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Case Study:

The expulsion of non-Turkish ethnic and religious groups from Turkey to Syria during the 1920s and early 1930s

Last modified: 25 March 2009
Vahé Tachjian

March 2009

Cite this item

Vahé Tachjian, The expulsion of non-Turkish ethnic and religious groups from Turkey to Syria during the 1920s and early 1930s , Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 5 March 2009, accessed 26 January 2015, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/The-expulsion-of-non-Turkish-ethnic-and-religious-groups, ISSN 1961-9898


 A – Context

The main factor in the birth of the National Movement, led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha (later Atatürk) after the end of the First World War, was the disintegration of the defeated Ottoman Empire and its fragmentation. The movement’s aim was the reconquest of all the former regions in Anatolia that were still under the jurisdiction of the victorious Allies. At the time, when the map of the Middle East was being redrawn by the Great Powers, the Anatolian regions could also have spawned new governments that would be outside Turkish-Ottoman control.

The movement created by Mustafa Kemal under these circumstances (in May 1919) and its proceeding military victories on multiple fronts would open a new page in modern Turkish history. Thus, by the end of 1920, the Turkish Army succeeded in recapturing the Kars and Ardahan regions from the Republic of Armenia. On January 4, 1922, the French governing authorities finally withdrew from Cilicia, so that it once again came under Turkish control. The Greco-Turkish war in western Anatolia that began in 1920 would continue until the close of 1922, this confrontation also ended in victory for Turkey. These military successes opened the doors to the Lausanne Conference for Turkey, where the Turkish side won a political victory to crown all its previous military achievements. As a result, Mustafa Kemal and his supporters succeeded in realising the National Movement’s most important aim: the creation of a Turkish Nation-State on the wide expanses of Anatolia. The Lausanne Treaty (signed on July 24, 1923) officially recognized the creation of this new Turkey and gave it a place on the world stage.

For the founders of the new Turkish State it was just as important to “Turkify” it economically, linguistically and demographically as it was to liberate the land. Indeed, the aim of the leaders was to establish a Nation-State that was based exclusively on Turkish identity. Consequently, the presence of other ethno-national groups, the question of their cohesion and investment in the development of their community became insupportable. This mentality was best expressed by Vehbi Bey, the deputy from Karesi who, on November 5, 1924, announced in the Turkish parliament with regard to the population exchange agreement between Turkey and Greece: “The arrival of every individual is a [source of] richness for us; and the departure of every individual who leaves is a blessing for us!” (Aktar, 2003: 87). These ideals were quickly disseminated throughout the country, especially through the press, schools, the various branches of Mustafa Kemal’s Republican People’s Party (CHP, founded in 1923), as well as through Türk Ocaklari, their main propaganda tool (Georgeon, 1982: 192).

It should be noted that, broadly speaking, the creation of Nation-States was a norm in the aftermath of the First World War. This worldwide conflict had destroyed the three multi-national, multi-regional empires: the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Tsarist. The disappearance of this political configuration provided the opportunity for the drawing up of new borders and especially the advance of new Nation-States. In the case of the regions of the former Ottoman Empire, the emphasis on national identity was not solely a Turkish peculiarity. It had spread through the other ethnic and religious communities of the former Ottoman Empire, such as the Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Arabs, Kurds and Assyro-Chaldeans. The previous Ottoman order had broken down and the victorious Allies (especially the two imperialist powers Great Britain and France) had divided the region into various spheres of influence in which new self-governing units began to emerge. In this new political order, the various peoples who constituted parts of the former empire wanted, in their turn, to rule over autonomous or independent areas, collecting their people and creating homogenous regions.

What differentiated the new Turkey from the other peoples that also wanted to create Nation-States, was its leaders’ closeness to the ideals of the former Ottoman Empire’s leadership – the Ittihad ve Terakki (Committee for Union and Progress – CUP). It was during the years when this political party was in power, especially during the First World War, that a new stage in the policy of homogenization and “Turkification” of Anatolia was reached, or more correctly, that it developed a criminal capacity. It was during those years that the CUP put the complete plan for deportation, obliteration and forcible resettlement of non-Turkish peoples into action, culminating in the almost total deportation and extermination of the Armenian people from their ancestral homes in eastern Anatolia, as well as from the many towns and villages of western Anatolia.

The ideal of a homogenous and “Turkified” Anatolia was the aim of the leaders of new Turkey too. This may be considered to be a linear development, bearing in mind that the movement led by Mustafa Kemal was, in many basic ways, a direct continuation of the CUP (Zürcher, 1984: 103-105). Its character was also similar to that of the CUP, there were many people in the movement that had previously been members of the CUP and had basic roles during the First World War, mainly in the implementation of the plans for the forced deportation and massacre of Armenians (Akçam, 2006: 303).

To better understand the general context after the end of the First World War, it is important to consider the increasing antagonism between Ottoman Turks and Ottoman Christians. If we consider the areas that our subject covers, we would see that the capture of Cilicia and other areas further east by the Allies was welcomed with great enthusiasm by the indigenous Christian peoples. They comprised mostly Armenians who were survivors of the genocide. That enthusiasm quickly turned to concrete action. The Allied forces (the British and French) turned this local Christian element into a basic lever in their drive for military occupation. It was this element that provided the manpower for the conquering authorities, both for the civil administration and the military-police organs. Under these circumstances the distance between the Turkish and non-Turkish (especially Christian) populations became greater. It was not surprising therefore that when the Turkish authorities began to expel non-Turkish communities, they frequently referred to the assistance afforded to the French occupying forces as justification. From the Turkish position they were simply suspect elements that could potentially endanger the rule of the newly-established Turkish government and threaten its security.

To complete the picture, we should consider that the French mandatory authorities made every effort possible to achieve their aim of securing and prolonging their position in Syria. The French had ceded Cilicia to the Turks in 1921-1922, but maintained their rule over Syria and Lebanon. It is interesting to see, in the two adjoining countries, the contradictory occupation strategies used, on the one hand by the French and on the other by the Turkish. Although they were diametrically opposed in their methods, they both wanted to achieve the same aims – the secure continuance of their rule. In fact, the French mandatory authorities, in contradistinction to the Turks, did not encourage Arab nationalism in Syria and were deeply opposed to the efforts made to establish Nation-States in their regions based on the Turkish model. The French did however encourage the development of local religious and ethnic group identities. They then attempted to make these groupings their local allies, bearing in mind that the mandatory authorities were convinced that it was the Sunni Arab majority who were opposed to the French presence and interests.

This was also why, during their occupation of Syria, the French authorities were not opposed to the streams of refugees coming from neighboring Turkey or Iraq. These were Assyrians/Syriacs, Chaldeans, Armenians or Kurds who, for various reasons, had left their homes and had found refuge in Syria. The French authorities themselves generally organized the settlement of the refugees. One of the most important of these plans was carried out in Upper Jazira in northeastern Syria. There, thanks to French efforts, new towns and villages were built with the intention of housing the refugees considered to be “friendly”. This meant that the non-Turkish minorities that were under Turkish pressure knew that, no matter how painful and undesirable it was to leave their ancestral homes, shops, fields and property, they could find refuge and rebuild their lives in relative safety on the other side of the border, in Syria.

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