Allenby and Faysal in Damascus

On October 1, 1918 the Ottoman governor of Damascus had surrendered to the forces of the British army and the Arab Revolt led by Faysal ibn Husayn. T.E. Lawrence, not yet famous, arrived in Damascus with Faysal’s forces. He stayed only long enough to visit the tomb of Saladin before sailing for England. While the vast majority of Arab Ottoman officers had remained in Ottoman service through the war, a small number of former Ottoman officers had joined Faysal’s revolt after capture by the British or Arab forces.3 These officers bore the responsibility of organizing the guerilla forces of the Arab Revolt. But once the war ended and Faysal arrived in Damascus with his staff of Arab officers, he attracted other defeated and suddenly unemployed veterans. Many of Faysal’s officer supporters only joined his government after the defeat of Ottoman forces in Syria.

Former soldiers, both comrades and adversaries, doubtlessly hoped that Faysal would be the person to salvage something from the disaster and wreckage of the war, as Ottoman officers were beginning to do in Anatolia. Among those who joined Faysal, there were certainly some who would have preferred to stay with Mustafa Kemal and their brother officers, particularly when the scope of the disaster of the partition became visible. It is noteworthy that the two highest military officials of Faysal’s government, Yasin al-Hashimi and Yusuf al-cAzma, had both remained in Ottoman service as decorated staff officers until the end of the war. Neither joined Faysal until after the armistice. This fact contradicts the usual story, originating with T.E. Lawrence and the Hashimites, about supposed mass defections of Arab officers to join the British-sponsored revolt of Faysal and Sharif Husayn. Most Ottoman soldiers neither deserted nor changed sides, and the Ottoman army defeat at Nablus came from Allenby’s British army, recently reinforced with British units, freed up by the American entry into the war. The forces of the Arab Revolt played a minor role militarily, but as a propaganda weapon, the Arab Revolt was invaluable to British imperial aims. At the armistice, hundreds of thousands of soldiers began the long walk home to their villages and towns across a devastated and famine- stricken landscape.

Large numbers of prisoners of war continue to return. There have recently arrived in Damascus amongst them four officers from the Yemen and eighteen from African Tripoli. These are all trying to get north with the Turks. They are professional soldiers and the only army which can offer them a career is the Turkish army; it would appear, therefore, that if the release of prisoners contin ued Mustafa Kemal is not likely to suffer from shortage of officers.4

Yasin al-Hashimi had certainly wished to remain in service to the Ottoman state. The circumstances of the defeat and his wounds in combat made such hopes impossible. In September 1918 he had been in command of an army corps at the Battle of Nablus, a 34-year-old major general who had spent twenty-five years in service to the state.5 Al-Hashimi had been a member of several secret political organizations in the years before the war including the CUP, and al-cAhd, the grouping of young Ottoman officers later associated with the Arab movement.6

Yasin al-Hashimi escaped the British advance at Darca, near today’s Syrian Jordanian border at the end of September 1918. He was wounded on the 100-kilometer retreat to Damascus, and took refuge at the house of the al-Naciama family near Damascus’ Suq al-Hamidiyya after the collapse of the defense. Yasin al-Hashimi’s wounds forced him to remain behind while Kemal retreated north toward Aleppo. Nuri al-Sacid, cAli al-Jawdat, and Jamil al-Midfaci were junior Ottoman officers from Iraq who had been captured by British forces. They had joined Faysal’s revolt after their internment in prisoner-of-war camps in Egypt. When they learned al-Hashimi was in Damascus, they searched until they found him, and after long and difficult conversations, convinced him to join the new government of Amir Faysal.

Al-Hashimi had rejected many invitations to abandon the Ottoman forces and join the Revolt. In October of 1918, however, he was seriously wounded and in hiding in Damascus. His four young children and wife were present in the city too, and he had no income, no job, and no means to feed his family. Ottoman officials were facing arrest and trial by the allied occupation forces, and the only Ottoman forces he could rejoin were already hundreds of kilometers north behind the British lines, and across a country now occupied by enemy forces, actively seeking his capture. Having found al-Hashimi, his old comrades and adversaries still had difficulty persuading him to join them.7 He sought assurances they had not come as instruments of a British plot to capture him. Eventually they succeeded, and upon visiting Amir Faysal, he named al-Hashimi military chief of staff and put him in charge of organizing the new army. Less officially and perhaps in contradiction to Faysal’s wishes, al-Hashimi soon set about raising guerilla fighters to counter the looming French threat from Lebanon. Yasin al-Hashimi retained his suspicion and mistrust of British motives and he quickly ran afoul of Faysal and his British sponsors.

The retreating army dug in just north of Aleppo at the rail line. Mustafa Kemal learned of the ceasefire by telegraph from Istanbul. He traveled to Liman von Sanders’ headquarters at Adana and took overall command of the army from Liman. Kemal also learned of the terms of the armistice, among which were disengagement at the last line of contact, and demobilization of the Ottoman forces and the withdrawal of forces from Cilicia. This meant that while the British and Ottoman armies would theoretically hold their lines running roughly east from Alexandretta and Aleppo, the Ottoman forces would be forced to withdraw and demobilize. The Ottoman army would consequently lose the ability to resist any additional territorial demand. Before Kemal had decided his reaction to the armistice agreement, his fears were confirmed when British forces landed at Alexandretta and demanded an Ottoman withdrawal from the port city.8

British troops landed at Alexandretta and marched inland to occupy positions at Aleppo. Kemal organized a retreat of Ottoman forces to the area north and east of the Taurus mountains. He moved all supply depots and arms caches as well. He intended to fortify his positions, but when Istanbul ordered him to capitulate to any demands of the British, he requested to be relieved of command and left by train from Adana to Istanbul. Kemal appointed Nihat (Anilmis) Pasa, a staff officer of Bulgarian origin, commander and ordered the continuation of preparations for eventual resistance against the occupation forces. Shortly before his exit from Cilicia, Kemal received Yasin al-Hashimi and Yusuf al-cAzma seeking to coordinate military operations against the British and French. All were decorated, high-ranking Ottoman officers still officially in Ottoman service, even though al-cAzma and al-Hashimi came as envoys of Faysal. Kemal received his comrades warmly, despite his well-founded antipathy to Faysal and his Revolt. Of course, neither al-cAzma and al-Hashimi had joined the Revolt.9

French forces claimed the territory promised in the Sykes Picot accord of 1916. Allenby allowed a small French force to land in Beirut in November 1918. The same month, French forces, in collaboration with locally raised Armenian irregular forces, landed at Adana and occupied the city and surrounding area. The ports at Alexandretta, Mersin, and the vast fertile river delta of the Adana region, had been long coveted by French colonial interests in commerce and the army. As allied troops began to appear in more towns, Islamic defense committees began to form, meeting in Izmir, Adana, Kars, Aleppo and Damascus, among many other places. The Mudafaa-i Hukuk Cemiyeti have been written into history as the site of the emergence of Turkish nationalist resistance and the origin point of the war of independence, but the rights (hukuk) to be defended were those of Muslim Ottomans, and not of any ethnic grouping.10 James Gelvin has demonstrated that committees formed in Damascus using identical language and aims at exactly the same time as in Anatolia.11 As popular committees met, and French soldiers occupied the towns, sporadic armed engagements between Ottoman and irregular forces and French troops took place immediately.

Yasin al-Hashimi was chief of staff and Faysal appointed Yusuf al-cAzma minister of war. Al-cAzma was a rarity among Ottoman officers since he came from a prominent notable family of Damascus, rather than from the modest background more common among officers. Neither had joined the Revolt, but they far outranked in distinction and experience any officers who had joined Faysal earlier. As a decorated and loyal Ottoman general from Damascus, al-cAzma was an obvious choice.

Damascus’ big landowners and the Ottoman civic elite of the city viewed Faysal and his officer supporters with suspicion. Some of the Ottoman provincial administration had fled at the end of the war and others stayed in their jobs. Faysal and his supporters expected to displace such people. General Allenby tended to support the efforts of Faysal to rule the country. But Damascenes mistrusted Faysal and his officer supporters, and many grumbled about their rule immediately. Some saw Faysal as a traitor against the Ottoman caliphate, some worried that he and his officer followers would upset the status of the former Ottoman leading families in politics and economic life, and some considered him a stooge of the British with poor nationalist credibility. At least a few influential Damascenes quietly welcomed the French who came to end Faysal’s short-lived government eighteen months later, by which time Yusuf al-cAzma was dead on the field of battle, and no longer able to help Faysal calm the nerves of Damascus’ leading citizens.12

Faysal’s government, supported first by British subsidy, and second by ex-Ottoman officers and nationalist activists, quickly attracted the hostile attention of France. As Faysal scrambled desperately during 1919 to insure continued British support, and to mollify French government officials, his followers in Damascus and the wider region began to organize on the model of the resistance emerging in Anatolia. Popular Committees in opposition to French occupation and partition formed, echoing the organizing efforts of the Defense of Rights committees in Anatolia, and eventually focusing their ire on Faysal himself.13

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