Turkey’s Boundless Aspirations in Syria: Part I (1920-1939)

By Shoresh Darwish

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 II can be read → here

There are assumptions among policy makers that the potential of normalization talks between Ankara and Damascus may serve as a prelude to terminate Turkish occupation and retreat to its internationally recognized borders. Yet, history poses itself as evidence to Turkey’s expansionist disposition and the struggle implied in relinquishing Syrian territories. This struggle reduces the scale of optimism in normalization talks between the two neighbors. As will be discussed here, the Turkish annexation of Alexandretta will provide a powerful example of not only Turkey’s expansionist aspirations but the lengths it will go to in order to annex the sovereign territory of other states.

In fact, the expansionist idea is a founding pillar for the Turkish state and its ruling elites, since expansionism serves as an important source to pay court to Turkish nationalist electors, and a driving force that presents motivation to succeeding governments to go beyond established and sovereign borders. In this sense, Turkey’s borders have no limits, or it is a state with two maps; one is set and asserted by the United Nations and the other is imaginary and expansionist.

To a greater extent, since its foundation Turkey has continuously had a dilemma. It has never been satisfied by its current borders based on the conviction that it has the right to others’ territories following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. This could be deduced from the relentless want by the Turkish Republic to regain the Vilayet of Mosul from Iraq which was then under the British Mandate. Eventually, Turkey grudgingly acquiesced to the decision made by the League of Nations which disposed Mosul to Iraq in 1925. The same idea applies to all neighboring countries, notably the Greek isles and population exchanges between Greek and Turkey and the occupation of northern Cyprus in 1974 establishing its division and ignoring all calls advocating the unification of the island. Likewise, Turkey has repeatedly claimed a mandate over Tatars in Crimea allegedly claiming it is a Turkish land.

However, in this article, we are not concerned with the notion that “history repeats itself”, but rather to show that we have been affected by history, since the border between Syria and Turkey was set and demarcated time and again. What aggravates the situation in north Syria is the expansionist ideology of the Turkish state in the region since 1920, the 1957 events up to 2019 until recently.

Alexandretta, a Hard Proof

A rough map of Alexandretta, later renamed Hatay Province by Turkey after its annexation.

Arguably, Turkey’s expansionist policies had a catastrophic impact on Syria more than any other neighbor. Turkey had the opportunity to revoke the Sevres Treaty of 1920 in the aftermath of the first Angora Agreement in 1921 (known otherwise as Franklin-Bouillon Agreement), which set the foundation for the delimitation of the border between Syria and Turkey in annexing territories in the former vilayet of Aleppo.

The peace Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 confirmed the amendments made to the map. However, the fate of Alexandretta remained unsolved, causing disputes for the next 18 years to follow, before Turkey finally annexed Syria’s predominantly Arab district.

The additional delimitation of the border was enshrined in the second Ankara Agreement in 1926, whereby Nusaybin (Nisêbîn) and parts of Cizre (Cizîr) were conceded to Turkey, which remained contested for years between France and Turkey since Greater Kurdistan’s fate had not been decided yet by the Great Powers.

Back to Alexandretta, the Turkification policy provided the opportunity to obliterate the ethno-religious diversity in the region in order to be annexed later. Turkey had rejected all Syrian good-will gestures regarding the future of the Turks in the district. This was confirmed by the Syrian politician Saadallha al-Jabiri, who paid a visit to Turkey and met with the Minister of Justice and the Minister for Foreign Affairs Mehmet Saracoglu.

Another prominent Syrian politician, Hashem al-Atassi, made a statement to the Turkish press at the time that “We share the same rights and duties”. However, what seems to have agitated the Turks then was al-Atassi’s remark that “Alexandretta is part of Syria.” More aggravating was that the Syrian delegation was not ready to compromise on Alexandretta. Originally, the delegation was arriving from Geneva and was on Turkish soil not for talks, but rather on the way to return home.

Ankara called on Turks in Alexandretta to boycott Syria’s general elections held in 1936. Turkey afterwards proposed a notion based on a confederation including Syria, Lebanon and Alexandretta premised on the condition that every statelet has its own government and “unrestricted” domestic policy.

Militarily, in a bid to escalate against France and Syria, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk paid a visit to Turkish forces employed on the border of Alexandretta, which was tacitly an indication that Turkey was ready to resort to force in case negotiations with France failed. However, the French Mandatory authorities remained steadfast. The Turks gave up the military option after Ataturk returned to Ankara. The same year, Alexandretta was given a special status where Turkey and France were to co-defense the district against any external threats in accordance with the League of Nations decision of 1937 which angered Syrians and Arabs. Legally, while residents of the districts were Syrians they were to be considered Alexandrettans, which resulted in them becoming double citizens.

Partitioning People for Annexation

Turkey supported secessionist approaches that sought to establish a Turkish dimension and to re-write the history of the district by introducing the name of Hatay as an older reference to Hittites, claiming that the Turks were heirs of the Hittites and that the district was mistakenly named after Alexander the Great.

Turkey’s interference in the district led to the emergence of opposing groups and parties. The Turks themselves were divided. In his Alexandretta Dispute, Majid Khadduri argues that the Turks were divided as revivalists, conservatives, and neutralists. The first category were inspired by the Kemalist Movement and were supported by the government and the Hatay Association inside Turkey. They were, however, the majority of the Turks that embraced the annexation of the district. They adopted the headwear denotationally in compliance with the Law No. 671 on hats by the parliament which obliged members and officials of the Turkish Grand National Assembly to forbid the traditional fez hat and instead wear western hats as headgear. Hats were distributed among people of the district. The Halk Partisi and its paper Yenigun best represented this trend.

For their part, conservatives, though a minority, sought to keep the district under French rule. To serve this end, they continued to wear the Ottoman fez hat in defiance of Kemalists. The third trend of neutralists wore the French beret.

The Arabs in Alexandretta, alongside Armenians, Kurds, and Circassians supported the district to remain Syrian and preserve its Arab identity via the League of Nationalist Action. Its mouthpiece al-Ouroba was effective in countering the Turkish propaganda. Symbolically, this party wore the Iraqi hat. The group was led by Zaki al-Arsuzi, who was eventually expelled by Turkey among many others from the district.

The League of Nations’ decision to hold elections for a council in the district in 1937, deepened division among its people who were classified according to groups as Turks, Alawites, Arabs, Armenians, Orthodox, Kurds, and others. Such a measure divided Arabs as they were classified as Arabs and Alawites in order to make the Turks predominant.

Turkey had pressed the committee to give Turks born in the district, who had become Turkish citizens, the right to vote. Furthermore, it sought to Turkify residents via associations which seemed on the surface not politically driven, such as Kenj Spor and the Arab Conservatory for Turkish Music.

Turkey further raised objections to the election regulations, the work of the committee and enrolment of names. The Arabs were denied access to election lists, and at the time Syria’s Jamil Mardam Bey stated that Syria could not interfere in the affair of the committee based on its conviction of the latter’s neutrality and impartiality.

Pro-Turkey International Policy

The position Turkey took between the Allies and the Axis in World War II served its expansionist policies. Turkey took the side of Germany inWorld War I and was anxious not to re-enact a similar scenario. Turkey’s neutrality pressured France and England who sought to keep both the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean stable. In 1938, France submitted to Turkey’s demands and appointed a Colonel as commander of military forces in Alexandretta. Kulier, contrary to Garo, appointed Turks in posts after excluding the Arabs. Policing missions and high posts were only given to Turks, while the Arab political movement was harassed. Relatedly, the League of Nationalist Action was dissolved, al-Ouruba was banned while Arab youths were banished or jailed. The League of Nations gave up its mission and left the district.

Negotiations between France and Turkey resulted in taking aboard the latter to maintain peace and run the elections in a way that could secure a majority in the district’s councils. This among many others were clear signs for Syrians that the annexation by Turkey of the district was only a question of time. To this end, Syrians – through an Iraqi mediation – agreed to partition the district and exchange Turks and Arabs. Syria was given a free zone on the harbor of Alexandretta. However, France and Turkey reached a deal on July 4, 1938 hereby Turkey was to run the election to secure a majority.

Prior to this date, the Turkish army – on June 25, 1937 – had advanced on Alexandretta, Bailan, and Kirikhan, while the French Antioch and Ordu, Suveydiye, Arsuz and Reyhanli remained out of control.

Amid such a state of affairs, the Turks won the elections with 22 seats. The Arabs had won 18 seats. The first government in the district was formed in 1938 led by Tayfur Sokman, who extended his gratitude to Ataturk and Turkey. The Republic of Hatay was declared, with its flag Turkey’s replica with a minor difference in that the white star contained an additional red one inside. The flag of Turkish Cypriots and that of the Turkmen in Iraq are good examples to cite here. Finally, on June 23, 1939, Turkey and France reached a deal, whereby Alexandretta became the 63rd Turkish province (Now 81st).

The Past vs the Future

With the passage of time, the importance given to the annexation of Alexandretta receded and when it was mentioned it was merely for diplomatic initiatives. In the 2000s the district was dropped from Syrian geography textbooks. However, following Turkey’s stance towards the Syrian regime where it called for its collapse, the Syrian government recalled its position in concessions it made in the period 2002-2010 when relations between Damascus and Ankara were friendliest. In a parliamentary session held in 2017, the Syrian Minister for Education Hazwan al-Wazz pointed out that dropping Alexandretta from Syria’s map was a “mistake” that necessitates holding the interloper accountable. The responsible parties were actually the regime that mistakenly thought it could appease Turkey.

All in all, Alexandretta was not annexed suddenly, rather it was a prolonged and a well-planned scheme in accordance with agreements Turkey signed with France who mandated power over Syria. The Arab component was transferred, expelled and instead replaced by others. At the same time, Turkish forces were deployed to the border. Security and policing missions were assigned to the Turks.

Does this history of Turkish annexation align with the current plight of occupied areas such as Afrin, north Aleppo, Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ain) and Tal Abyad (Girê Spî) which could face the same scenario? Could the general situation make a difference? Does the notion of annexations still exit or it has it lapsed? Has international politics brought a change?

Meanwhile, politically and militarily, it is very difficult to remove the Turks from Syria as Syrians themselves are divided over the matter which Turkey consolidates. There is no common issue that could be named Arab nationalist security. While being a partner to Russians and a NATO ally to the Americans plays into the hands of the Turks.


  • Shoresh Darwish

    Shoresh Darwish is a Syrian writer, journalist, political researcher, and lawyer. He writes about the Syrian issue and the Kurdish question, in addition to his interest in studying the political and social formation of the region. He is a research fellow at the Kurdish Center for Studies.

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