Syria under Cemal Pasha’s Governorship
Cemal Pasha’s appointment to Syria came with full powers in military and civilian affairs. A provisional law granted him emergency powers in May 1915, such that all cabinet decrees that pertained to Syria became subject to his approval. His draconian rule following the defeat in February 1915 at the Suez Canal, coupled with the wartime exigencies and natural disasters that afflicted the region during these years, alienated the population from the Ottoman government.
In the spring of 1915, Cemal instituted a reign of terror in Syria against Arab opponents. After the severance of relations with France, Ottoman authorities had occupied the French consulates in Beirut and Damascus and confiscated documents that revealed evidence about subversive activities of these opponents. Cemal’s clampdown was based on information deriving from these documents as well as from others belonging to the Decentralization Party, which had been turned over to the Ottoman authorities by a former member, Muhammad al-Shanti. Historians such as George Antonius and Sulayman Mousa have argued that the crackdown on the Arabists was motivated by Cemal’s humiliation in the Egyptian campaign. “Failing in his attempt,” Mousa writes, “he returned to Damascus and began to seek a pretext for his failure. It dawned upon him that his best chance lay in levelling accusations against Arab political and cultural leaders.” The public hanging of a Francophile Maronite priest for treason was followed by trials at the military court in ‘Aleyh (Âliye Divan-ı Harb-i Örfisi). Eleven Beiruti leaders, ten of them Muslims, were executed on 21 August 1915 in the town square.
The massive reign of terror was consistent with the measures Cemal had taken in his previous emergency posts in Baghdad and İstanbul. Cemal applied himself to reprisals against local leaders and former opponents as soon as he arrived in Syria by utilizing incriminating evidence that had been obtained from the French records and the papers of the Decentralization Party. Though most of the evidence pertained to activities prior to the reconciliation with the Arab leaders, the reprisals had little to do with the humiliation at Suez. Before the Egyptian expedition, and a few weeks after he arrived in Damascus, Cemal reported to the Ministry of the Interior that the vice-president of the council of inspectors, ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Inkilizi, had been determined to be a member of a society aiming at the establishment of an Arab state. Cemal asked that al-Inkilizi should be sent to Syria for trial and denied contact with anyone. At the same time, he had Shukri al-‘Asali, inspector in Aleppo, arrested and sent to Damascus. Both men were executed in a second round of hangings in May 1916.
A second component of the terror involved deportations. Under Cemal’s orders numerous Syrian families (5,000, according to one contemporary account) were deported to Anatolia. One of the earlier and better-known deportees was Nakhla Mutran, whose brother, Rashid Mutran, had created much commotion with the autonomist manifesto disseminated from Paris in 1909. The confiscated documents revealed that he had approached the French authorities in 1913 with a plan for the territorial expansion of the mutasarrıflık of Mount Lebanon under French auspices. While being deported, he was killed under suspicious circumstances. Most deportees had not been politically active or influential. Many had done no more than sign pro-French petitions during the reform movement.
Cemal’s was more than an overreaction to sensational revelations, most of them now obsolete and not of a nature to justify retroactive legal action. The reprisals constituted yet another phase of his persecution of the CUP’s opponents. But the revelations also convinced Cemal that a nationalist movement in Syria was a real, if not an imminent, threat, notwithstanding his characterization of the matter as “one of treachery, not nationality.” He did his utmost to destroy it by eliminating potential supporters, thereby leaving the movement without direction and causing such dislocations in Syrian society as to eliminate the chance for success of any future movement.
Cemal’s actions in Syria were comparable in nature, if not in extent, to those policies pursued with respect to the Armenians in Eastern Anatolia. Both emanated from a fear that a nationalist uprising would come into being with encouragement from enemy powers. The threat was more perceived than real. The relocation of Arabs, only a fraction compared to that of Armenians, took place in relatively more humane circumstances. But the dislocation of a large group of well-to-do Syrians put an added strain on social and economic life in wartime Syria. The psychological effect of these deportations was perhaps more significant, giving reason to the Syrians to believe that they might share a fate similar to that of the Armenians. As the Armenians were resettled among them, their own people were forced out of their country.
Cemal implemented measures contrary to the promises made to the Arabs about the local employment of Arab civilian and military personnel and about giving wider scope to the Arabic language. He removed Arab troops to distant theaters of war. In the spring of 1916 Cemal proceeded to enforce widespread use of Turkish in public life as an extrapolation of a new law promulgated in March 1916 that required all companies to use Turkish in their correspondence and documents. Turkish came back as the language of instruction in the Damascus sultaniye (high school), suggesting that Arabic had been made the language of instruction in this school earlier. As the Austrian envoy in Beirut enumerated the practical and psychological problems associated with the imposition of Turkish in new spheres, the German consul urged Cemal Pasha to adopt a more constructive policy with respect to the Arabs, the ultimate purpose being the creation of a Kulturstaat on the Austro-Hungarian model.
Cemal’s independent attitude in Syria triggered a flurry of diplomatic exchanges between the Entente countries toward the end of 1915. This pertained to rumors about a possible coup by Cemal against the İstanbul government, with an eye to establishing himself as the ruler of Anatolia and Syria. The correspondence was about whether, how, and under what conditions this alleged scheme should be abetted, but the matter was dropped at the beginning of 1916.
If one subscribes to the often held view that real political power rested in the CUP in the hands of a “triumvirate” composed of Talat, Enver, and Cemal, one will find it easier to ascribe individual conspiratorial designs to them. It seems, however, that during the war years the policies that the three men pursued in their ministerial capacity were to a large extent determined by the collective will of several Unionist strongmen, many of them behind the scenes. There were factions within the broader CUP leadership, as there were differences between Talat, Enver, and Cemal. If a certain faction or individual vied for greater power, the others imposed checks such that there was hardly ever a basis for independent action, even with outside assistance. Therefore, it is doubtful that Cemal Pasha actually considered a coup as a realistic option, even though it may have appeared as a possibility to the Entente and its sympathizers.
Against the background of the energetic diplomatic exchange in the Entente camp regarding the idea of cooperation with him, Cemal undertook, together with Enver and the müftüs of some of the chief Arab towns, a much-celebrated trip to Medina. By all accounts, the visit to Prophet Muhammad’s tomb was a cathartic spiritual experience for the two men, especially Enver, who was overwhelmed by emotion and burst into tears by the grave. First and foremost, however, it was part of a broader effort to strengthen the government’s position in the Arab districts. Dismayed by the drastic decrease in the number of pilgrims since the beginning of the war, and attempting to keep the war outside their territory, the tribes of northern Hijaz had obstructed the passage of fresh troops and the new governor, Galib Pasha, south of Medina. In Beirut the execution of the eleven leaders in August 1915 had caused panic and animosity toward the government. In the Damascus province problems associated with the food supply were causing serious shortages and demonstrations.
The two leaders’ trip to Medina was followed by attempts to strengthen the government’s position through military reinforcements and propaganda. The Arabic language newspaper Al-sharq was initiated as the mouthpiece of government propaganda. On 6 May 1916 Cemal Pasha decided to employ further terror to enhance government authority, and the second group of Arab leaders, including well-known personalities of the Reform Movement who had later made their peace with the government and had accepted positions in İstanbul and elsewhere, was tried in the spring of 1916. In addition to al-Inkilizi and al-‘Asali, the twenty-one leaders sentenced to death in May also included ‘Abd al-Hamid al-Zahrawi, Shafiq al-Mu’ayyad, and ‘Abd al-Ghani al-‘Uraysi. The executions signified in the eyes of the Syrians the government’s resolve to revoke whatever concessions that it had agreed to give to the Arabs. Cemal’s actions may have expedited the revolt in the Hijaz.