Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (605)
The stolen sanjaq
The Iskenderun dispute was assiduously covered by Al-Ahram in the critical juncture between 1936-1937 when the question was put before the League of Nations. The league's resolutions, writes Professor Yunan Labib Rizk, marked a turning point in the life of the province that had once been part of Syria
The purpose of this Chronicle is not to dig up old quarrels with our Arab neighbours which, in all events were more the product of colonial interests than they were of Egypt's bilateral relations with those countries. Rather our task, as we comb through old editions of Al-Ahram, is to offer a unique and unconventional portrait of those issues, one that conveys an immediacy rarely found in academic studies on the subject.
Before proceeding to the topic at hand, it is important to register several observations on what was referred to 70 years ago as the "question of the sanjaq of Iskenderun". Under Ottoman rule, a "sanjaq" was an administrative subdivision of "vilayet", of which Greater Syria had been one.
The question itself was related to arrangements European powers concluded among themselves in the wake of WWI. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the League of Nations, France and Britain moved to legitimise their possessions in the Middle East. The instrument they created for this purpose was the so-called mandate, conferred upon them by the newly created international organisation over which they exercised disproportionate control, and which enabled them to redraw the map of the region in a manner that better 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.
Of greater relevance to the Iskenderun question was rival claims over certain ethnically mixed parts of the Levant. In Iraq, for example, there arose disputes with both Turkey and Iran. The former laid claim to Mosul and the surrounding area on the grounds of its predominantly Turkish population. Britain disputed that claim, determined as it was to retain that area for Iraq over which it had mandate authority. The reverse occurred in the tug-of-war between Iraq and Iran over Arabistan. In this case, Iraq lost this erstwhile Ottoman province to Tehran, which renamed it Khozastan. Another heavily ethnically mixed region was the northern Syrian sanjaq of Iskenderun, formerly called Iskenderun, which France in this case handed over to Ankara.
Needless to say, the prime determinant in these situations was the interests of the mandate powers. London was not about to cede the oil rich area of Mosul to Turkey under any circumstances, whereas it had nothing to lose by striking a deal with Tehran over Arabistan. Different dynamics affected the fate of Iskenderun. For one, in order to strengthen its position in the eastern Mediterranean, France was eager to improve its relations with countries in the region, Turkey, obviously, being a key state. Simultaneously, unlike the case with the British- Turkish dispute over Mosul, there was no economic factor such as oil to compel France to hold on to Iskenderun, unlike the case with Mosul. Secondly, although the Turkish minority in Mosul was relatively small and only one of several other minority communities, in Iskenderun the Turks were virtually equal in number to the Arabs and far outnumbered the Armenians, the only other minority of significant size. At the same time, for historical reasons the Turks were by far the most influential minority community: they formed the majority of major landlords whereas the Arabs made up the masses of the peasant class. It followed that the Turks were generally more educated and hence had greater access to key political, economic and social positions.
The rival claims on the sanjaq had their roots in French policy in Syria and in the Treaty of Ankara. As a mandate power, France was now in a position to reorder the administration of its Levant possessions. Its first step was to declare Syria and Lebanon separate countries. Syria itself was divided into four administrative departments: Aleppo, Damascus, Alawin and Jabal Druze, and Iskenderun, 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."
French mandate policy was instrumental in paving the way for the severing off of the province. Firstly, the 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 sanjaq 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 sanjaq'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 favoured 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 Alawin and Jabal 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, some of whose members were so rowdy, according to Al-Ahram, that they shouted out remarks intentionally offensive to France, the Turkish foreign minister proclaimed that the Turkish people were prepared "to dye the ink needed to settle the question with red!"
In order to help its readers understand the issue, the London Times provided a brief background study of the territory under dispute. The Turks began to settle in Iskenderun following the end of the Crusades, it wrote. "Following the Great War, some of them began to refer to themselves as Turkmen, meaning descendants from the Turkish migrants to the area. Undoubtedly, all those people regarded themselves as Turks, not Arabs, even though many of them speak Arabic as a second language." According to the famous British newspaper, while the Turkish community was larger than the other minorities, it was doubtful that it constituted the absolute majority of the population.
Al-Ahram too was keen to supply its readers with an analysis of the problem. It focussed in particular on the position of the French who it regarded as overly protective of their friendship with Turkey, whereas it was in their vital interests not to alienate the Syrians. Moreover, "the covenant of the League of Nations and the provisions of the mandate compel France to safeguard Syria which has been placed in its trust. This places France in a very delicate position." On the other hand, the newspaper did not believe that turning the matter over to the League of Nations assembly would produce a solution as rapidly as the Turks would like. "The assembly would have to appoint an impartial committee to consider the arguments of the rival parties. Then it would have to hold a public referendum if the situation called for one. All this would take an inordinate amount of time, which would be contrary to the wishes expressed by Turkish leaders."
The newspaper was correct in its assessment of the potential explosive nature of the Iskenderun question, which was precisely what French officials in Damascus feared. On 6 December 1936, students took to the streets in Damascus with the chant, "Long live Iskenderun! Iskenderun belongs to Arab Syria!" The organisers 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. According to an Al-Ahram news item, 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. "The delegation carried with it all the documentation necessary to support the Syrian point of view, which had been laid out in two scrupulously prepared memoranda."
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 "in view of the solidarity among the Arab peoples".
Before the end of that day the French and Turkish delegations had reached what Al-Ahram described as a temporary agreement. Three observers would be sent to the sanjaq to assess the situation; however, the French delegate insisted, this would not alter the substance of the issue. He took the occasion to reiterate his caution against responding to the Turkish demand, which the Arab world would undoubtedly interpret as a bid to dismember Syria, which had only just been granted independence.
Turkish opinion, as aired by the Turkish press, was mistrustful of the "temporary agreement". The general opinion was that Iskenderun should be granted independence, as Lebanon had been, and linked directly to France through a form of alliance. Nevertheless, Ankara did nothing to prevent the agreement from being put into effect, and three individuals, from Sweden, Holland and Switzerland, were appointed as observers.
Soon afterwards a Turkish delegation arrived in Paris to press for one of two solutions: either for France to declare Iskenderun an independent republic within the larger Republic of Syria or to grant the sanjaq full independence under a Franco-Turkish treaty. France was inclined to neither alternative, which led to the rupture of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
With the arrival of the international observer team to Iskenderun, tension rose both within the sanjaq and abroad. On 5 January, while the observers were in a meeting with various local officials, about 200 Turkish youths held a rally calling for the sanjaq's independence. More than 1,500 Syrian Arabs staged a counter demonstration that marched to the premises where the observers were meeting, where student leaders delivered impassioned speeches in defence of Syria's right to the sanjaq. To aggravate the situation further, two days later Turkish President Kemal Ataturk arrived in Konya just across the border from Iskenderun in Turkey. In spite of the bitter cold -- the temperature recorded that day was 7 degrees below zero -- "most of the people of Konya flocked to the train station to greet the dictator", as Al-Ahram reported. In the opinion of the newspaper, this demonstration constituted further testimony to Turkey's determination to press its claim to the Syrian sanjaq.
In response to Ataturk's visit to Konya, some 3,000 Arab students in Iskenderun staged a peaceful demonstration. Sporting Syrian banners and chanting the Syrian national anthem, the demonstrators marched several times around the government building. Al-Ahram took the occasion to inform its readers that the Turkish inhabitants made up two-fifths of the sanjaq's population and that they could be roughly divided into three factions: secularist Kemalists who demanded the sanjaq's independence, traditionalists who were keen to protect Islam and Islamic values and, in between, a large group of petty merchants who remained silent for fear of incurring the wrath of the Kemalists. The three groups could be identified by their preferred headgear. The Kemalists sported the Western fedora, the Muslims the tarboush and the merchants the beret.
In the face of the spiralling Iskenderun crisis, it was decided to bring the question before the League of Nations. In addition, France and Turkey resumed diplomatic contacts in the hope of reaching an acceptable solution. This development, in turn, gave rise to speculation that the French, in their eagerness to placate the Turks, would not only offer guarantees to protect the rights of Turks living in Iskenderun but would also grant Ankara certain privileges within the province.
In Geneva, shortly before the League of Nations assembly was due to convene, the Franco-Turkish negotiations had reached an impasse, requiring British intervention. As Anthony Eden arrived in the Swiss capital, the London Times revealed that although the French were willing to offer a high degree of autonomy to the Syrian sanjaq, the Turks were not satisfied. They remained adamant upon their demand that the sanjaq should be accorded full independence within a federal framework between Syria, Iskenderun and Lebanon, in accordance with which each of these entities would have equal voting rights, even on foreign policy matters.
As advocates of Arab national rights fretted over the potential fate of the Syrian province, Al-Ahram featured an article that made it appear as if their worst fears were destined to come true. On 24 January the newspaper's banner headline read: "The Iskenderun crisis shrouded in mystery. Al-Ahram 's Geneva correspondent unveils the secrets. The time has come to reveal the confidential documents."
The Al-Ahram correspondent confesses to having been in possession of these secret documents for some time. However, "as Al-Ahram gave the interests of peace priority over all other considerations, I agreed not to release them as long as others did likewise. Yet, today, I have learned that the newspapers in Ankara have published these secret documents, which now obliges me to do the same."
The first document was a correspondence from the Turkish ambassador in Paris to the French government proposing that Syria, Lebanon and Iskenderun become three federated states. Each of these states would have full sovereignty except on matters of joint concern, notably foreign policy affairs. In addition, the budgetary allocations for the conduct of these joint matters would be distributed to the three states on the basis of the relative sizes of their populations.
The second document was the French response to the Turkish proposal. Although it was rather ambiguously worded, the communication essentially expressed France's willingness to satisfy Ankara's demands with regard to the administrative organisation of the province, Turkish cultural expression, the disarmament of the province and Turkish access to the port of Iskenderun. In the opinion of the French official who wrote the letter, "the only questions that remain to be solved are the appointment of the governor, a matter in which I believe that the League of Nation's Mandate Committee should have a say, and the question of the sanjaq's representation in the Syrian parliament. The League of Nations assembly will not be incapable of reaching a solution to these two matters."
The ground had been laid for an agreement which soon followed. In the opinion of Al-Ahram, the most important feature of the agreement was that it was backed by the League of Nations, which hoped to appoint a high commissioner to implement it. 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.
Relaying information he obtained from the British press, the Al-Ahram correspondent in London reports that the two sides reached this agreement only after heated debate and that it was largely due to the efforts of Mr Eden that the Turks finally relinquished their demand for a federal system between Syria, Lebanon and Iskenderun. The correspondent goes on to relate, "The French were eager to satisfy the Turkish desire to reach an agreement to protect the sanjaq. It was around this point that the various demands revolved until an agreement came within reach. In the opinion of the Times correspondent, among the factors that were most instrumental in making this agreement possible were France's position at the head of a large Islamic power in North Africa and Ankara's fears of a unified Arab stance against Turkey."
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 organised by the Committee for the Defence of Iskenderun, headed by Fakhri Al-Baroudi. Al-Ahram relates that following prayers in the Umayyad Mosque, some 20,000 protesters assembled and proceeded to march through the streets of the Syrian capital carrying Arab nationalist banners and chanting slogans in defence of the Arab character of Iskenderun. "The protesters were led by several thousand students marching in perfect order, while people gathered in the streets and on their balconies to shout encouragement to this patriotic display."
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.
In the meantime, technical experts from the French and Turkish negotiating teams in Geneva haggled over a few remaining differences. Among these were the women of Iskenderun's right to suffrage, to which the French were opposed, as they were to the Turkish proposal to conduct a new census before the forthcoming elections -- the results of the census the French had recently conducted in the sanjaq were still valid, they claimed. Another bone of contention was the conduct of the sanjaq's foreign relations. Although Turkey objected strenuously at first, it was finally agreed that all the sanjaq's foreign relations would continue to pass through Damascus. In addition, Iskenderun citizens would have to obtain their passports from the Syrian government and foreign consuls wishing to open offices in the sanjaq would have to obtain approval from Damascus.
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 sanjaq'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!" Pro- Syrian and pro-Arab banners fluttered at the head of the processions in which female Arab students also figured prominently. In addition, clashes erupted between the two sides, leading to 29 casualties, of whom five were Turks, 12 Arabs, one Armenian, eight Roman Orthodox and three Alawis.
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 in Arab nationalist circles as the stolen sanjaq.