A view from the past

Lebanon, Iraq and now Syria have undergone civil wars which threaten their existence as viable states.

Syrian refugee camp 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Osman Orsal)
Syrian refugee camp 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Osman Orsal)
Hafez Assad’s 30-year rule in Syria (1970-2000) concealed the fact that since even prior to its independence in 1946, 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 northeastern 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 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 new phenomena, 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 Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 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 FOLLOWING 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 with a friendly Hashemite monarchy under King Abdullah, which was to include Syria and Lebanon in addition to Transjordan and was to be linked with the Hashemite kingdom in Iraq.
The border between Turkey and Syria is 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-Syria an relations and also played a part in the Anglo-Soviet secret war in the Middle East. Alexandretta (Hatay), with its strategic port city of the same name, had been part of Syria under the French mandate from 1920 to 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 Syria’s 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. 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 northeastern Syria.
For its part, the Soviet Union exploited the Turkish-Syrian dispute over Alexandretta, as well as the Kurds in the 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 Jazeera to demand autonomy within the Syrian state.
Another tactic was employed after King Abdullah’s visit to Ankara in early January 1947, when Soviet intelligence agents in Damascus handed over to Quwatli copies of the secret agreement and correspondence between the Turkish president, Ismet Inonu, and King Abdullah, as well as between Inonu and Nuri al-Said, the Iraqi prime minister.
NOT ONLY was Britain involved in the efforts to solve the problem of Alexandretta, but it also 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. 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 Cyrenaica in eastern Libya to Egypt, in return for which King Farouk 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 Abdullah and Nuri al-Said to involve Turkey in Arab affairs and King Farouk’s intervention in the Turkish-Syrian border dispute reflected the Arab world’s ambivalence towards Turkey, which continues today. On the one hand there is Arab aversion to the “return of the Ottoman Empire” to the Arab world, and on the other there is 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. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, like King Farouk 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 Shi’ite 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 binational state. It is unclear if the Turkish prime minister harbors “Ottoman” ambitions, but if he looks southward, he might conclude that the record of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East was not so negative after all. ■
The writer is a professor at the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.