This two part article was originally written in the Arabic section of The Kurdish Center for Studies and has been translated to English for wider viewing. Part I can be read → here
Syria, a fledgling successor state to the Ottoman Empire, could not withstand early Turkish aspirations, had it not been for the French Mandatory authorities. Cynically, although Alexandretta and a number of areas in north Aleppo were lost to Turkey it was France that gave shape to the current state of Syria in 1939.
And even though France sought to pay court to Turkey in the aftermath of World War II and contributed to the annexation of the district (Alexandretta) among vast Syrian territories laid down in initial mandatory maps, it did prevent Turkey from annexing more Syrian territories. In 1941, France rejected Turkish demands to seize Aleppo and Jazira in return for transferring French Vichy forces from Syrian soil, owing to tight British siege on the Syrian coasts of the Mediterranean.
However, Turkey’s expansionist policy did not cease. It reached its apex in the 1950s, depending on its alliance with the United States to curb communism in Syria which had impacts inside Turkey. Expansionism, Syrian divisions, and the fragility of Syria’s politics remained the main pillar of Turkish strategies.
1950s, Targeting Syria
Turkey and Iraq sought unsparingly to include Syria in the Baghdad Pact of 1955. However, under Nuri al-Said, all Iraqi efforts failed to materialize. Relatedly, Turkey’s Prime Minister Adnan Menderes arrived in Damascus in January 1955. The government of Fares al-Khoury averted to coordinate the visit since it was not planned, which caused Syrians to protest in the streets while denouncing the visit and chanting against the pact.
At the time Syria was driven by Arab nationalism, and steps to unite with Egypt led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Turkey sent dispatches saying it will not stay idly-by regarding Cairo-Damascus rapprochement, since it posed threats to Turkey and Iraq and could isolate them from the Arab world. Turkish skirmishes on the border recurred relentlessly. Political situation and popular mood in Syria appealed to Moscow which voiced Soviet support to Syrians. Russia’s Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov supported Damascus attempts for a rapprochement with Cairo in order to distance it from the Baghdad Pact.
Following the 1956 Suez Crisis (Trilateral Aggression), on January 1, 1957, U.S President Dwight D. Eisenhower met Secretary of State and partisan deputies, where he notified them that the vacuum in the Middle East should be filled by America before Soviets had the chance to do so. Turkey, Iran, Jordan, and Lebanon would be a main pillar in this new American policy which was to embark on a new era for the unsettled Syria.
In his memoir, Eisenhower details the beginning of what would become to be dubbed as the “Syrian Crisis”, where on August 13, 1957, Damascus radio aired that Washington was involved in a plot to change the regime of Shukri al-Quwatli, and that three diplomats attached to the U.S. embassy in Damascus would be expelled from the country owing to their sabotaging activities. At the time, U.S. reports suggested Soviet arms were being sent to Syria and that Damascus had become a Soviet protégé. Washington doubts were doubled following the signing by Syrian Defense Minister Khaled al-Azm of an open Economic and Technical agreement with the Soviet Union in Moscow. Besides, high- ranking officer Afif al-Bizri seen as pro-Russian, was assigned the post of Chief of General Staff replacing Tawfiq Nizamaddin
Based on this, there prevailed in Washington and in Syria’s neighbors, a perception that the regime in Damascus should be changed via military action undertaken by Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan.
To this end, Turkey played an advanced policing mission for Washington. For this, Eisenhower dispatched a letter to Turkey’s Prime Minister Adnan Menders, conveying to its neighbors that Washington would secure guarantees to neighboring countries in case of a military action against Syria. Arms would be sent and all incurred losses would be compensated for.
Etem Menderes 1957
Arms began to arrive by air from Western Europe to the U.S. base in Adana, Turkey. And though Washington was concerned that the situation could develop at any moment, Menderes and his Israeli counterpart David Ben-Gurion were very optimistic. The former was anxious to storm Syria and the latter was concerned that Syria could become a Russia foothold. This was clear when he said, “It is impossible to differentiate Syria from Russia.”
Although U.S., Jordan, and Iraq no longer wanted to change the regime in Syria, Turkey remained steadfast in spite of U.S. warnings of invading the country. Turkey proceeded to employ troops along their border with Syria. The number of Turkish troops rose from 32,000 to 50,000 soldiers. However, it was Nikita Khrushchev Former Premier of the Soviet Union that aborted the Turkish invasion when he said if Turkish tanks roll towards Syria, Soviet missiles would be launched from the air. Washington to disavow Turkey’s scheme told Khrushchev that Turkey is an independent state and can decide on its policies.
Besides Moscow, Cairo was anxious to support the Syrian Army in a potential encounter with the Turks. In October 1957, it landed a unit of its armed forces on the Latakia port to support Syrian armed forces. Cairo grasped the necessity of the Arab-Egyptian national security which ought to be consolidated in Syria and Iraq.
Further Turkish Attempts
1958 was an eventful year for the Middle East. Syria for its part was pacing towards a unity with Egypt, which it did eventually meet. In Iraq, Abd al-Karim Qasim buried alive the monarchy and snatched Iraq out of pro-Britain alliances at a time when Lebanon was undergoing a political crisis and edging to the precipice of a civil war. Moreover, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was under threat of losing its crown.
Amid such a state of affairs, Turkey had the best chance to induce Washington to strike their new enemies in Iraq and Syria. French journalist Chris Kutschera had obtained a very “top secret” document dated July 1958 from one of those American “accomplices” to that affect. The document indicated a secret plan sent by Turkish Chief of General Staff Feyzi Menguc to his American counterpart Maxwell Taylor. It entailed the: “deployment of a number of Turkish army detachments – tens of thousands of troops – on a wide front along Syria and Iraq… starting from Kirkuk up to Iraqi Kurdistan ending up in Hama in Syria.”
Kutschera notes that the Turkish army has never given up the idea of regaining territories, “extended from north Aleppo up to Kirkuk which were under the Ottoman army control when the Armistice of Mudros was signed late in October 1918.” Mustafa Kemal Ataturk included these territories in the National Pact better known as Misak–I Mili adopted by the Grand National Assembly in 1920. Accordingly, the Turkish army and ultra nationalist Turks never relinquished their expansionist goals even after Alexandretta was annexed, a district where the Turks made up only 40% of the population.
Even though Turkey’s border with Syria was drawn, the former has never given up its boundless aspiration of the latter’s lands. This could be ascertained from statements made by Turkish officials at the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, when the Turkish regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the Turks had a mission in “Aleppo and Qamishli”, which roughly corresponds with its aforementioned historical claims.
Following the occupation of areas west of the Euphrates, Turkish officials repeatedly said Turkey’s interference in those areas was not to fight the Kurds, but rather to regain areas included in their National Pact. More recently, Yasin Aktay a chief aide to Erdoğan said, “Aleppo should be placed under Turkish control.” Aktay later retracted the statement, stating that was merely to press Damascus to come to terms with Ankara.
Whatever the case, those adopting the expansionist creed of Turkey deceived the public in Syria regarding its aspirations, depicting it as a measure to protect its national security by countering Kurdish ambitions. For there had been no Kurdish ambitions when Alexandretta was annexed, nor in 1941, 1957, and 1958.
Turkey perceives every inch it could obtain from Syria as a nationalist gain that is in line with the wishes of the founding fathers of the Turkish Republic. Here we could cite the case of Suleiman Shah’s tomb, which was included in the Angora Agreement of 1921 between Turkey and France. When the Euphrates Dam was built the tomb was transferred from the Ja’bar Castel to Qara Qozakh following serious negotiations with Damascus in 1973.
In February 2015, Turkey regained the remains of “the father of Osman” following control of the area by the Islamic State (ISIS). Later, it was returned to the village of Ashmeh close to the border with Syria. Symbolically indicating the prevailing psyche within Turkish policies to have a foothold in Syria.
Of note, internal issues were not a contributor to stop Turkish aggression, but rather external ones. It is true that France ceded large areas of Syrian territories to the Turks when it suited its interests, and it is true too that the former U.S. President Donald Trump gave an okay to Turkish forces to occupy Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ain) and Tal Abyad (Girê Spî) in 2019, based on his interests. However, had it not been for foreign powers, Turkey could have devoured many more lands in a country whose social and ethnic fabric is a very loose one. Unfortunately for Syrians, Turkey’s aspirations in Syria continue to have no limits.