The Syrian army mortar round which struck the Turkish border town of Akcakale on October 3, killing 5, has prompted Turkey to not only retaliate in kind but talk of commencing cross-border raids against Syrian government forces. But there's an incredible irony here. Akcakale is in the southern Turkish province of Hatay, and Hatay was once a province of Syria known as the Sanjak of Alexandretta. In fact, the people of Akcakale, and Hatay in general, still speak Arabic and many have relatives south of the border in Syria. Thereby hangs a particularly outrageous but not generally known tale.
Whenever you hear about Turkish involvement in or threats against Syria - or British and French involvement/threats for that matter - it's always useful to recall the history of the post World War 1 Franco-British collusion which led to the dismemberment of greater Syria in general, and the Franco-Turkish collusion which led to France's handing over of large chunks of 'lesser' Syria to Turkey in particular. An understanding of the criminal interwar carve-up of historical Syria puts Turkey's (and France's and Britain's and USrael's) current, supposedly benign, involvement in the Syrian conflict in a whole new light.
The following extracts are taken from Syria expert Patrick Seale's 1988 biography of Hafiz al-Asad, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East:
"When the First World War finished off the 400-year-old Ottoman empire, its Arab provinces were left to the mercies of Britain and France, the victorious superpowers of the time, who had secretly arranged to share out natural Syria between them. France took the northern part which was to become the republics of Syria and Lebanon, while further south Britain seized what were to be Palestine and Transjordan.
"The inhabitants of the whole region made it clear that they wanted natural Syria to be independent and undivided: in July 1919 an elected body calling itself the Syrian National Congress repudiated the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration and demanded sovereign status for a united Syria-Palestine. Overwhelming popular support for this demand was confirmed by the King-Crane commission, an American fact-finding team which visited scores of towns and villages and received nearly two thousand petitions. But in 1920, to the despair of the Syrians, the European powers were given Mandates over the new states carved out of the former Ottoman provinces. These mandates were conceived as a form of guardianship of young nations, but France ousted the Arab administration which the Amir Faysal had established in Damascus and proceeded to set up a colonial regime, before reordering the region to suit itself and its local friends.
"First, in August 1920, it detached large areas from Syria - the ports of Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli, the Biqa' valley, and the Shi'i region north of Palestine - and attached them to Mount Lebanon, the fief of its Maronite proteges, so as to create the State of Greater Lebanon. At a stroke Damascus lost its outlets to the sea and saw its horizons violently contract.
"A second amputation occurred in October 1921 when France surrendered to Turkey large parts of the former province of Aleppo, bringing the Turks within 50 kilometres of the city. Aleppo's domain was further whittled away when France granted a special status to the Alexandretta-Antioch enclave of northern Syria because it contained a sizeable Turkish minority. (Less than 20 years later, the whole region was handed over to Turkey.) France then divided into four what remained of the country entrusted to it. In September 1920 Damascus and Aleppo were made the capitals of separate mini-states and in March 1922 the 'Alawi mountains and the Druze mountains were severed from Damascus and proclaimed 'independent'. In addition, the essentially tribal north-eastern part of Syria was brought under direct French rule and separatist sentiment encouraged by the settlement of Christians and Kurds.
"These internal and wholly artificial frontiers were eventually swept away but Syria never regained its lost territories. When the French finally withdrew in 1946, the country had shrunk to 185,190 square kilometres from the 300,000 square kilometres which had been the extent of the Ottoman empire's Syrian provinces. The Syrians did not easily recover from the shock of this surgery, and the feeling that their country was made smaller than it was meant to be became a continued source of frustration." (pp 15-16)
Further into his book, during his discussion of the founding fathers of the Ba'ath Party, the 'Alawi from Antioch, Zaki al-Arsuzi, and the Damascene Christian, Michel 'Aflaq, Seale touches specifically on the situation of the then Syrian province of Alexandretta, (now Turkish Hatay) in the late 30s:
"The great issue of the time in Arsuzi's home province of Alexandretta was the battle between Arabs and Turks for political control. Turks formed the largest single community but the electoral rolls showed that non-Turks - Arabs and Armenians - were clearly the majority. However, as war with Germany was looming, France was anxious to conciliate Turkey and fell in with its demand that Alexandretta should not be absorbed into the Syrian Republic, as the Arab nationalists wanted, but should retain the 'special status' it had been granted under the Mandate. The nationalists were furious at what they saw as France's betrayal of their interests. Taking command of the protest movement, Arsuzi brought youngsters out on to the streets, provoked clashes between Arabs and Turks and landed himself in jail - to no avail; in July 1938, France and Turkey signed a treaty of friendship, whereupon Turkish troops marched into the province and, to the Arabs' astonishment and indignation, the electoral rolls suddenly revealed the Turks to be in the majority. The outcome was that in June 1939 Alexandretta began a new life as the Turkish province of Hatay: another greedy bite had been taken out of Syria's short coastline. By disregarding its pledge to protect the integrity of Syria, France had committed a flagrantly immoral political act. Unwilling to live under Turkish rule, thousands of Arabs left their homes in the province of Alexandretta and moved south to take refuge in Syria." (pp 27-28)
Is Syria about to be dismembered yet again?
See also my posts French Mandate Redux (2/6/12) and Waiting for Francois Hollande (24/7/12)