BY ROBERT FISK From The Independent
BEIRUT–"Those who have their eyes fixed on Turkish territory are suffering from blindness," the Turkish prime minister–Mesut Yilmaz–thundered the other day. "Not even a square centimeter of this country will be taken from it."
You might think Mr. Yilmaz was talking about the Kurdish demand for an independent state in present-day Turkey – or even Armenia’s irredentist claim to the lands from which its people were driven by the Turks in the century’s first holocaust. But no–Mr. Yilmaz was showing proof of Turkey’s fear of Syria.
The story goes back to the eve of the Second World War–when France–in a desperate but equally pathetic attempt to bring Ankara in on the Allied side against Germany in the war–handed the north-western Syrian city of Alexandretta and its surrounding governorate to the Turks.
Preoccupied with the coming catastrophe–Europe gave little thought to the effect on the Arabs of this groveling territorial compromise in 1939–just as it cared little about the consequences for the Arabs of the foundation of Israel nine years later. But of course the Syrians did not forget.
They have never officially given up their claim to the land of Alexandretta–named Iskenderun by the Turks–nor its ancient Biblical city of Antioch. Every evening on Syrian television–the local weather program shows a city in the north-west of the country called Alexandretta–inside the frontiers of Syria.
Locally produced maps–printed in association with Oxford University Press–also show Alexandretta–Antioch and the town of Suweydiyah firmly inside Syria–a mere dotted line representing the real border that cuts Syria off from its former possessions.
Almost two decades ago–the then Syrian foreign minister–Abdul-Halim Khaddam (now a vice-president)–let it be known that Syria would not forget its "other" lost territory–now the Turkish province of Hatay–once the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights had been recovered.
Mr. Yilmaz made his remarks in a ceremony to mark the French hand-over of Alexandretta to the Turks 59 years ago – France was then the League of Nations mandate power in the Levant – but his anger was caused by more recent events. Turkey is convinced that Syria continues to support the Communist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas–with whom it is fighting a cruel civil war in south-eastern Turkey–burning villages and torturing and executing suspects without any form of trial.
Syria believes Turkey’s new alliance with Israel has allowed Israeli fighter aircraft to fly along Syria’s northern border – and to the north- east of Syria–along Turkey’s new "security zone" in northern Iraq.
Turkey regards Syria’s claim to Alexandretta as mischief-making. From Syria’s perspective–it is just one more piece of land which has been stolen from it since 1920. In the aftermath of the 1914-18 war–France separated Lebanon from Syria. In 1939–it gave Alexandretta to Turkey. Then in 1967–Israel occupied–and subsequently annexed – the Golan Heights. France carved off Lebanon to satisfy its Lebanese Christian Maronite allies. Israel captured Golan in a war. But France’s "gift" of north-western Syria to Turkey was handed over to the Turks without the slightest thought for the Syrians–or for the city’s indigenous population.
In 1921–there were only 87,000 Turks amid a population of 220,000. But after a referendum in which Turkish peasants were trucked into the city–a 63 per cent Turkish population was announced in 1938–its fate sealed in a subsequent Franco-Turkish Treaty of Friendship. Arabs had boycotted the elections.
All foreign Christian institutions in the new Iskenderun were closed down; the Turks bought the French missionary hospital; and about 14,000 Armenia’s–many of them survivors of the Turkish genocide against their people 24 years earlier–fled to Lebanon–where they created an entirely new city at Aanjar–in the Bekaa Valley–complete with Armenian churches and Armenian-language schools.
As for Mr. Yilmaz–he says Turkey knows that "those neighbors who don’t want a strong and prosperous Turkey in the region give their support to separatist organizations"–a less than subtle reference to Syria’s relations with the Kurds.
From the French–now Syria’s principal allies in Europe–there comes no comment. After all–they tried to buy Turkey in 1939 and failed. Turkey did–of course–join the Allied cause against Nazi Germany–but only when Hitler’s Reich was in ashes in 1945.