The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, by Eugene Rogan
I will come to the question posed in the title of this post shortly, but first the conclusion of the fall of the Ottomans.
One by one, the Allies – led by Britain – took the major cities and regions of the Ottoman Empire: Baghdad, Gaza, and Jerusalem; the Sinai Peninsula.
“Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.”
Not much has changed in the last 100 years.
The story is punctuated with large cavalry charges – cavalry as in horses (and camels), not tanks; effective diversions; conflicting promises. Death by the thousands and tens-of-thousands, on both sides.
The Ottomans were losing not only in the Middle East, but also eastern Anatolia. Russia was making advances through Erzurum and Trabzon. The Russians headed toward Mesopotamia; the British, concerned about their future claims, wanting to secure this region first. Allies, yes – but competitors for empire first.
By the end of 1917, the Ottomans were fighting not for victory, but for survival. Even with the withdrawal by Russia from the war, due to the Russian Revolution, it was too late for the Ottomans. That the United States entered the war took away any advantage to the Germans.
As victory for the Allies seemed certain and was fast approaching, many wanted their cut – and decided to join Britain in the Middle East:
…two Jewish battalions of Royal Fusiliers, formed with the express intention of advancing the Zionist claim to Palestine by valour and sacrifice on the battlefield. The French contributed the Détachement Français de Palestine et de Syrie to ensure that France protected its long-standing claims to Syria. One regiment of the French detachment was made up entirely of Armenian refugees rescued by the French from the famous siege of Musa Dagh. Amir Faysal was at the front of the line, with T. E. Lawrence as his advocate, to uphold Hashemite claims to rule Syria as part of a greater Arab Kingdom.
Both the Arabs and Armenians sent delegates to Paris for the Peace Conference. The Arabs got nothing, the Armenians got a promise, one that didn’t come with any teeth and that the allies gave away in a subsequent treaty. Which leads me to the subject hinted at in the title….
Since 1699, the Ottomans had lost most of the wars that they fought….
The empire was regularly shrinking. The Armenians in eastern Anatolia represented perhaps the last great risk; call it genocide or not, but what was once an Armenian population of perhaps 2 million was reduced to perhaps 100,000 or less. The Great War and aftermath truly represented an existential event for the Turks. Had all enactments from Paris been enforced, Turkey would have been a stub – the western peninsula, with Istanbul even under foreign administration.
And then along came Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The hero of Gallipoli became the father of the Republic. Shoving the Greeks off to the west, the French in the south, and the Armenians to the east, he secured Turkey in basically its current form.
That settled things in Turkey, but it didn’t settle things for many Armenians. Call it revenge or call it justice; several Armenians went after many of the Turks that were the leading perpetrators of…well, the term “genocide” had not yet been coined, so we will refer to it using the terminology of the time:
…"massacres", "atrocities", "annihilation", "holocaust", "the murder of a nation", "race extermination" and "a crime against humanity".
First were trials, held in Turkey and for the purpose of prosecuting the perpetrators (and also, perhaps, with an eye on the hope that the trials would buy the Turks some western favor in the peace settlement). Eighteen individuals were given the death sentence, yet fifteen of these were tried in absentia – having fled Turkey at the end of the war. The three who remained were executed in Turkey. The rest remained free.
Unwilling to watch the Young Turk leaders in exile escape justice, a group of Armenian militants from the Dashnak organization took the law into their own hands. Between March 1921 and July 1922, the Dashnaks ordered a series of assassinations of key Young Turk leaders in a program known as “Operation Nemesis.”
Perhaps most well-known is the case of Soghomon Tehlirian:
Soghomon Tehlirian was an Armenian who assassinated Talaat Pasha, the former Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, in Berlin on March 15, 1921. The assassination was a part of Operation Nemesis, planned by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation as revenge for the Armenian Genocide orchestrated by the Ottoman Imperial Government during World War I. Talaat Pasha had been convicted and sentenced to death in absentia in the Turkish courts-martial of 1919–20, and was viewed as the main orchestrator of the genocide. After a two-day trial Tehlirian was found not guilty by the German court, and freed. Tehlirian is considered a national hero by Armenians.
The orders to Tehlirian were as follows:
…"you blow up the skull of the Number One nation-murderer and you don't try to flee. You stand there, your foot on the corpse and surrender to the police, who will come and handcuff you."
And so it went. Arshavir Shiragian took part in three assassinations – one in Rome, two in Berlin; the assassination of Cemal took place in Tbilisi, Georgia. Enver eluded assassination, but died in Central Asia while fighting the Bolsheviks. Altogether, by 1926 ten of the eighteen men convicted in the trials were dead.
So…revenge or justice?