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Sèvres: The Story of the Death, Debate, Diplomacy, and Rebirth of a Conflict

Ishaan Busireddy

Debate and Diplomacy have time and time again been demonstrated to be crucial forces in the tides of history. Often used to resolve disputes, debate and diplomacy can in fact also exacerbate conflict to a significant degree. Debate and diplomacy are two instruments that are generally intended to resolve disputes. Yet there are many instances throughout history where debate and diplomacy actually aggravated disputes and spawned conflict.

The debate and diplomacy, including the Treaty of Sèvres, among the Allies over the status of Anatolia following the First World War only served to set the stage for future conflicts, some immediate, and some perpetuating into the next centuries.

The 1920 Treaty of Sevres aimed to divide the Ottoman Empire among the triumphant allies after the end of the First World War. Unlike Versailles, this treaty was not destined to create even a short lived peace. Instead, prolonged debate and diplomacy resulted in a violent conclusion for all parties involved. But first, to understand the Treaty’s failure, we must understand the decline of the empire it sought to divide.

Established around the year 1300 C.E., the Ottoman Empire was an Anatolian Turkish state that once spanned territories across Asia, Africa, and Europe. The empire was founded by Osman Ghazi, a Turkish lord whose descendants reunified Anatolia under Turkish rule and eventually conquered all of the Greek lands. Although the expansion of the Ottomans was successful, the Ottoman rule of Greece and sidelining of Greeks in Anatolia would only serve to spawn irredentist fervor that would play a role centuries later. Although it was true that Christians, such as Greeks and Armenians, in the Ottoman Empire were tolerated, British-American scholar Bernard Lewis suggests that “this toleration, however, was predicated on the assumption that the tolerated communities were separate and inferior.”

Although greatly successful for around 3 centuries following the fall of Byzantium in 1453, the multi continental Turkish Ottoman empire began to decline as European powers, such as Britain and France, industrialized and adopted modern technology and warfare.

In an attempt to revive the dying empire, the Ottoman government joined Germany’s Central Powers during WWI. However, the Ottomans performed terribly on the battlefield. As the Allies occupied Ottoman Arabia and approached Anatolia, the Ottoman Empire signed an armistice and surrendered.

As conflict died and with peace restored, a significant question that confronted the Allied powers was the division of the Ottoman Empire, particularly Anatolia. This region was, and still is, populated by Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, and more cultural groups, each with their own territorial claims. In addition, external European great and minor powers held their own interests as well. The British sought to influence Anatolia through a Kurdish protectorate. France wanted to either acquire a League of Nations mandate or zone of influence in Southern Anatolia. Finally, Italy demanded concessions in southwest Anatolia, a region that the Greeks also claimed because of historical control and inhabitation. In fact, the conflict between Byzantium and the Ottomans and the domination of Greeks by the Turkish invaders had stayed ingrained in the Greek psyche and served to fuel this irredentist ideology, known as the “Megali Idea.” Supporters of the Megali Idea sought to reclaim Constantinople, East Thrace, Smyrna, Crete and the Mediterranean coast of Anatolia. Some extremists even went as far to demand the annexation of Anatolia as a whole. But on top of the historical persecution of Greeks, a genocide had just occurred against the Greeks and Armenians of Anatolia. US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during WWI Henry Morgenthau Sr. commented, “The Greeks, just like the Armenians were accused of disloyalty…The Turks, as in the case of the Armenians, seized upon this as an excuse for a violent onslaught of the whole [Greek] race.”

However, it was not only Americans and Greeks who criticized the ethnic cleansing.

In fact, the Turkish Kemalist author, journalist, and politician Falih Rifki Atay wrote,

“Why were we burning down Izmir [Greek: Smyrna]? Were we afraid…we would never be able to get rid of the minorities?“

And, Atay was not wrong about the genocide in Smyrna. Up to 200,000 Greeks were killed or displaced in this city alone. The systematic destruction of Anatolian Greeks only fueled the growing flame of Greek irredentism.

The demands were laid out on the table, and it was time to debate. But not in Sevres. In Paris.

The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 lasted an entire year, during which the Greek irredentist Prime Minister Venizelos and his delegation ardently advocated for Greek claims to Western Anatolia and Constantinople, occupied by the Allies since 1918. At the conference, the Turks were given no say in their treaty, later enraging them that the Allies had not given them the basic courtesy of sitting at the table. After one year, the Anatolian question remained unsolved as the Allies disagreed regarding borders. One particular dispute, however, would curse all Allied efforts to failure.

The Greco-Italian dispute quickly evolved into a contentious issue. Italian claims were based on the 1915 Treaty of London, the secret agreement that drew Italy into the war. In the Treaty, a very large zone of Italian influence was guaranteed in Southwestern Anatolia. The Italians blocked all Greek claims in order to prevent the growth of Greek influence in opposition to that of Italy. This diplomatic maneuver of Italy effectively stalled all discussion regarding Anatolia. Thus, the Italians triggered what would evolve into a general breakdown of debate and diplomacy as a result of the British and French guaranteeing far more territory than they could grant.

Eventually, a treaty was drafted in the spring of 1920. The draft largely favored the unreasonable Italian claims, perhaps to alleviate the denial of land in Dalmatia, granting Italy control of much of southern Anatolia, a far larger area than the Greek gains in Thrace. In fact, the treaty converted the Bosporus Straits and Constantinople into international zones instead of granting control to Greece. The only other Greek gain in the draft treaty was Smyrna. Therefore, Greece was denied a large portion of its claims, angering irredentists.

The years-long stalling of treaty drafting caused the Greeks and Italians to grow impatient with Britain and France’s lethargy, and they decided to occupy Smyrna and Andalia before the Treaty could be signed into effect. These aggressive actions were brought to the attention of the Turkish people, who perceived that the European powers were colonizing Turkey, as Turks assumed Turkey would lay untouched.

The debate and diplomacy had dragged on for far too long with only unfavorable results. And thus, as the Europeans returned to arms, the Turks turned to nationalism as a defense mechanism.

Sick and tired of Allied occupations and the petrified Ottoman government, the Turkish people rallied around an Ottoman military officer, Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist movement to create a new government. Kemal established a new government in Ankara, declaring Turkish independence separate from the Ottoman government, an effective secession.

Although the Allies were able to force the finalized Treaty of Sevres upon the Ottoman government in August of 1920, the tides had turned and the Turkish Republic rejected the treaty.

As the conflict was reborn and the situation further descended into warfare as the Kemalist forces fought against the invading Greeks, diplomacy was still a key aspect of the conflict. The Italians and Turks were able to avoid conflict as the Italians supported the Kemalists and effectively surrendered their gains to defeat the Greeks. As the war raged on, the remaining provisions of Sevres collapsed. Many Kurds trusted that the Republic would honor their rights, and therefore fought alongside the Turks, rejecting Christian British rule. Additionally, the Turks were able to destroy the First Republic of Armenia in 1920. Furthermore, the French troops that had occupied areas along the Syrian-Turkish border were routed by the Turks, and peace was made in 1921. Finally, the Turks defeated the isolated Greeks and peace was made in 1922, followed by the formal Treaty of Lausanne that internationally recognized Turkish independence.

The long term impact of the failure of Sevres is quite complex. The Turks were able to rebuild their state, but at a cost of many lives and much money. The moderate-nationalism that was established by Kemal shaped Turkey into a more progressive and developed nation. The Greeks however, were quite adversely affected. Thousands of Greeks had died in battle, all without any gain whatsoever or vengeance for the hundreds of thousands killed by the Ottomans. In fact, the forced population exchange after the war led to many refugees with very few financial resources or means to survive, thus placing a great burden on the Greek state that influences its adverse economic situation even today. The memories of the Greco-Turkish conflict affect the perception of Turks in the Greek psyche to this day, and the dreams of the Megali Idea have never really faded away, harming Greco-Turkish relations. After the Turkish War of Independence, the Italians departed empty-handed without Dalmatia nor Lycia in their possession, contributing to the Mutilated Victory theory and the rise of fascism. Finally, the failure to establish independent Kurdish and West Armenian states have led to these groups being persecuted in Turkey. Thus, the Kurdish-Turkish conflict was ignited, and tens of thousands of more lives were claimed. Not to mention, the revocation of 75% of Armenian territory has crippled the nation’s ability to defend itself against Azerbaijani incursions, resulting in even more conflict.

Ultimately, once the dust settled, Greeks lost their retributory gains, the Italians lost their colony, the French lost their sphere of influence, the British lost a Kurdish protectorate, and the Armenians lost their country, all because of the breakdown of debate and diplomacy and the loss of a common uniting goal among the Allies. The hubris that came with felling the once-mighty Ottoman Empire blinded the European powers into allowing the resilient Turkish people to regroup and reestablish their country. However, this process came at the expense of thousands, possibly millions, of lives and resulted in many further conflicts, some of which lay yet unresolved by debate and diplomacy to this day.



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