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The Alexandretta Crisis

By January of 1937 the logic of French colonialism, minority national rights, and the League of Nations mandates regime had turned on itself. At the end of January, Hitler had declared his intention to overturn the Treaty of Versailles in part because of the claimed oppression of German minorities living outside German borders. Months before, the leftist French government of Leon Blum had wished to conciliate the Syrian National Bloc and finally grant nominal independence to the mandate, but in 1937, as crisis in Europe loomed, the government needed to placate the French right, maintain its hold on Middle Eastern and North African colonies, and prepare for war. The French Senate declined to ratify the treaties with Lebanon or Syria, and the Foreign Ministry slowly determined that placating Turkey over Alexandretta was a higher priority than maintaining the territorial unity of the Syrian Mandate. The flexible and flawed idealism of the mandate regime proved dispensable. Few outside Geneva noticed the contortions of mandate apologists.

The Sanjaq of Iskandarun and its principal town of Antakya had remained bastions of Ottoman cosmopolitanism. The population included sizable numbers of Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christians, Arabic-speaking Alawi Muslims contiguous with their co-religionists in the former French territoire des Alaouites, Turkish- and Armenian-speaking Armenians, Kurds, and Turkish- and Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims, among Jews, Catholics, and a few Protestants. By the end of January, France had agreed to separate the Sanjaq from Syria under a special joint Turkish French Mandate regime, subject to supervision from the League of Nations, and the findings of a League-appointed Committee of Experts. The Committee of Experts proposed elections based on proportional sectarian representation like the French Mandate regime implemented in Lebanon, and only averted in Syria by the upheaval of the Great Revolt a decade earlier. Before the elections could take place, the various sectarian communities listed had to register to determine their numbers and proportions in the new government. Robert de Caix, first mandate secretary general under General Gouraud, and inventor of Greater Lebanon and its sectarian system, led the French delegation on the Committee of Experts.3

Vigorous Arab protests ensued in the Sanjaq. (See Figure 7.1.) Shakib Arslan in Geneva organized and led a petition collection drive. Dr. cAbd al-Rahman Shahbandar, still in exile in Cairo, organized exile

Demonstration in Iskandarun, 1936, reads, A demonstra tion of the Arab Muslims, Christians, Alawites, Jews, and Armenians acclaiming the Syrian Arab flag in the town o

Figure 7.1. Demonstration in Iskandarun, 1936, reads, A demonstra tion of the Arab Muslims, Christians, Alawites, Jews, and Armenians acclaiming the Syrian Arab flag in the town of Iskandarun.” From al Mussawar, November 6, 1936 (author’s collection)

opposition, and scores of aggrieved petitions arrived in Geneva. A group calling itself the Congress of Arab Students wrote:

People of the Arab World have not ceased since the World War to appreciate the ability of Turkish Nationalists to rebuild out of a tottering Empire a living and vigorous nation.

We see in our neighbors what we lack in various measures: an inflexible nationalism blended with practical idealism. It grieves us, however, to say that the attitude taken lately by the Turkish government over the question of Alexandretta and Antioch arouse our anxiety and stimulates our apprehension. Least of all has it been thought that the country whose example we appreciate would be a source of undue vexation to the Arab World.4

By the time the elections finally took place in mid summer 1938, voters registering as Turks had increased dramatically to 60 percent of the population of the Sanjaq. The elections returned an absolute majority of Turks, as opposed to all others. Within a year of the election, Turkey had annexed the independent Sanjaq, and created ten of thousands of new refugees streaming toward Aleppo and points south. Turkish officials suggested another League of Nations supervised population exchange, but the prospects for an exchange were bleak, and the population movement amounted to an expulsion; the refugees were mostly non-Muslims and came only from within the newly expanded borders of the Turkish Republic. The new regime allowed them to keep whatever property they could carry.

Mustafa Kemal himself had played a central role in the Alexandretta crisis. Kemal had fully embraced the racial and national theories that underlay the League of Nations and its mandates. He was anxious to demonstrate to the Anatolian population and the world that the Turkish nation was racially pure and historically significant. Like the Maronite and French scholars of Lebanon who claimed the Maronite Christians were descended from the original Phoenicians, and Zionists who argued they were the rightful inheritors of ancient Israel, Kemal argued the Sanjaq was the homeland of the Hittites, the forebears of the Turks, who thus had an unbroken racial link to the region stretching back into antiquity.5 But as in Lebanon or Palestine, untangling the imperatives of international politics from racial theory was difficult, and Kemal underscored again the powerless position of the colonized Arabs, and demonstrated to his former Ottoman compatriots that only violence, or the credible threat, received respect among states. A few months later, at the end of 1938, he died in Istanbul at the age of 57.

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