The End of the Empire and Turkish-Arab Relations
With the occupation of Damascus and the rest of Syria by the Anglo-Arab forces in October 1918 and the Ottoman surrender at the Mudros cease-fire at the end of that month, it became clear that the İstanbul government had lost its hold on the Arab provinces. What was less certain was the future of the Arab regions. Ottoman armies withdrew, exposing differences among former allied powers, among the various Arab factions, as well as between the Arabs and Britain and France.
In İstanbul the Talat Pasha government resigned on 8 October. The new cabinet under Ahmed İzzet Pasha pledged to settle the question of the Arab provinces in accordance with the “national will” of the Arabs. The proposal to maintain these provinces within the empire by granting internal autonomy was received by the Arab deputies with cheers. Turkish and Arab deputies referred to the religious bonds that united the two groups. British proposals for a cease-fire in October 1918 suggested the establishment of autonomous Arab governments under the sultan’s sovereignty.
Awareness of the difficulties that hindered the realization of Arab sovereignty was conducive in Syria to a predisposition in favor of an alliance with the Turks against European ambitions. Ottoman subjects in Europe considered initiatives for Turco-Arab cooperation. Ottomanist Arabs like Shakib Arslan pointed to the need for political unity under the Ottoman dynasty in view of the foreign menace and urged all parties to forget past differences and to seek a reunion with wide autonomy for Arabs and Kurds in line with Wilsonian principles.
In May 1919 the Greeks landed troops in Anatolia, triggering an active defense movement to the Allied occupation organized by Mustafa Kemal. In the early stages of this resistance the territorial objectives of the Kemalist movement were not clearly defined, and the general goal was to free as much of the former Ottoman possessions as possible from foreign occupation. Any active resistance in Syria against the French was seen as an asset to the struggle in Anatolia.
In the fall of 1919 there were preparations for a joint Arab-Turkish resistance against the French in northern Syria as a result of the coalescing of various irregular troops throughout the region. Resentment over the withdrawal of British forces to make way for a French takeover strengthened in both Damascus and Aleppo the inclination toward an alliance with the Anatolian resistance. The Nationalist government set up in Damascus during the peace talks established links with the Turkish resistance movement. Negotiations between Anatolians and Syrians took place for joint action and the setting up of a binational state, even though Faysal remained ambivalent about this initiative. The American consul in Beirut reported that the British authorities fear “that the Arabs may consider the British and Americans have failed them, and not being willing to accept French sphere of influence, may consequently decide to accept preferred support of Mustafa Kamel [sic], which might bring about a serious pan-Islam movement.”
While the idea of cooperating with the Anatolian resistance found more and more proponents in Damascus and Aleppo because of fear of French occupation, the impending carving up of Greater Syria and the granting of a “national home” to the Zionists produced the same kind of response in Palestine. The Supreme Committee of Palestinian Assemblies wrote to the American representative in Jerusalem:
Turkey which was supposed to be the greatest enemy working for the dismemberment of the Arab nation, a weak people, did not prove to be so tyrannical as to sentence us to this slow death. How then could our friends the Allies who acknowledge that the Arabs contributed to their victory in the Near East allow such a sentence to be passed on us?
If we rose up against Turkey it was only for asserting our rights and had we only foreseen that our alliance was to lead to this partition of our country and to this colonization thereof we would not have declared our animosity to the Turks.
At the end of 1919 the Anatolian resistance to Allied occupation had not crystallized as a Turkish nationalist movement, even though the two congresses held by resistance groups in eastern Anatolia had prepared the groundwork of the National Pact (Misak-ı Milli). The National Pact has come to be recognized as the manifesto of the Turkish nationalist movement since its formal adoption by the Ottoman Parliament in February 1920 (and thus triggering its dissolution the next month) and by the newly established Grand National Assembly of Turkey in 1921. The first clause of the Pact as enunciated in Parliament referred to the right of self-determination of Arabs of Ottoman territories under foreign occupation. It did not posit a clear articulation of a Turkish homeland, thus leaving the door open for the expression of the Arab will in favor of cooperation with the Anatolian movement. It was hardly a coincidence that Celal Nuri’s İttihad-ı İslam, that had been published in 1913 to urge Turco-Arab unity against European imperialism, was translated into Arabic in 1920, under the title of Ittihad al-muslimin (Unity of Muslims). Particularly after the French occupation of Syria, the Iraqi nationalists, too, became favorably disposed toward collaboration with the Anatolians.
Cooperation with Arabs was consistent with the anti-imperialist objectives of the Anatolian movement. Yet in view of an increasingly bitter conflict about the fate of Syria and Iraq in international forums, embroiling European, Arab, and Zionist delegations in a host of conflicting claims, the Kemalists extricated themselves from these controversies over Arab-populated territories. Instead, they devoted their energies to Anatolia, laying the foundations of a Turkish nation-state. As late as the end of 1922 some Palestinian Arab leaders appealed to the Kemalists to seek a Turkish mandate under which they could achieve self-determination. The frustration of Arab expectations of independence led to feelings of nostalgia for the empire or hopes for a more active cooperation with the Turks against imperialism. However, the emergent nationalist leadership in the Turkish regions heeded Realpolitik and devoted its attention to delivering Anatolia. It prepared to renounce irredentist ambitions and to work out the necessary arrangements with the imperialist powers to achieve the limited aim.
The Arab Revolt had an impact on İstanbul in two opposing ways. On the one hand, it led to the belief that it was futile to struggle to preserve the multinational empire. On the other, it prompted the adoption of modern propaganda methods consistent with traditional religious values to prevent the revolt from spreading. The attacks and counterattacks between the sharif and the government were intended to appeal to the religious sensibilities of the Ottomans and all other Muslims. While the defeats in the war and the Arab Revolt may have strengthened the Turkist position, the government, even after the cabinet change of 1917, sought to reverse the disintegrationist trends by stressing an Islamist-Ottomanist outlook in public life. It is significant, for instance, that Yusuf Akçura, the prominent ideologue of the Turkist movement, lost his job during the university reform of 1916. If Turkish irredentism had its appeal to Committee leaders such as Enver, others, like Talat, were ambivalent. Still others, such as Cavid, opposed it and believed that efforts should be made to retain the Arab provinces rather than dissipate energy in Turkic Russia. Yet, the ultimate defeat in the war and the severe terms of the armistice sealed the fate of the Ottoman Empire and of Ottomanism.