian position is that they placed too much trust in the French and ignored the military component of the plan. Had they secretly armed themselves, as the Kemalists did, they could have put up a good fight, as they had done in Marash, Hajin, Urfa, Aintab and Zeitoun and they could have delayed the advance of the Kemalist forces, if not outright defeated them.

Cilicia is one of the most fertile regions of Asia Minor. Today it serves as Turkey’s breadbasket.

The Cilician movement was a missed opportunity for the Armenians, but its lessons were not lost. This time, as the opportunity rose in Karabakh, the Armenians did not listen to their friends or foes. They resorted to defending themselves and in a short time, their ragtag army was converted into a modern fighting machine, which helped Armenia to recover one of its lost pieces.

Our loss in Cilicia was compensated in Karabakh. That was the revenge of history — a hard lesson learned in the span of a full century

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: