Syrian-Armenian Memory and the Refugee Issue in Syria under the French Mandate (1921–46)

The Armenian Weekly Magazine
April 2012 

An overwhelming majority of today’s Syrian-Armenians are the descendants of Ottoman-Armenians who survived the 1915 Armenian Genocide. The 120,000–150,000 deportees in Ottoman Syria, who had hoped to return to their homeland as soon as World War I was over, returned to Cilicia, which, by the time of the Mudros Armistice (Oct. 30, 1918), had come under French occupation. All hope of rebuilding their communities, however, vanished with the Turkish National Liberation War (1919–21) and the ceding of Cilicia to the Turkish Republic following the formalization of the Turco-Syrian border in the Ankara agreement on Oct. 21, 1921.

Armenian refugees in Syria (Near East Relief)

During these years, the killing, intimidation, abduction, and stigmatization of Armenians in Cilician cities—such as Adana, Mersin, Tarsus, as well as in cities like Urfa, Kharpert, Malatya, Diyarbekir, and Arabkir—continued, culminating in a second Armenian exodus towards French Syria and Lebanon. Between 1921–23, 80,000 new refugees arrived in Syria and Lebanon by land or by sea. Richard Hovannisian estimates that by the end of 1925, approximately 100,000 refugees were living in Syria; 50,000 in Lebanon; 10,000 in Palestine and Jordan; 40,000 in Egypt; 25,000 in Iraq; and 50,000 in Iran.1

The third wave of expulsion towards French Syria, in particular north-eastern Syria, in Jazira, took place following Turkey’s military suppression of the Kurdish Sheikh Saïd Revolt in 1925. According to figures compiled by the League of Nations, between 8,000 and 10,000 Kurdo-Armenians, as named by the French sources, from the rural parts of Diyarbekir, Mardin, Shirnak, Siirt, Bitlis, and Cizre, joined the Armenian deportees who had arrived in Syria earlier, in 1915–16 and 1921–23.2

The history of the post-genocide world in Syria has not yet been critically assessed. Very few scholarly works have incorporated the social and political history of the Armenian refugees into the general history of Syria. It seems that the politics of fear is also quite pervasive among researchers. Accordingly, the scholarly field inevitably silences and marginalizes controversial historical phenomena from scholarly scrutiny, such as the issue of sectarianism or the refugee issue. This piece will shed some light on the Armenian refugee experiences upon their arrival to their new residence in French Syria.

In the Syrian-Armenian memory, 1915 is seen as a decisive event, a violent ending, but also as a new beginning, and a new period of struggle in a hostile and foreign setting. The violence of the genocide—while it took different forms in social, class, cultural, and geographic terms—constitutes the foundation of all the historical narratives of that time. And they all begin with the violence the survivors were exposed to in their home towns or on the deportation routes to Syria, namely an entire life was left behind and would never be returned; Its fields, trees, rivers, and climate are remembered with extreme grief, and the new refuge is never really accepted as a substitute.

The French mandate (1921–46) rule in Syria and the colonial agency are obscured, or rather assimilated, into a survival narrative where the main provider is depicted as the “Syrians” if not the “community” itself. The new life in French Syria indicates a positive change from bad to good, namely from insecurity, fear, instability, and oppression to security, stability, and tolerance. Generosity and respect on the part of the Syrian Arabs are presented as the underlying factors in this safety and security. No mention is made of the distress felt by the local Syrians due to the refugee flow to French Syria; nor of the dominant French colonial perspective on the Christian refugees and the fragile bargaining between the two; nor of the tacit agreement between the Arab nationalists and later the Armenian leadership of the early 1930’s.

Obscuring the colonial period as well as the current state of things in Syria while underscoring the 1915 memories is not a mere coincidence. Neglect of the post-genocide Armenian experience in Syria is apparently related to the repressive conditions that have existed there since independence (1946). Equally important, the genocide is actually the main event underlying the uprooting and deportations of the majority of Armenians to Ottoman/French Syria between 1915 and the late 1930’s. Being the “unacknowledged” victims of the Turkish nationalist venture, and given the lack of space for the Syrian-Armenians’ narratives to be recognized in Turkey, the Syrian-Armenian memory can be considered, as de Certeau reminds us, as “unrecognized reminders of a historical and still ongoing repression.”3 In other words, the omnipresence of the memory of 1915 is also a response to the current denialism on the part of the Turkish state and a segment of Turkish society. Moreover, the genocide is the main event underlying the deracination, uprooting, and deportations of the majority of Armenians to Ottoman/French Syria between 1915 and the late 1930’s.



There is almost no integrated history of the controversial encounters between the newcomer refugees and the local population during the early days of French colonial rule in Syria.4 Nora Arissian’s piece The Echoes of the Armenian Genocide in the Syrian Press may be considered the first attempt to write the history of the Armenian Genocide as seen through the eyes of the Syrian Arab nationalists.5 Together with her study of the memoirs of Syrian intellectuals on the genocide (both have been banned in Syria), her work paved the way for further research on the topic.6 Despite being under-researched, the refugee issue was one of the most controversial issues in post-World War I Levant, posing serious concerns not only for the governing colonial powers and the home state, but also for the displaced and host populations.7

Concerned with the economic, social, and political costs of settling refugees in inner Syria or the Turco-Syrian frontier zone, the French authorities had to deal with the refugee issue without causing a deep crisis of legitimacy, both in the eyes of the Muslim majority and the local as well as refugee Christians in Syria. Justifying their presence in Syria and Lebanon as “the protectors of Christians,” the mandate authorities aimed to avoid increasing anxiety among the Syrian Arab nationalists. The French archives are full of reports drafted in the 1920’s about the refugee populations—especially Armenians and Kurds from Turkey, and Assyrians from British Iraq—and various settlement projects concerning these groups. These documents demonstrate that the French mandatory state did not adopt a comprehensive refugee policy, but embraced a pragmatic approach that took into account particular political, economic, diplomatic, and social concerns.

In the meantime, the Turkish state was fearful of an “enclave of undesirables”—in particular, Armenians and Kurdish political refugees—forming outside of its control, just south of its border in Jazira.8 The correspondence between Ankara and the French High Commissariat showcase Turkey’s complaints over “malicious elements” in the form of Armenians in the frontier zone and of rebellious Kurdish tribes residing in Jazira.9 The settlement of the Armenians along the Turkish-Syrian border, their recruitment into the French administration and army, and the trans-border incursions by the Kurds into Turkey form the sine qua non topic of the intelligence reports, telegrams, and correspondences from 1925–27. The French are criticized for providing protection to the Kurdish rebels and allowing the settlement of Armenians in areas near the border.

The French central authorities were well aware of the need to regulate the refugee flow. The High Commissariat in Beirut had, after 1925, become more responsive to the demands from the Turkish Foreign Ministry. In a report drafted after the Sheikh Saïd Revolt, entitled “Du passage en Syrie des populations Kurdes ou Chrétiens ou de déserteurs Turcs,” High Commissar Maurice Sarrail openly proposed to Paris to “organize the regulations pertaining to accepting refugees in Syria.”10 Despite the pragmatic approach adopted by the French central authorities, certain local officers still held their ground and took initiative in the settlement of the refugees, in particular Kurdish refugees from Turkey. In a letter dated Jan. 27, 1925, a local French officer described the Turkish allegations of Armenian colonization on the border as mistaken and exaggerated:

‘Since the beginning of the armistice, the biggest problem that the mandatory power is trying to resolve is the refugee problem. We have received 96,450 refugees since then and they are all impoverished people. France has made great economic sacrifices for them. Just for the sake of relieving pressure on the north of Syria, we have settled two-thirds of these poor people in inner Syria. The rest reside in Aleppo and in the Sanjak of Alexandretta, and their settlements were realized calmly and in deference to the Muslim population.’11

Among the Syrian Arab nationalists, too, the “refugee problem” was a hotly debated issue. Until the mid-1920’s, it was as much a political issue as it was a social and economic problem, especially as the settlement of refugee groups—in particular the Armenians, in inner Syrian cities—began to be felt more acutely.12 Relief, food programs, and settlement arrangements were offered to Armenian refugees by several missionary organizations, as well as by the French mandatory authorities. The refugee issue, along with the French surrender of some Syrian land to Turkey, formed the major criticism expressed by the Syrian-Arab nationalist elites towards the Ankara Agreement formalizing the Turco-Syrian border.

The arrival and settlement of the refugees either in inner Syrian towns or in the remote corners of French Syria were directly linked to colonial “divide and rule” politics. The flow of refugees into the Syrian space, which continued through the 1920’s without any expression of consent by the local Syrians, evoked a “lack of agency” because of a “sovereignty deficit” in the Syrian national self. Arguing that Syria had turned into a “whore,” as refugees could freely enter the country, several articles in the nationalist press demanded the regulation of the border without regard to the ethnicity and religion of the refugee group.

The French strategy of reinforcing and expanding the political space reserved for the Armenians in the new confessional system in French Syria worsened the situation. In Aleppo, which had the biggest immigrant population, the social and economic discomfort was translated into clashes between the communities.13 Christians made up 35 percent of Aleppo’s population, and the French embarked on manipulative efforts to “counter” Arab nationalist political activity by playing the “Christian card”: The

Armenian refugees were granted Syrian citizenship and acknowledged as one of the official sects among 14 in September 1924, after the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne on July 24, 1923.14

Anti-Armenian sentiments became especially apparent following the 1926 elections, when the High Commissioner reshuffled the existing representative council in order to counter the nationalist vote.15 As a result of this French manipulation of the population figures, Armenians were accorded two representatives in the 1926 elections, despite the fact that their population was not sufficient even for one. In 1928—when the French authorities were trying to assure as large a Christian vote as possible to counter the political power of the National Bloc16—French High Commissioner Henri Ponsot affirmed that Armenian refugees residing in Syria had the right to vote in the Constitutional Assembly election.

The refugee issue manifested itself violently in the immediate aftermath of the first mass anti-French uprising—the Great Revolt in 1925—where a battalion of Armenian-French soldiers fought Syrian anti-French rebels. The subsequent angry attack on the Armenian Quarter in Damascus and the killing of 30 Armenians was justified by referring to the latter’s “proven unfaithfulness” and the claim that Armenians “have been fighting against those in whose land they are camping.”17 The French were blamed for the Armenian colonization in Syria and the mobilization of Armenians against Syrians.

The last and biggest wave of refugees—mostly Armenians, Kurds, and Syriacs from the Kurdish provinces of Turkey in the late 1920’s, and of Assyrians from Iraq to Syrian Jazira in 1933—caused extreme alarm and anxiety among the Arab nationalists. Their unease was expressed in a new framework: “harmful strangers vs. outraged Syrians.” A joint declaration by the main Armenian political parties (Hnchak and Dashnak) published in an Arabic-language article in the journal Le Liban on May 15, 1930 reassured the Arab nationalists that there would be no attempt in founding an Armenian state in Syria.18 “We only have one homeland; that is Armenia,” the statement read. “In this hospitable country, our unique effort is to provide the needs of our families and assure the education of our children. We would like to see that the cordial relations between the Arabs and the Armenians are maintained and the misunderstandings that give rise to suspicions are stemmed.”19



The refugee issue reappeared in a different context following the Franco-Syrian Treaty in 1936, which promised independence to Syria within the next five years, and foresaw the incorporation of the autonomously administered regions into a united Syria. These regions included the Sanjak of Alexandretta, the Sanjak of Alawites, and the Sanjak of Druze and Jazira (north-eastern Syria). The treaty was never ratified, but the fierce controversy over two fundamental articles in the treaty—that of the protection of minorities and the unity of Syria—has had longlasting implications concerning Syrian Christians, in general, and Armenians, in particular. These controversies involved two opposing political movements in French Syria, the Unionists and the Autonomists. The reference point for the Unionists was the Arab nationalists, who were aspiring for full independence in a united Syria, while that of the Autonomists was the Francophile Syrians, who asked for an additional article in the constitution on the protection of minorities, as well as the continuation of the status of the autonomously administered regions under the French mandate.

The notion of minority was contested by the rival Autonomists and Unionists to advance their political claims. While the Autonomists promoted an ethno-religious-based definition of minority-ness and asked for special protection against the majority, namely the Sunni Arabs, the latter avoided confronting the minority question. Rather, they opted for the strategy of incorporating ethno-religious belonging into Syrian Arab national identity. The Unionist majority expected the non-Muslim and non-Arab Syrians to obscure and de-politicize their ethno-religious differences. The nationalist slogan “Religion is for God and the nation is for all” evoked such an idea.

The most explicit sign of the Syrian Christians’ pragmatic consent to an apolitical and inclusivist definition of Syrian national belonging came after two bloody incidents in mid- 1936 and 1937: the Sunday market incident in Aleppo and the Amouda incidents in Jazira. After each incident, the nationalist Christian leaders intervened to calm the Christian community and reassure the Muslim majority. The Armenian Orthodox patriarch, Ardavazd Surmeyan, may be considered one of the first-comers to the rapprochement scene following the Sunday market incident on Oct. 12, 1936. In his visit to the Armenian refugee camp in the north of Aleppo, he said:

“I came here with the nationalist leaders to invite you to be calm and to return to your work. We have every interest in having cordial relations with the Muslims. The incidents of last Sunday’s market had their origin in the ‘White Badge’ who are bought and paid for by certain traitors; they create discord between the elements of the country in order to obtain their goal. I ask therefore all Armenians to have no relations with the ‘White Badge’ and to even prevent these people from circulating around [the tent-city].”20

While the Armenian political parties (Dashnak, Ramgavar, and Hnchak) were aiming to maintain amicable relationships with both the French and Arab nationalists, they began to take a more pragmatic approach in the mid-1930’s towards greater cooperation with the Arab nationalists in Syria, particularly after 1936.21 The Armenian communists in the Syrian Communist Party had always sided with the Arab nationalists’ struggle for full independence.

The interaction between the notions of political dissidence and minority-refugee status in the Syrian Arab nationalist imagery is related particularly to the Autonomy Movement in Syrian Jazira. The Autonomist faction in Jazira asked for a special minority status for the Jaziran population, which was made up of mostly Christian and Kurdish refugees from Turkey, and aspired for the continuation of autonomous rule in the region under the French mandate. While the Autonomists depicted the Jazirans under the rubric of minority on the basis of being non-Arab and non-Muslim refugees from Turkey, a significant portion of the Arab nationalists attempted to counter the Autonomists’ formulation between the status of refugee and minority. Prime Minister Sadallah Jabiri said in a speech that the “ex-refugees of the 1920’s have integrated and become like us, thus they should not be asking for special treatment.” The Arab nationalists labeled the leaders of the Autonomy Movement in Jazira as “refugees who deny favor” in upbraiding rhetoric.22 Eventually the notion of refugee came to stand only for the “minority” and represented the “interest- seeker dissident rebel.” As minority-ness conjured up the image of political dissidents, the majority among the ex-refugees soon conjured up the image of “simple people who are only interested in their daily bread, but nothing else.”23 In a way, the Syrian-Armenians entered the post-colonial era after they were stripped of transformative political agency.

Until the 1940’s, French Syria was still a refuge for thousands of “undesirables” for whom Turkish nationalism had left without a home.24 The bargain between the colonial power and the Armenian refugees contributed to some extent to the social and economic betterment of the Armenians, while the bargain with the local Arab nationalists helped to calm the ever-lost feeling of security and stability—but only through a patrimonial relationship and at the expense of free political agency. Nevertheless, memories of the horrors of 1915 were evoked during several instances: during the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1981, the Kurdish resistance in Qamishli in 2003, and likely during current days of anti-regime uprising in Syria. Memories of 1915 and the oppressive regime generate a politically conformist discourse among the Syrian-Armenian establishment and the community at large. The spell of the past will start to crumble, however, when the 1915 violence is acknowledged and, as Walter Benjamin said, when “the causes of what happened then have been eliminated.”25


1. Richard Hovannisian, “The Ebb and Flow of the Armenian Minority in the Arab Middle East,” Middle East Journal, xxvii, winter 1974. For different estimates, see Thomas H. Greenshields, The Settlement of Armenian Refugees in Syria and Lebanon, 1915–1939, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Durham, 1978.

2. For an elaborate discussion of the last wave of deportations, see Vahé Tachjian, La France en Cilicie et en Haute Mésopotamie (Paris: Karthala, 2004), pp. 301–317.

3. Michel de Certeau, Heterelogies (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 4.

4. Several works on Syria mention the bad conditions and treatment the refugees endured prior to their arrival, but only in passing. Among the few critical works on the refugees are: Keith Watenpaugh “Towards a New Category of Colonial Theory: Colonial Cooperation and the Survivors’ Bargain—The Case of the Post–Genocide Armenian Community of Syria under French Mandate,” in Peter Sluglett and Nadine Méouchy (eds.) The British and French Mandates in Comparative Perspective (Leiden: Brill, 2004), pp. 597–622; Keith Watenpaugh, “‘A pious wish devoid of all practicability:’ Interwar Humanitarianism, The League of Nations and the Rescue of Trafficked Women and Children in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1920–1927,” American Historical Review, 115:4 (October 2010); for Jazira, see Seda Altu˘g, “Sectarianism in the Syrian Jazira: Community, land and violence in the memories of World War I and the French mandate (1915–1939),” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, June 2011, Utrecht; Seda Altug, “Armenian Genocide, Sheikh Said Revolt, and Armenians in Syrian Jazira,”; Ellen Marie Lust-Okar, “Failure of Collaboration: Armenian Refugees in Syria,” Middle Eastern Studies, 32, 1(1996), pp. 53–68.

5. Nora Arissian, Asda’ al-ibada al-armaniyya fi al-Sahafa al-Suriyya 1877–1930 (Beirut: Zakira Press, 2004).

6. Nora Arissian, Ghawa’il al-arman fi al-fikr al-suri (Beirut, Dar al-furat, 2002).

7. John Hope Simpson, Refugees: Preliminary Report of a Survey (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1938).

8. See Seda Altug and Benjamin White, “Frontières et pouvoir d’État: la frontière turco-syrienne dans les années 1920 et 1930,” Vingtième Siècle, September 2009.

9. Altug, “Türkiye Suriye ile Sınırını Temizlerken, 1, 2, 3,” Agos, 9, 14, 27. March 2007.

10. CADN, Fonds Beyrouth, Cabinet Politique, Box 572, Service des Renseignements, Service Central, no. 868/K.S., March 5, 1925, Beirut.

11. MAE, Série Syrie-Liban, vol. 177, Relation Turquie-Française.

12. Thomas Greenshields, “The Settlement of Armenian Refugees in Syria and Lebanon, 1915–1939,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Durham, 1978, p. 60.

13. Pierre La Mazière, Partant pour la Syrie (Paris: Libraire Baudiniere, 1926), pp. 200–203.

14. Until the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, the peoples residing in the territories controlled by the French, including the Armenians, had maintained the legal status of Ottoman citizens. Nicola Migliorino, (Re)constructing Armenia in Lebanon and Syria: Ethno-cultural Diversity and the State in the Aftermath of a Refugee Crisis (New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2008), pp. 52–55. Uri Davis, “Citizenship Legislation in the Syrian Arab Republic,” Arab Studies Quarterly, 1, 1996, pp. 1–15.

15. Stephen Hemsley Longrigg, Syria and Lebanon under the French Mandate (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), pp. 171–172.

16. Stephen Longrigg, Syria, p. 181.

17. al-Cha’b, “al-arman wa qadiyyat askanuhum fi suriyya,” Dec. 21, 1926.

18. Taken from CADN, Cabinet Politique, Box 576, Service Politiques, Bureau d’études, “L’Arménie et les Arméniens, » rédacteur: cdt. Terrrier.

19. ibid.

20. CADN-MAE, Fonds Beyrouth, Cabinet Politique, 392, Sûreté Générale (Aleppo), no. 3829, Oct. 16, 1936; taken from Keith Watenpaugh, Being Modern in the Middle East, p. 271.

21. Miglioriono, (Re)constructing Armenia in Lebanon and Syria, pp. 58–62.

22. al-qabs, Feb. 5, 1938, “wataniyya al-fiqra wa masharia’ alsahra.”

23. Several newspaper articles from the Arab nationalist press construct the “nationalist majority” in Jazira as such.

24. Watenpaugh, pp. 597–622.

25. Theodor Adorno, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 103.

Seda Altug

Seda Altug

Seda Altug teaches at Bosphorus University. Her dissertation is entitled “Sectarianism in the Syrian Jazira: Community, land, and violence in the memories of World War I and the French mandate (1915–39).” Her research interests are state-society relations, and minority issues in colonial and post-colonial Syria.


  1. It makes you wonder why Armenia didn’t try a different tact during the breakup of the Soviet Union It might have done better had it decided to become an oblast of Russia similar to Kaliningrad. Russia might have taken the bit in an effort to protect its southern frontier. It’s almost impossibe to swim in a shark tank.

  2. Born and bred in Brooklyn, New York it’s interesting to me that while the Sunday Market Scenario was taking place in Syria, another entirely different scene took place in the Syrian neighborhood of Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn.

    It could very well have been Oct. 12, 1936; I was age 9 and always accompanied my mother to the Syrian market. I would carry away bundles of groceries from “Yergan’s” Grocery (He was 7 foot tall) and who would always give me a “sweet”.

    Next we would visit the butcher whose “kore achg” was the source of my mother’s name for him. I don’t know how he tolerated my fussy mother; first with this piece of meat, and then with that piece of meat until she sensed his
    discomfort and settled on the first piece, after all!

    I had a cat which was always hungry and so “kore achg” would give me two pennies worth of scrap meat.

    Then we’d cross the Avenue to a basement bakery for the “Potsh Hatsh” Here my reward was a piece of freshly cooked Syrian bread that smelled oh so good!

    The walk home took only 10 minutes during which I’d ask my mother why she settled on the first piece of meat afterall. Her answer was “So he wouldn’t think I was an easy customer”.

    After feeding the cat I couldn’t wait to mash the garlic, brown it in butter and help myself to “tahn abour”

    I’m glad I didn’t know Armenians and Syrians were “breaking each others heads”

  3. It would have been very relevant and useful to delve into the history and deeds of the Armenian Legion formed under the command and control of the French Army occupying Kilikya between the Armistice and the Turkish War of Liberation. It is an important part Syrian-Armenian history. I certainly understand why the author has kept clear of the topic in great Armenian tradition.

  4. The French Armenian legion was formed in November of 1916.
    The Armenian Genocide began in April 1915.
    In the normal Universe and time continuum we live in, 1915 precedes 1916.

    The Legion was formed as a direct result of the Armenian Genocide being conducted by Turks at that time.
    Its aim was to try to defend and prevent massacres of as many Armenian civilians in Cilicia as possible.

    As is the custom of Denialist Turks, they routinely forget to mention that they, the Turks, stated the whole cycle of violence and bloodshed.
    Starting with the invasion of Armenian and Christian lands by Seljuk Turks.

    I certainly understand why the Denialist Murat has kept clear of the topic in the great Denialist Turkish tradition.

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