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Armenia – Another Asia Minor Dream that Never Came True

September 24, 2022

Editor’s Note: This special section of The National Herald spotlights the tragic burning of Smyrna in 1922 as the climactic event in the destruction of Hellenism in Asia Minor. To properly understand what was going on in Asia Minor at the time, one cannot confine oneself to the occurrences in Western Asia Minor – events in its eastern region were also crucial for the fate of the Hellenes. There, East of Ankara, unfolded the saga of wo ancient nations, the Kurds and the Armenians. It is the latter people that Stavros Stavridis’ article focuses on.

Armenia, Great Britain, and the League of Nations: 1918-1923

The formation of an independent Armenian state was one of the promises given by Great Britain and its allies to the Armenian people during World War I (1914-1918).

Before examining this aspect of Armenian history, there is a brief overview of Armenia’s past from antiquity until the end of 1918 that appears below. Armenia is a Mediterranean nation that shares borders with Turkey, Georgia, Iran (Persia), and Azerbaijan. It is mountainous, with its highest peaks located in the Caucasus. The Armenian language belongs to the Indo-European language family.

For centuries, the Christian people of Armenian lived in Eastern Turkey, where they coexisted with Kurdish nomads. From antiquity until the Middle Ages, the area was governed by successive Armenian dynasties, which had to face continual invasions and migration by Turkish-speaking peoples from the 11th to the 16th century. The area eventually came under the control of the Ottoman Empire, although the Armenians maintained a strong sense of national identity through the preservation of their language and the role of the Armenian Church. The overwhelming majority of Armenians belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church, along with a small number of Roman Catholics and Protestants.

During the period of Ottoman rule, they were governed by the Millet system, which provided non-Muslim minorities with administrative and social autonomy. Prior to World War I, the Armenians lived in six administrative regions separated into pashaliks, along with Kurdish nomads. Frequently, they resided in homogeneous villages and neighborhoods in cities and towns.

The Armenians suffered genocide at the hands of the Young Turks, who accused them of collaborating with the Russians during the years 1915-1918. A number of foreign journalists, missionaries, diplomats, and military officers witnessed the massacre and exile of the Armenian people from their ancestral home.

During World War I, the Armenians aided the Allies in their military efforts, such as by defending the front in the Caucuses following the Russian collapse in 1917. Also, the French Armenian Legion fought in Palestine as part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, under the leadership of British general Edmund Allenby. As the war was coming to an end in December 1917, British Premier David Lloyd George described Armenia as a land “soaked with the blood of the innocent” and declared that it would be one of the nations that would “never be restored the blasted tyranny of the Turks.”

Armenia was represented at the Paris Peace Conference in February 1919 by the Chairman of the Armenian Parliament Avetis Aharonian and the leader of the Armenian National Delegation in Turkish Armenia Boghos Nubar Pasha. Both men envisioned a united and independent Armenian state that would include the republic represented by Aharonian and the seven vilayets or provinces of Cilicia, Erzurum, Bitlis, Diyarbakir, Harpoot, Sivas, and a portion of Trebizond that provided access to the Black Sea.

It should be noted that Europe’s Great Powers were not interested in the creation of a large Armenian state that would extend from the Mediterranean Sea to the Caucasus. This was due to the fact that Great Britain was unwilling to provide Armenia with military aid and assume responsibility for its protection, hoping that the United States would assume the Armenian mandate instead.

However, U.S. indecisiveness regarding the acceptance of the Armenian mandate slowed down peace negotiations with Turkey in 1919 and exposed the minority populations in eastern Anatolia to greater risk, which posed a threat to their very existence.

According to Armenian historian Richard Hovannisian, the British Peace Delegation and Foreign Office were in favor of sending military aid, but the War Office, the India Office, and Treasury opposed such aid. The British Government’s decision to withdraw its forces from the Caucasus in August 1919 was part of its wider policy to reduce its overseas commitments and cut down its military footprint.

In the summer of 1919, Armenia faced attacks by Kurdish and Tatar forces across the length of its borders as it was trying to feed its repatriated population. The establishment of a Turkish nationalist movement in Anatolia posed a serious threat to the formation of an Armenian state. Meanwhile, disagreement prevailed among various government agencies in London over the question of providing military support to Armenia. The War Office supported the Cabinet’s policy of withdrawal and maintained that it had no available weapons and equipment to spare. The Foreign Office, on the other hand, criticized this decision and argued that Armenians needed to be provided with military supplies. Without British military aid, the fate of Armenia seemed doubtful.

Speaking to representatives of the Allies in London on February 16, 1920, British Foreign Minister Lord Curzon proposed that Armenia be placed under the protection of the League of Nations. The League of Nations Council responded to Curzon’s proposal on April 11th, stating that it did not have the military or financial resources to help Armenia. In actuality, Article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant forbade it from serving as a Mandatory power. Instead, the Council proposed that the best solution to the Armenian question would be for an independent state to accept the mandate with the League’s supervision and moral support. One problem facing the League of Nations and Allied Supreme Council was that a portion of the territory of the new Armenian state was under foreign military occupation. The Allies and League of Nations did not have the decisiveness and material resources with which to remove Turkish forces from Armenian soil.

The Treaty of Sèvres, which was signed on August 10, 1920, established a free and independent Armenia (Article 88), whose border with Turkey would be determined with the aid of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who would act as arbitrator (Article 89). Toward this end, Article 91 provided for a Boundary Commission to delineate the border between Armenia and Turkey, while Article 93 charged Armenia with the duty of protecting the minorities residing in its territory.

Facing attacks on three fronts by the Bolsheviks, Turkish nationalists, and Tartars from Azerbaijan, the Armenians appealed for help to the League of Nations Council on October 6th and 12th 1920. The Armenians considered these attacks on their territory to be a violation of the Treaty of Sèvres. With the League of Nations Council unable to help Armenia militarily or through the provisions of its Covenant, Armenia turned to the Allied Supreme Council, requesting its aid and intervention. The Armenians tried to warn Great Britain and its allies about the danger that would arise from the formation of a Turkish-Bolshevik bloc in the Near East.

The British War Office was not indifferent to rapprochement between Turkey and Russia. To facilitate the Armenians, the League of Nations Council referred Armenia’s appeal to the Allies for consideration at the end of October. On November 10th, Prime Minister Lloyd George assured the Secretary-General of the League of Nations that the Armenians were receiving military supplies and fuel for their military transports. It made no sense to discuss implementing the Treaty of Sèvres until President Wilson could arbitrate the border issue between Turkey and Armenia.

Former Armenian Prime Minister Alexander Khatisian proposed that the Greeks occupy Trebizond, so that its port could be used as a supply station and as “a base for campaigns targeting the Caucasus.” In fact, Britain’s High Commissioner in Constantinople Sir John de Robeck supported such an operation. On October 2nd, he informed Curzon that “it is my opinion that its preemptive occupation by the Allies is the most effective means of support to Armenia.” Curzon replied that an Allied occupation of Trebizond was “not practical, and Greek occupation was not desirable.” The British naval command considered the control of naval traffic in the Black Sea from Constantinople to be the best solution.

In response to the resolution of the League of Nations Assembly of November 22nd, the Council cabled President Wilson and other League of Nations members states on November 25th expressing the hope that the U.S., in particular, could offer their good services to intervene in the conflict between Turkey and Armenia. The League of Nations Assembly resolution of November 22, 1920 stated that “the Assembly of the League of Nations requests the Council to arrive at an understanding with the Governments, with a view to entrusting a Power with the task of taking the necessary measures to stop the hostilities between Armenia and the Kemalists – The Assembly decides to nominate a Committee to examine measures to be taken and to report to the Assembly.”

At the Conference of London in February-March 1921, and the Paris Conference in March 1922, allied ministers pledge to create an Armenian ethnic homeland. In his talks with the Turkish nationalist foreign ministers Bekir Sami and Yusuf Kema in March 1921 and 1922, Curzon had stated that an independent Armenia must be formed, with the areas of Kars, Ardahan, and Alexandroupolis being included in the Armenian state. Both foreign ministers assured Corzon that their government wanted good relations with Armenia. Pledges regarding the creation of an Armenian homeland revealed the disinterest and open hostility of France and the lukewarm support of Italy toward Britain. While in Paris in 1922, Curzon managed to convince Italian Foreign Minister Signor Schanzer and French Premier Raymond Poincaré that they bore a responsibility for fulfilling prior pledges made to Armenians regarding the establishment of their nation. Curzon’s ‘formula’ relied on participation by the League of Nations. The League was to assume a special responsibility for the protection and safeguarding of the minorities in Europe and Asia, while the borders of Armenia remain unfixed. Following a peace treaty, Turkey would be invited to join the League of Nations. Even the resolutions of the League of Nations Assembly and Council in September 1921 and 1922, as well as in October 1921, respectively, urged the Allied Supreme Council to take the necessary measures to create an Armenian homeland that would be independent from Turkey. Nonetheless, such a measure would never materialize, because the League of Nations and the Allied Supreme Council possessed neither the funds nor the willingness to aid the Armenians during this calamity.

At the Lausanne Conference of 1922-23, Curzon, who served as Chairman of the Territorial and Military Commission, described the problems the Armenians were facing. Approximately 1,250,000 of their countrymen were living in the Soviet Republic of Yerevan, which was already overpopulated with Armenian refugees from Kars, Ardahan, Van, Bitlis, and Erzurum. There were approximately three million Armenian refugees spread throughout the Caucasus and neighbouring countries, while only 130,000 of them remained in Turkey. Addressing Curzon’s committee on December 13, 1922, the head of the Turkish delegation at Lausanne Ismet Pasha stated that Turkey was unwilling to cede even an inch of its territory to Armenia. He added that Turkey had formed good relations with the Soviet Republic of Yerevan, and that he would no longer entertain discussions regarding the formation of an Armenian national homeland. The united Armenian delegation presented the League of Nations Secretary-General with two memoranda describing their position regarding the future of an Armenian state, proposing that these documents be referred to the League of Nations Council for deliberation. The tone of both memoranda revealed the Armenians’ decisiveness to make one last ditch effort to attain their national aspirations. Protections were put in place for the safety, property, religious freedom, linguistic rights, and equal civil rights of the surviving minorities in Turkey, as foreseen in articles 37-45 of the Treaty of Lausanne, however, Armenians’ hopes for a national homeland never materialized in the final peace treaty with Turkey.

Stavros T. Stavrides is a researcher/historian and regular contributor to The National Herald.

 

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