Posted by Matthew Barber on Sunday, June 2nd, 2013
The Turkish-Syrian Border Dispute: A View From the Past
With Secret Documents from the Files of the Syrian Foreign Ministry
By Meir Zamir
Hafez Asad’s thirty-year rule in Syria (1970-2000) concealed the fact that since independence in 1946, and even before that, Syria had been a vulnerable state, and that because of its geopolitical position and internal divisions, it had become an arena for regional and international conflict. In the past year Syria has once again become a source of instability and concern for its neighbors, including Turkey in the north.
Turkish-Syrian relations have deteriorated as a result of the civil war in Syria, which has had a direct impact on Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have crossed the border into Turkey; Turkish citizens have been killed by mortars fired from Syrian territory; two Turkish fighter planes have been shot down by Syrian missiles; and leaders of the Kurdish minority in the Jazeera, on Syria’s north-eastern border with Turkey, are seeking to exploit the disintegration of the Syrian state to form a Kurdish autonomous region similar to the one formed by their brethren in northern Iraq. Those ambitions are particularly worrisome to Turkey, which is facing its own Kurdish problem in its eastern region. Turkey is therefore leading a bloc of Arab and western countries in support of the Syrian opposition’s efforts to force Bashar al-Assad out of office.
The tension on the border between Turkey and Syria, the Kurdish problem, and Turkey’s efforts to replace the regime in Syria are not a new phenomenon, as the attached documents demonstrate. These documents were obtained by French intelligence in Damascus from the files of the Syrian Foreign Ministry and are published here for the first time. They shed light on the endemic use of covert operations and clandestine diplomacy in the Middle East in the 1940s, of which few traces can be found in official documentation. Indeed, intelligence can be termed the “missing dimension” in international relations, as well as in the records of Britain’s retreat from its colonies after World War II. British intelligence organizations were deeply involved in Britain’s Middle East policy in those years, when they made extensive use of covert operations and clandestine diplomacy to secure their country’s vital strategic and economic (oil) interests in the region. The Syrian documents, uncovered a few years ago, highlight the need for historians to study the 1948 war in Palestine in the context of Anglo-Arab and inter-Arab rivalries rather than Anglo-Jewish or Arab-Jewish confrontations. They reveal, for example, that British agents exploited the Zionists’ aspirations for a Jewish state to scare and coerce Arab leaders into acquiescing in Britain’s military presence in the region; that the question of Palestine had become deeply entangled in the Saudi-Hashemite conflict; and that French and Zionist intelligence organizations conducted a joint secret war against Britain and the Arab states.
The attached documents demonstrate that there is a “missing dimension” in the established historiography of the Middle East in those years. They cover the period between October 1945 and December 1946 and address Turkish-Syrian relations against the backdrop of the inter-Arab and Anglo-Soviet rivalry over the future of Syria in the early years of the Cold War. Then, as today, the weakness and lack of stability of the Syrian state prompted Turkey to intervene in Syria in an attempt to replace the anti-Turkish republican regime headed by President Shukri al-Quwatli (Doc. 8) with a friendly Hashemite monarchy under King Abdallah, which was to include Syria and Lebanon in addition to Transjordan and was to be linked with the Hashemite kingdom in Iraq. (Docs. 12, 13)
The borders between Turkey and Syria are not, as far as we know, an issue today, but after World War II the two countries were engaged in a territorial dispute. Their quarrel over the province of Alexandretta became a source of tension in Turkish-Syrian relations, and also played a part in the Anglo-Soviet secret war in the Middle East. The province of Alexandretta (Hatay), with its strategic port city of the same name, had been part of Syria under the French mandate in 1920-1936. Turkey claimed the province, arguing that its Turkish inhabitants comprised the majority. On the eve of World War II, France, seeking Turkey’s cooperation against Nazi Germany, tacitly agreed to relinquish the province, despite strong protests from the Syrian leaders. In June 1939, Turkey took over the province, causing thousands of Arab and Armenian refugees to flee to Syria. After the war, the Syrian nationalist leaders sought to exploit Britain’s designs to incorporate their country in a regional defense alliance with Turkey and Iraq against the Soviet Union, to demand the return of the province.
British officials in the Middle East tried to resolve the dispute by proposing that the city of Alexandretta and its port become a free zone under Britain’s control, allowing Syria to use it for trade, and that the border between the two states in the Jazeera be modified. The latter proposal was intended to reinforce Turkish control of the restless Kurdish population. (Docs. 3 , 4) This early initiative failed, but the secret Turkish-Hashemite negotiations in November-December 1946 reveal that, apart from Alexandretta, Turkey harbored territorial designs over Aleppo and Kamishli, the main Kurdish city in north-eastern Syria. (Doc. 14) For its part, the Soviet Union exploited the Turkish-Syrian dispute over Alexandretta, as well as the Kurds in the al Jazeera, to pressure the Syrian government not to join the British-sponsored anti-Soviet regional defense alliance . Soviet agents provoked the Syrian Communist Party to stage wide-scale demonstrations for the return of the “lost province” and encouraged Kurdish leaders in the al Jazeera to demand autonomy within the Syrian state. (Docs. 1,2,5,9) Another tactic was employed after King Abdallah’s visit to Ankara in early January 1947, when Soviet intelligence agents in Damascus handed over to President Quwatli copies of the secret agreement and correspondence between the Turkish president, Ismet Inonu, and King Abdallah, as well as Inonu and Nuri al-Said, the Iraqi prime minister. (Docs. 12, 13)
Britain was involved not only in the efforts to solve the problem of Alexandretta, but took part behind the scenes in the negotiations on the secret agreement of December 1946 between the Turkish, Iraqi and Jordanian leaders to form a Hashemite Greater Syrian monarchy. (Docs. 11,) This was part of a more elaborate plan devised by British intelligence agents with the tacit agreement of Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. Its first step was implemented in November and December 1946 and entailed the removal of the anti-Hashemite and anti-Turkish Syrian prime minister, Sa’adallah al-Jabiri, and his replacement with Jamil Mardam, who was secretly collaborating with the British agents and Nuri al-Said. Its more ambitious goal was to solve the conflict between the Hashemite and Saudi royal families by forming two large monarchies – one under the Hashemites in the Fertile Crescent in the north, and a Saudi monarchy that would extend over most of the Arabian Peninsula in the south, including Yemen. Bevin informally proposed such a plan to Prince Faisal, Ibn Saud’s son, in January 1947, but the Saudi king turned it down. Apparently, even after World War II, British agents in the Middle East continued to see the region as an arena for conducting their experiments, including redrawing existing borders to serve their country’s interests. The aspirations of the local inhabitants were invariably ignored. Another idea was to attach Kyrenaica in eastern Libya to Egypt, in return for which King Faruq was to give up his claims on the Sudan. It was informally put forward in the summer of 1947, but was turned down by the Egyptian king.
The attempt by King Abdallah and Nuri al-Said to involve Turkey in Arab affairs, and King Faruq’s intervention in the Turkish-Syrian border dispute (Docs. 6,7) reflected the Arab world’s ambivalence towards Turkey, then, as today. On the one hand there is Arab aversion to the “return of the Ottoman Empire” to the Arab world, and on the other, readiness in certain instances to seek Turkish intervention. In this regard, the present Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in a better position to intervene in the Arab world than was President Inonu, who represented the nationalist secularist Kemalist Turkish Republic. The Egyptian president Muhamed Morsi, like King Faruq before him, sees his country as a leader of the Arab world, and it is doubtful whether he is willing to share that role with Turkey. But he is pragmatic enough to realize that (Sunni) Egypt and Saudi Arabia need the support of (Sunni) Turkey to withstand the Iranian Shiite threat in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf.
Almost a century has passed since the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France. The two victorious colonial powers divided the Fertile Crescent between them, forming five new states: Iraq, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. After three decades of colonial rule and seven decades of independence, these states still face an uncertain future. Lebanon, Iraq and now Syria have undergone devastating civil wars which threatened their very existence as viable states. The Hashemite monarchy in Jordan is becoming increasingly unstable and faces growing internal and external threats, while Israel, with its large Palestinian population, has not yet been able to solve its fundamental dilemma of whether to remain a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state, or become a bi-national state. It is unclear if the Turkish prime minister harbors “Ottoman” ambitions, but if he looks southwards, he might conclude that the record of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East was not so negative after all.Meir Zamir, from the Department of Middle East Studies at Beer-Sheva University, studies the role of intelligence in inter-Arab and international affairs in the Middle East in the 1940s.
From the President of the Council, the Foreign Minister, Damascus,
to H.E. the British Minister Plenipotentiary
The information I have and which is based on official reports proves that the Soviet Legation has so far made contact with a large number of Kurdish leaders in the various regions of the Syrian Republic.
In drawing Your Excellency’s attention to this I know that you are perfectly aware of what is happening and that your specialized departments are not unaware of the maneuvers that are being prepared despite our willingness and yours.
However, the duty that I have towards you brings me to remind you that the Syrian Government, rightly concerned about the consequences of this Soviet activity, can only continue to reject all these activities and inform you of the inability in which we find ourselves to take any measures whatsoever against this Legation. It invites you, in your capacity as the official responsible for maintaining security and peace in this country, to take the measures you judge fitting.
The Syrian Government gives its agreement in advance to whatever you decide.
12 November 1945 The President of the Council of Ministers
s/ Sa’adalla al-Jabiri
From the President of the Council, the Syrian Foreign Minister, Damascus
To H.E. the Minister Plenipotentiary to the USSR
My Government, which wishes to maintain good relations with your Legation, finds itself forced to draw your attention in the friendliest way possible to the protests it has received from international Arab and non-Arab sources.
These protests indicate that your Legation has recently encouraged determined intrigues among the Kurds of northern Syria.
Also, the Syrian security services have noted special activity to which certain Kurdish and Armenian communist elements, in permanent contact with officials in your Legation in Damascus, have devoted themselves.
I can forgive all this agitation, but ask Your Excellency to stipulate now that certain of its Legation officials be more respectful of the position and complete neutrality of this country.
2 December 1945 The Syrian Foreign Minister
s/ Sa’adalla al-Jabiri
From the Minister of Great Britain in Syria, Damascus
To His Excellency the President of the Council of Ministers
The Syrian Foreign Minister
The Turkish Government has asked us through diplomatic channels for our intervention in favor of the removal of the Kurdish leaders from the Turkish border and the reduction in the activities of Kurdish and Armenian extremists within Syrian territories.
This legation had already written to you about this. We are confirming it to you today and we are informing you that the authorities charged with military security will intervene in the matter of Syrian nationals who are working to upset good Syro-Turkish neighborly relations.
I believe that at the moment you share our opinion which is designed only to maintain peace and security, and to deflect from Syria the threat of trouble which is currently being fostered in certain regions of the Middle East.
With my deepest respect,
8 December 1945 s/ T. Shone
In code -Secret
From the Syrian Minister in Cairo
to H.E. the Syrian Foreign Minister, Damascus
Lord Killearn [British Ambassador to Egypt] visited me today to clarify the proposals they presented about our conflict with the Turks. He believes that the British Government is determined to put an end to this dispute. The understanding between us and the Turks is necessary in the interests of our common defense.
The Province of Alexandretta cannot return to Syria.
Syria will be able to profit from the oil from new regions.
Creating a Kurdish bloc in the Syrian North-East would form an obstacle to the Russians who covet the North of Syria.
The proposals presented to us today were done in an officious, but not definitive, manner, but they express London’s point of view. It is to be hoped that the Syrian Government will give its agreement to them with the required speed, so that it will then be possible to consider Syria and Turkey as forming a common defensive unity.
24 December 1945 S/ Jamil Mardam Bey
From the Chargé d’affaires of the Soviet Legation in Damascus
To H.E. the Syrian Foreign Minister
Following on from the verbal note I gave you about the future of the Province of Alexandretta, its current situation and the future that the Government of the Soviet Union wants for it, I draw your attention to the activities of nationalist Kurdish elements on the future they want for themselves and on the desire for unity, progress and emancipation the Soviet Union is formulating for them.
Right now I can give the Syrian Government the assurance that these elements, which are dispersed among a number of states and enjoy the Soviet Union’s sympathy, will not ever adopt a position unsatisfactory to the government and people of Syria.
Thus, I will have unequivocally expressed to you, from now, the reality of our intentions.
30 December 1945 Yours sincerely,
The Chargé d’affaires of the Soviet Legation
From the President of the Council of Ministers of the Kingdom of Egypt
to H.E. the President of the Council of Ministers of the Syrian Republic, Damascus
An unclear future awaits the Muslim states and common dangers threaten them. I believe that it is Egypt’s duty to intervene in any misunderstanding arising between two brothers, two neighbors and two friends when understanding is needed in the interests of the Muslim brotherhood.
It has reached me through a reliable source that Great Britain has intervened in different ways to regulate the Arab-Turkish conflict. First, I think that intervention by Great Britain would not have come about if this power did not intend to gain something: the port of Alexandretta. I imagine that it is dangerous for Syria itself that this important port should be taken from Turkey to fall into the hands of Great Britain.
All I am asking at the moment is that you accept the intervention of the Egyptian Government or refer the whole matter to the Council of the Arab League. If that happen, the British danger would first be dissipated and Syria would draw benefits that it could not obtain through British intervention. In such a case, the League could rely on the complete help of Russia, America and even France. We would then be able to grant control of Alexandretta to a common Turkish-Arab Committee (or the League would be represented and not only Syria).
I have put the matter to His Majesty the King. My proposal drew his utmost praise.
In anticipation of your generous reply, please accept my sincerest good wishes,
5 January 1946 S/ Mahmud al-Nuqrashi
President of the Council of Ministers
His Excellency Shukri bey Quwatli, may God protect him
May the benediction, mercy and blessings of Allah be upon you.
I am informing you that the Turkish Government has asked me to intervene to persuade Syria to forget its fears and mistrust with regard to its neighbors the Turks and to conclude an agreement of good neighborliness with them in view of their reciprocal interests and advantages, according to their way of putting it.
As I knew the legitimate rights of the Syrians, my reply was that Syria was ready, without intervention, to come to an understanding and to cooperate on condition that its rights are preserved, that the wrong it has undergone is recognized and that what was torn from it is returned.
The Turks, to my mind, are at long last inclined to satisfy the rights that you have, on condition that you do not show any negligence or let-up, no matter the extent of the pressure the British bring to bear on you.
I wish, on this occasion, to tell you that Syria is a piece of us ourselves and that if we are keen to see the satisfaction of its rights, it is because for us it is a duty vis-à-vis men who are our brothers in religion, language and nationality.
Written in Abdin, 14 October 1946
His Majesty King Faruq, may God preserve him
I read your noble address with tears in my eyes and I thank God for giving Syria a champion and a helper it can have recourse to and who defends both it and its rights.
The Turks, my Lord, have evil designs with regard to us and whatever the changes in the situation, the spirit of oppression and domination rules them. All their dreams are of the restoration of the Ottoman Empire, but weakness is what restrains them: injustice is buried in their soul; strength reveals it, weakness hides it.
The Turks want at all costs to reach agreement with us and the English want us to do it, but what is the use for us Arabs, and especially for us Syrians? Absolutely nothing unless becoming a millstone, losing Alexandretta and losing our unknown future. I thank you, in the name of all Syrians for your noble defense of our legitimate rights…. Syria only sees any danger to itself from its old oppressors, Turks and French. God preserve it from concluding an agreement with one of them. God preserve you as champion and Treasure of the Arabs.
3 November 1946 Shukri al-Quwatli
His Excellency the Muhafez of al Jazeera
to His Excellency the President of the Council
For 20 days the Turkish-Syrian border has been lined with Turkish troops. According to information from our services, these concentrations on the borders of these muhafazat number about 20,000 men. Here we are worried about this collection of Turkish troops who are engaged in digging trenches along the whole length of the border, without being able to learn the reason for this activity.
Yesterday I was in touch with the Turkish Vali of Mardin and asked him what all this meant. He replied to me,
“We fear that the Kurds of Syria or those of Turkey who have taken refuge there will cause trouble.”
I think we should attach a very great importance to this concentration of troops on our borders, because of the rumors which accompany them in this Muhafaza. People are saying in effect that the English have left the hands of the Turkish and Iraqi Governments free and that they have promised the first some of the oil from Syrian al Jazeera.
The atmosphere in which we live here is very difficult. The strangest thing is that the Turks are distributing considerable funds to individuals and to partisans they have here but that we have not yet been able to catch any of these agents, even though what I am suggesting is well established. Please let me know your orders.
[n.d. early November 1946] The Muhafez of al Jazeera
Abd al-Kader al-Midani
The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Damascus
The atmosphere here is becoming more and more somber, and although Russia is not openly applying pressure, the pressure on the Turks continues and with some force. The English encourage the Turks each day in a new way and the latter refuse to concede anything to Russia.
On the other hand, what is certain is that they refuse to recognize that we have any claims on Alexandretta.
I am convinced that our interest now forces us to reach an understanding, even if it were with the Russians, to preserve our rights, as long as our friends the English refuse to help us, for in fact they would leave Alexandretta with the lion’s share.
The Soviet ambassador here has, in conversations with me, expressed the desire of the Soviet Government to persuade the Arabs that no danger threatens them from their side and that the Moscow Government is inclined and even wants to help us take back from Turkey the rights it has snatched from us with the help of France and England.
I am convinced that an intention from this side will never be detrimental and that if it cannot be used to persuade the English of our importance, it can, however, not do us any harm.
26 November 1946
The Minister Plenipotentiary in Turkey
Top secret- In code
The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Damascus
The Turkish Government, despairing of being able to conclude an agreement with us, has finally turned towards Iraq, Transjordan and the international Jewish coterie which at the moment is acting in close agreement with these two countries.
Nuri Pasha Said, who enjoys a not negligible influence here, has finally promised Turkey, in the name of King Abdallah, that he would recognize the annexation of Alexandretta and that he would agree with Turkey the adoption of a common line of defense.
For all these reasons, I am able to inform you that the Turks are no longer interested in us and that they no longer wish to negotiate with us.
For my part, I can only attribute this change of heart to the British who, it seems, have made the Turks understand that this agreement with us would only be necessary if they did not reach an agreement with King Abdallah. The Turks do not hesitate in maintaining today that the Syrian regime is far from being solid.
The Minister Plenipotentiary
2 December 1946 Ihsan al-Sharif
His Hashemite Majesty King Abdallah Ibn Hussein
The Government of the Republic of Turkey, for the greatest good of all, will ensure its protection of the legal regime of the Arab Hashemite kingdom. And I remind you, in the name of the Government of the Republic of Turkey, that we are the first to speedily recognize you as the legal king of Syria, as soon as the moment comes. You also know that we hope for your entry into Damascus soon, God willing.
[n.d. December 1946] Signature
Delivered by the Russian Legation Ismet Inonu
His Excellency President Ismet Inonu
I am aware of your noble letter in which you inform me that you recognize in me a legal king for Syria and I thank you for the deep sincerity of your noble statements.
I recognize in particular the border as it exists between Syria and Turkey, and that the question of the current borders must be accepted with no turning back to the past. If the need to modify the Turkish-Syrian borders becomes apparent, this will have to be done on the basis of a perfect understanding.
[n.d. December 1946] Signature
Delivered by the Russian Legation Abdallah
His Excellency President Ismet Inonu
The Iraqi government must, for the moment, despite its desire to see a royal Syrian government established and facing the possibility of seeing the problem of the government of the Syrian Republic in its current state resolved, study with a degree of reserve all the proposals you have made to it regarding the question of the Turkish-Syrian borders and particularly as far as the regions of Aleppo and Kameshli are concerned.
The greatest difficulty really rests with this claim you have made and which is the annexation of Aleppo to Turkey. But I can assure you, with authority and from now that your claim regarding the border at Kameshli can be accepted, so long as it does not exceed in depth the adjustments imposed on the borders from 70 [probably 1870], as regards fortified land in relation to the current borders.
So I must also now obtain an assurance that the lands for which you accept cession to Syria are the equivalent of lands you are demanding. And you will indicate the detail of the matter to me.
[n.d. December 1946] Signature: Nuri al-Said