Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Stolen Sanjak

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the British and French moved to legitimize their sustained presence in the Middle East. The so-called mandate system enabled them to redraw the map of the region in a manner that enabled them to impose their hegemony.

Accordingly, Lebanon was severed from 'Greater Syria', Jordan was carved out as a newly created state and the former Ottoman district of Jerusalem and province of Acre were transformed into Palestine.

The first step was to declare Syria and Lebanon separate countries. Syria itself was divided into four administrative departments: Damascus, Aleppo, the Alawites, the Druze and Sanjak Iskenderoun (state of Alexandretta) to which it accorded a special status. The other half of the equation was the Ankara Treaty, also known as the Franklin-Bouillon accord, concluded between Ankara and Paris on 21 October 1921, which officially ended the state of war between the two countries. Article 7 of this treaty granted special privileges to the Turkish inhabitants of Iskenderun, stating, "A special administrative system shall be created for the region of Iskenderun. The Turkish inhabitants of this region shall be accorded every facility for developing their culture and the Turkish language shall have official status."

The French high commissioner decreed that all laws that were observed in Aleppo would also apply to Iskenderun and that the province would have representatives in the Aleppo national assembly. At the same time, the sanjak would have its own governor who would administer the province autonomously alongside the high commissioner and it would have its own budget. Later, after it was decided to incorporate Aleppo into a unified Syrian government, the French mandate authorities decided to uphold Iskenderun's special status, thereby preserving its financial and administrative autonomy and retaining Turkish as an official language alongside Arabic.

Iskenderun's autonomy thus reconfirmed, the stage was now set for separation. Following the parliamentary elections held in early 1936, the sanjak's representatives petitioned the French high commissioner to render their province totally independent from Syria and subordinate it to the French directly. That French officials in Syria clearly favored the Turkish over the Arab partisans in the province was taken as a sign that their wish would be granted and that this would prelude the eventual handover of the province to Turkey.

The Iskenderun question became more acute following the conclusion of the Franco-Syrian Treaty in 1936. The treaty officially ended the French mandate over Syria, although France retained certain privileges with regard to the conduct of Syrian foreign policy. In addition, the treaty stipulated that the department of Alawites and the Druze would retain administrative and financial autonomy and that the Syrian government must respect the rights of all minority communities. Such provisions encouraged the Turks in Iskenderun to create the "Hatay Independence Society" which the Arabs countered by creating the National Action League to promote the assimilation of the province into Syria. In addition, as tension increased between the two communities over the future of the province, a wave of ethnic strife erupted, resulting in numerous casualties.

After a brief flurry of communications between Paris and Ankara, the former insisted that as the mandate power over Syria it did not have the right to independently dispose of any portion of Syrian territory entrusted to it by the League of Nations. Ankara, naturally, took issue. On 28 November, addressing a packed National Assembly, the Turkish foreign minister proclaimed that the Turkish people were prepared 'to dye the ink needed to settle the question with red!'

On 6 December 1936, students took to the streets in Damascus with the chant, 'Long live Iskenderun! Iskenderun belongs to Arab Syria!' The organizers of the demonstration also dispatched a telegram to the secretary of the League of Nations declaring, 'Iskenderun is Arab and cannot be separated from Syria.'

Syrian political leaders had little choice but to take up the call of the street. The "National Bloc" moved to form a Syrian delegation that would be ready to travel to Geneva, if necessary, in order to defend the Syrian position. The most prominent member of the delegation was Faris Al-Khouri who had recently produced a lengthy article, published in the Syrian press, on the Syrian position, 'substantiated by legal arguments and incontrovertible proof that Iskenderun is a purely Syrian territory'.

It was not long before the Syrian delegation would have to act. On the very day that a Turkish delegation, headed by the minister of foreign affairs, left for Geneva the Syrian delegation boarded a private airplane that took them from Tripoli to Marseilles, from where they proceeded to Geneva over land.

On the morning of 16 December 1936, the League of Nations assembly convened expressly to consider the Iskenderun question. The meeting opened with a speech by the French delegate who said that in spite of the close friendship between his country and Turkey, France was obliged to defend the interests of a people entrusted to its care by the League of Nations, to lead that people towards independence and to safeguard the territorial integrity of their country. He went on to express his surprise at the fact that at no point during the previous 15 years had Ankara or the inhabitants of Iskenderun raised objection to that district's existence within the boundaries of Syria. He concluded his speech with a warning against the consequences of acceding to the Turkish demand. To do so would trigger unrest that could easily spread to other parts of the Arab world. Turkish opinion was that Iskenderun should be granted independence, as Lebanon had been, and linked directly to France through a form of alliance.

The ground had been laid for an agreement which soon followed. The agreement itself provided that Iskenderun would be demilitarised and that a joint Franco-Turkish military commission would be created to defend the province from foreign aggression. Iskenderun would be granted wide-ranging autonomous powers, rendering it just short of full independence, although this was contingent upon the institution of ample guarantees for the protection of the Arab and Armenian communities and other minorities. Finally, the central Syrian government would have ultimate say on foreign policy affairs and a limited number of financial matters.

The interlude between 24 January 1937 when Turkey and France reached this agreement in principle, and 29 May 1937 when the Iskenderun question was ultimately resolved by the League of Nations, was far from a period of calm for any of the parties concerned. Upon hearing the news of the agreement, students in Damascus went on strike and joined the mass demonstration organized by the Committee for the Defence of Iskenderun, headed by Fakhri Al-Baroudi.

Taking up the popular appeal, Syrian Prime Minister Jamil Mardam sped to Geneva to attend the League of Nations meeting on the administrative arrangements for Iskenderun. Meanwhile, the Syrian government also decided if the situation demanded it, it would summon the parliament to an extraordinary session to review the Franco-Syrian Treaty.

On 29 May 1927 the League of Nations officially approved all the points of the Franco-Turkish agreement, adding only that it would send a five-member delegation to Iskenderun in order to make arrangements for the elections of the sanjak's representatives to the Syrian parliaments and to ensure the effective monitoring of these elections.

The Arab response to the League of Nations decision was violent. In Iskenderun, Arab and Armenian demonstrators took to the streets shouting, 'Syria, you are my country!'

Meanwhile, in Damascus, the Syrian parliament convened in emergency session. With all the representatives from Iskenderun present, it unanimously declared its commitment to the Syrian constitution, which stated that Syria is an indivisible political entity, and to the Franco-Syrian Treaty in accordance with which France was obliged to defend the territorial integrity of Syria, of which Iskenderun was an integral part.

The Syrian actions could not avert the inevitable. As Ankara encouraged the Turkish inhabitants of Iskenderun to express their desire to be annexed to their 'motherland', Franco- Turkish negotiations continued, with the result that on 4 July 1938 it was agreed to allow Turkish forces into Iskenderun. With this came the declaration of the independent Republic of Hatay, which, in turn, proved preliminary to the final step.

On 23 June 1923 the two sides struck an agreement in accordance with which Iskenderun was annexed to Turkey, after which it became known as the stolen sanjak.