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The day France gave a piece of Syria to Turkey

The day France gave a piece of Syria to Turkey

13.05.2013 • Syria •
Between the two wars, France who held a mandate over Syria created from scratch the  Sanjak of Alexandretta on the Syrian territory. She will give it to Turkey in 1939. An amputation Damas never recognized.  

Flash back. We are in 1918. Turkey, Germany’s ally, has been defeated. The winners share the spoils of the Ottoman Empire. In accordance with the Sykes-Picot agreements (1916) and then San Remo (1920), the Arab provinces go to Great Britain and to France which obtains Syria, Lebanon and Cilicia.

However, since 1919 the French army is fighting against the forces of the Turkish general Mustafa Kemal who wants to take back Cilicia. In 1921 (Franklin-Bouillon agreement), France gives Cilicia to the Turks and redefines the border between Turkey and Syria. Paris keeps the city of Antioch and its region. Engravings of the region decorate the sepia stamps with ‘Sanjak of Alexandretta’ written across it ever since France created this entity on the Syrian territory from scratch, to the great displeasure of the Turks who constitute almost 40% of Sanjak’s population, to which France nonetheless grants a special status.

Faced with Syrian uprisings in 1920, a fervent follower of the principal ‘ divide to rule’, the French High Commissioner, General Gouraud, sets about dividing the territory under mandate into five small states: the state of Great Lebanon, the state of Damas, the state of Aleppo, to which is added Sanjak of Alexandretta, Jabal al-Druze, and the Alawite territory.

922px-French_Mandate_for_Syria_and_the_Lebanon_map_enA great port city in the Levant necessarily implies a mixed population. Like Salonika, Beirut or Istanbul, Antioch is multicultural. One meets Armenians of course, since it is in Antioch in 1915 that the French army takes in four thousand survivors of the massacre, as well as Greeks, Assyrians and Jews, Alawite Arabs, and finally a majority (40%) of Sunnite Turks who own up to 90% of the lands. The region is fertile, riche, and strategic.

In the streets of Antioch, the passer-by knows quickly who is who: the Turk nationalists wear a hat  (the new Turkish Republic forbad the fez in 1925) while nationalist Arabs sports the keffiyeh brought from Arabia by the princes Faysal and Abdullah. The rest of Antioch’s population, a minority, still wear the red fez.

The Syrian nationalists fight the French mandate. They want the reunification of territories and independence. So ‘the local French agents as a reaction are going to encourage Turkish separatism in Sanjak succeeding to maintain the agitation of Syrian nationalists partially at bay’ writes the researcher Basile Khoury (IFPO, French Institute of the Middle East) about ‘The ephemeral Sanjak of Alexandretta. Chronicle of an announced annexation’.

In fact, many Turks come and live in Sandjak d’Alexandrette; demonstrations in support of Kemalists are organised; and on the order of Mustafa Kemal, the electors of the neighbouring regions elect several sons of notable families of Antioch to be parliamentary representatives at the National Assembly in Ankara, men who are put in charge of defending the Sanjak cause to the Turkish public opinion.

Preventing an Alliance between Germany and Turkey

In 1936, Great Britain gives Iraq its independence. France negotiates the same thing with Syria. However, Turkey demands the self-determination of the Sanjak of Alexandretta. ‘No one is fooled by this: in reality this self-determination constitutes a first step towards towards a gradual annexation’, analyses the Turkish historian Ahmet Kuyas.

Leon Blum refuses and refers the Turks back to the League of Nations (LN). The leader of the Popular Front seems in this way to leave it up to the LN. From a legal point of view, Great Britain and France did not ‘take’ Syria and Iraq, the LN ‘gave’ them a mandate over the former Ottoman territories.

‘However, the LN does what France and Great Britain ask her to do’, explains Ahmet Kuyas who contributed to Qantara (IAM, n°78) devoted to ‘Turks and Arabs, a turbulent history’. War is coming, Germany is Turkey’s first commercial partner, and an alliance between the two countries must be prevented. The LN gives her green light for the independence of the Sanjak deciding that it is a ‘distinct entity’.

Electorate rolls are established, the great Turkish land owners put pressure on their tenants so that they enrol as Turks. The divide is not only religious, but also ethno-religious. As a result, the Turks obtain 22 of the 40 seats in the new Assembly of Sanjak which adopts the name of Republic of Hatay, choses a flag very similar to the Turkish one, and registers Turkish as the official language.

In the end, the agreement of cessation of Sanjak to Turkey will be signed on 23 June 1939 by the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Saracoglu, and the French ambassador, René Massigli. French troops leave Sanjak on 23 July 1939. ‘The annexation is proclaimed the same day. France has just blatantly violated the charter of the mandate which guarantees the integrity of the territories under its trusteeship’, according to Basile Khoury who reproduces the successive identity cards of his grand-father, doctor in Antioch whose name Khoury was changed into a more Turkish Hüri. Sanjak becomes a province of Hatay integrated to the Republic of Turkey.

The price to pay

‘In the tense situation following the Munich Conference (German troops enter Prague on 15 May 1939) the Sanjak issue becomes part of the greater problem of security in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean’, deciphers Anne-Lucie Chaigne-Oudin in Les clés du Moyen-Orient (The keys to the Middle East).

Alexandretta was the price to pay to gain the Turks’ neutrality while waiting for a pact of mutual assistance between the French, the English, and the Turks which would be signed on 19 October for the duration of 15 years, but which would for the most part go unheeded essentially because of the Turks.

‘The Turks played it very well to be honest. They did not want to get involved in another war. The country was being rebuilt. Its leaders had known the First World War, had suffered from it, they did not stand a chance militarily and wanted to keep war at bay at all costs. A German-Turkish alliance would have given the Third Reich access to the oil fields of the Middle East; they took advantage of this to negotiate their support.’

However, the Christian minorities of the Sanjak of Alexandretta felt betrayed by France. Tens of thousands of Maronites, Assyrians and Armenians went in exile in Syria. Memories and places were made more Turkish.

Syria never accepted this territorial amputation. Today, the maps elaborated by the authorities in Damascus include Antioch/Antakya (1,2 million inhabitants) as an integral part of the Syrian republic.

Ariane Bonzon
Translation:  Suzanne Compagnon
Photos: DR

Original French version (dates back to 13.05.2013) :
Le jour où la France a donné un bout de Syrie à la Turquie

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