Between the French occupation in 1920 and the outbreak of the Second World War, one of the most striking and controversial features of political and social life in Syria was the arrival and settlement of large numbers of refugees. Armenians and other Christians escaping Anatolia; Kurdish insurgents evading the Turkish military; Assyrians fleeing Iraq: all took refuge in French mandate Syria, where they joined refugees who had arrived, before the French, during the First World War.

But what was ‘Syria’ in this period? The answer was not clear. At the most basic level, the geographical boundaries of the state were ill-defined. For some four hundred years prior to the war, the mandate territories had been part of a much larger entity, the Ottoman Empire, which in its later years had become an increasingly integrated state.1 Although the war years had drastically...

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