Their intentions became evident last year, when battles in Mosul and Aleppo were raging. Erdogan demanded a revision of the treaty and declared that Turkey has “historical rights” in the two cities. We should not take these statements lightly. Historical experiences play a central role in shaping Turkish political thinking and current policies in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, one cannot fully comprehend Turkey’s military interventions in Iraq and Syria and its shifting international alliances separately from the history of international treaties and political machinations that shaped the country’s modern borders.
Following its defeat in World War I, the 1920 Treaty of Sevres sealed the Ottoman Empire’s fate and legitimized allied occupation of large parts of the Anatolian steppe. The establishment of Kurdish and Armenian entities in south-eastern Anatolia and the imposition of Franco-British mandates over the Arab provinces of the falling empire were written into the treaty. The humiliation was too much to swallow and Turks, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, rebelled against the foreign powers.
In the Ottoman province of Cilicia, which was included in the French “zone of direct control in Syria,” battles erupted between French and Turkish forces. During the conflict, Ataturk sent advisers and weapons to nationalist rebels in northern Syria fighting against French occupation. After a year of fighting, France ceded Cilicia to the Turks, and Ataturk halted military aid to Syrian nationalists, allowing French forces to crush the rebellion. France and Britain recognized the new balance of power and agreed in the Treaty of Lausanne to delineate the borders of modern Turkey, quashing Kurdish and Armenian dreams of a national home. Shortly after, Ataturk abolished the Ottoman sultanate and founded a secularist Turkish Republic.
Mosul was left out of the Lausanne settlement but, when the League of Nations finally decided to grant the disputed region to British Mandate Iraq in 1925, Ataturk singed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union the very next day. His attempt to blackmail the British, however, was to no avail.
Amid heightened international tensions in the late 1930s, Turkey successfully extorted yet another revision of its borders from France, which was still ruling Syria under the mandate regime. In 1936, Turkey moved to capture the province of Alexandretta (modern day Hatay) in northern Syria. Syrian Arabs constituted a majority of the population, but Ataturk claimed the opposite (census results from the 1930s are still disputed). France promised Ataturk, weeks before he passed away, a majority of seats in the provincial council and allowed Turkish troops to enter the area. The “elected” council adopted Turkish currency and laws and, within a year, Turkey annexed Alexandretta. France had sacrificed Syria’s territorial integrity for a “neutral” or “friendly” Turkey, which could serve as an important bulwark against Fascist Italy’s penetration into the eastern Mediterranean.
The AK Party first claimed to work for a “zero problems” foreign policy. The events following the Arab Spring, however, revealed the interventionist tendencies of Turkish foreign policy, which remained mostly dormant throughout the Cold War. Such policies contributed significantly to the destabilization of Iraq, Syria and Turkey itself. Erdogan was not inhibited; on the contrary, Turkish revisionist expansionism has escalated in the past year.
Erdogan’s determination to expand republic’s revisionist policies leaves Iraqi and Syrian territories vulnerable to following the same path as Alexandretta province in the 1930s.
The Turkish base in Bashiqa, near Mosul, ostensibly set up to “aid” the Peshmerga, is still there, even though Daesh has been defeated. In Syria, Turkish forces occupy a pocket north of Aleppo. This intervention, which came on the back of Russian-Turkish rapprochement, was supposedly aimed to fight Daesh and contain the Kurds. The terms of the deal remain undisclosed, but the progress of events starkly resembles the Cilicia crisis of 1921. The pocket is more than just a buffer zone in the eyes of Ankara — Turkish banks, cellphone networks and national post service the area, and Erdogan’s pictures decorate the halls of the “local councils.”
It might be difficult to believe that a 21st century state would work so adamantly to gain a few square kilometers here and there. For Turkey, however, righting the historical wrongs of Lausanne is a declared policy. Beyond that, Ankara continues to build up its military presence and local clients to gain leverage over the political and economic futures of Iraq and Syria. It seems that, for the foreseeable future, Turkey will continue to cajole, extort and defy both Russia and the United States to achieve these goals. And, if the will to maintain international norms flounders, many territories might suffer the fate of Alexandretta.
• Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation, a private organization promoting research on themes related to the history of Damascus from the 19th century to the present. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.