For decades, November 30 had come and gone in silence in Syria, but not in 2013. In various ways, Syrian media instead chose to highlight the fact that seventy-four years had now passed since the 1939 Turkish annexation of Hatay Province, or Liwa Iskanderoun as it is known in Arabic—an annexation that Syria has never formally recognized.
The Hatay region, located on the coast north of Latakia, was originally a part of Syria according to the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon, a League of Nations mandate after the First World War, but Turkey showed interest in the area and its large Turkish-speaking community. In 1936, the Turkish government began to push for Hatay’s “reunification” with Turkey. The French decision to hand it over to Ankara three years later came in tandem with a Turkish-French treaty guaranteeing Turkish “friendship” during the Second World War. It was a blunt violation of the Treaty of Lausanne that partitioned the former Ottoman Empire and the text of the French mandate, both written in 1923, but the move was defended by France before the League of Nations as necessary in order to avoid a Turkish attack on Syria.
The 1939 annexation met with heavy protests in Syria, which was then still struggling for its own independence from France. Even if the French decision was accepted in practice (at least on the decisionmaking level) as a necessary concession to secure Syrian independence, this didn’t mean that Syria would let the issue go.
After independence, the country staunchly refused to recognize the border that now separated Hatay from Syria. Official Syrian maps continued to include Hatay as part of the country’s national territory. But at the same time, public discussion of the matter was discouraged, and Syrian governments rarely raised the issue openly for fear of provoking new conflicts with Turkey. The Hatay issue therefore remained largely unknown to the international community, but it didn’t go away.
The Hatay Question in Syrian-Turkish Relations
Although Hatay has long constituted an irritant in Syrian-Turkish relations, it has never been a burning issue. Syrian governments would only bring it up openly in times of particularly tense relations, such as during the 1958–1961 United Arab Republic, when Syria was part of an Arab-nationalist union with Egypt, and in the run-up to a conflict over then Syrian president Hafez al-Assad’s sponsorship of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist Kurdish party in Turkey, in 1998. The Hatay question would resurge in these instances to add fuel to the fire, but then it would disappear just as quickly as tempers cooled.
Syrian-Turkish relations began to improve considerably in the early 2000s, after Syria expelled PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1998 and after new leaders had taken the reins in both countries—Bashar al-Assad in Syria in 2000 and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey in 2002.
As relations improved, Syrian officials took care to signal that while the Hatay issue had not been solved, it was also not a priority and would not be allowed to stand in the way of prospering bilateral relations.
The eventual solution was somewhat original. Instead of formally and openly recognizing the border separating Hatay from Syria, the border was to be blurred and thereby lose its importance. A free-trade area was established on the border, and a shared Syria-Turkey Friendship Dam was to be constructed on the Orontes River, which runs through from Syria into the Hatay area. While Syria had long refused to include the Orontes in Syrian-Turkish negotiations on water allocations on the grounds that it was not an international river—a clear rejection of the border separating Hatay from Syria, across which the river flows—Damascus finally agreed to specify national jurisdiction on both sides of the dam. It thereby effectively, albeit indirectly, recognized Turkish sovereignty over Hatay.
The Hatay Question During 2011 and 2012
But only weeks after groundbreaking ceremonies for the construction of the dam were held in Hatay and Idlib in February 2011, the Syrian uprising erupted, bilateral relations hit an all-time low, and construction of the Friendship Dam was halted.
As the Syrian crisis evolved, the Hatay issue resurfaced in more ways than one. Its geographical location made it a convenient base for opposition forces and a hub for smuggling weapons and rebel soldiers into Syria. Its demographic composition, mirroring Syria’s ethnic and religious divisions, produced fears of serious spillover effects on the Turkish side of the border. Hatay was also the site of the May 2013 Reyhanlı bombings, a terrorist incident in which two car bombs killed more than 50 people for which Turkey blamed the Syrian regime.
During the first eighteen months of the Syrian crisis, it was clear that Syria did not wish to raise the issue of Hatay and add to the already-tense Syrian-Turkish relations. For instance, as Syrian refugees poured into Hatay in summer 2011, Syrian media reported that these refugees were in Turkey and not in “occupied Syrian territory.” And when Syria accidentally downed a Turkish jet off the Syrian coast in June 2012, a very clear message was sent to Turkey via Syrian television: the map that displayed the route of the plane was strikingly different from other Syrian maps—it had the border separating Hatay from Syria clearly marked.
A Return to Irredentism in Rhetoric Only?
New schoolbooks printed by Syrian opposition groups based in Turkey have removed Hatay from maps of Syria (although Syrian rebels forgot to do the same on the map used at a September 2013 press conference in Istanbul, causing a good deal of commotion). In late 2012, there were also allegations that opposition forces had secretly agreed that a post-Assad Syria would recognize Turkish sovereignty over Hatay.
At around that time, Syria’s media silence on Hatay ended. The progovernment press and television began to air reports on “popular voices” demanding the return of Hatay to Syria and to broadcast documentaries on the history of the area that demonstrated the “Syrianness” of its inhabitants.
Significantly, however, no heavyweight Syrian officials have commented on the issue. Assad, in May 2013 interviews with Turkish television channel Ulusal and Turkish newspaper Aydınlık, brought up the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, but he made no reference to Hatay in his complaints about Turkish policy.
While Hatay has undoubtedly made a forceful comeback in Syrian media and is now once again explicitly mentioned as occupied Syrian territory, nothing suggests that the new rhetoric is indicative of a deeper change in the view that has quietly guided Syrian policy ever since 1939—that Hatay was unjustly taken away but that it is now Turkish territory.
Emma Lundgren Jörum, PhD in political science, is the author of Beyond Syria’s Borders: A History of Territorial Conflicts in the Middle East (I. B. Tauris, forthcoming March 2014), which deals with Syrian policies toward Hatay, Lebanon, and the Golan Heights.