There is no question that after Western- and Gulf Arab-backed Sunni Salafist radicals take complete control of Syria or become a significant part of a post-Bashar al-Assad Syrian government, Syria’s minority Alawite community will seek refuge in a contested strip of Turkey that extends from Anatolia along the Mediterranean coast along the northwest border with Syria. The strip already has a significant Alawite community.
That strip is Turkey’s Hatay province, a former Ottoman territory that became a French-ruled territory after the signing of the Treaty of Sevres of 1920 between the World War I Allied nations and the Ottoman Empire.
There are already indications that Hatay could become a second Gaza Strip, a cramped refugee sanctuary for Alawites and other religious minorities fleeing a Salafist-dominated regime in Damascus bent on the same level of retribution against supporters of the ousted regime as that meted out against Qaddafi loyalists by the Salafist-dominated regime in Libya.
Hatay may even become a separate Alawite-ruled state dedicated to waging constant retaliatory warfare against a Salafist regime in Damascus.
There is a historical precedent for an independent Alawite-dominated Hatay. The Treaty of Sevres, which awarded Hatay, also known as the Sanjak of Alexandretta, to the French mandate of Syria under the League of Nations, was neither ratified by the Ottoman Sultan or his successor, President Kemal Ataturk of the Republic of Turkey.
A Franco-Turkish treaty of 1921 recognized Alexandretta as autonomous, but under de facto French suzerainty. In 1923, Alexandretta became part of the French state of Aleppo and in 1925, as a result of the Treaty of Lausanne, Alexandretta was integrated into the French mandate of Syria but with a continued degree of autonomy.
Despite the Franco-Turkish treaty, Ataturk considered Alexandretta, which had a majority Alawite population, to be an integral part of Turkey. The Alawites, known by the Turkish name “Alevis” in Turkey proper, are a sect of the Shi’a branch of Islam. Ataturk reasoned that the name “Hatay” was derived from the name for the one-time Anatolian Hittite Empire and, thus, Hatay was historically Turkish.
The Alawites, never comfortable about being ruled by the Sunni Muslim Ottomans, were anywhere from ambivalent to supportive of being ruled by the strongly secularist Ataturk regime and its like-minded successors. Along with the Syriac Christians, Druze, Armenians, and Circassians, the Alawites, continued to account for a majority of Alexandretta’s population.
Alexandretta began to advocate for the independence of Syria from France – a Syria that would include Alexandretta. Ataturk began arguing that Alexandretta’s Turkish minority was being mistreated by Alexandretta’s Alawite-dominated administration.
In 1936, Turkey complained to the League of Nations and demanded that Alexandretta become a Turkish province because the area had a majority Turkish Sunni population. Claims of Turkish majority status in Alexandretta were dubious since there were no reliable census statistics upon which Turkey could stake its claim. In fact, Alawites Armenian Christians, Druze, and Circassians, as a bloc, far outnumbered Sunni Turks in the territory.
In 1937, the League of Nations awarded Alexandretta its autonomy as a distinct but not a separate part of French Syria. It was agreed that France and Turkey would share defense responsibilities in the contested territory. However, Turkey took full advantage of the defense-sharing pact and in 1938 Turkish troops invaded Alexandretta and expelled most of the Alawite and Armenian communities.
That same year, France conducted a census that allotted seats in the Sanjak of Alexandretta assembly with Turks receiving 22 seats, Alawites 9, Armenians 5, Sunni Arabs 2, and Syriac Christians 2. With a majority of Turks in the legislature, the Sanjak assembly on September 2, 1938 proclaimed the Republic of Hatay under joint Turkish and French co-dominion status.
Before he died in 1938, Ataturk was insistent on Turkey furthering its claims to Hatay. France, fearing the threat from Nazi Germany, was in no position to fend of Turkey’s irredentist desires for the former Alexandretta. Hatay was gradually absorbed into Turkey. The Republic of Hatay’s “President” and “Prime Minister” were members of the Turkish parliament.
In 1939, in a dubiously-administered referendum, Hatay voted to join Turkey. The French did not intervene because they hoped that Turkey would join the Allies against Hitler. However, Turkey remained neutral in the Second World War.
Turkey co-opted some of Hatay’s remaining Alawites in the referendum by pointing out the success and freedom of the Alawites (Alevis) inside Turkey. However, Turkey sent thousands of Turks into Hatay to vote in the referendum and ensure the outcome.
Present-day Syria, ruled by the Alawite Assad family and a largely Alawite oligarchy, never recognized Alexandretta’s incorporation into Turkey. Syrian maps still call Hatay “Liwa’ Aliskenderun,” Arabic for Alexandretta area. Beginning in 2003, Syrian Alawites and Christians began buying property in Hatay, perhaps concerned about a future change of government in Syria that would force them to flee.
Due to the lifting of visa requirements between Turkey and Syria in 2009, more Syrian Alawites and Christians, especially those living in Latakia, began traveling to Hatay. With the assistance of their Alawite and Christian cousins in Hatay, the Syrians began investing in more real estate.
One thing that the Alawites of Syria and Hatay and the Alevis of Turkey share in common is their belief that Sunni Muslims, particularly the Wahhabi and Salafist strains, are intolerant extremists. Sunni radicals see Alawites and their Shi’a brethren as heretics and apostates.
What lies at the heart of the Western-inspired revolt against Assad in Syria is that Syria’s colonial ruler, France, and its NATO allies and Wahhabi friends in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have taken sides in a religious civil war between Syrian Sunnis – who are, by no means, united – and “all the rest” in Syria: Alawites, Syriac Christians, Maronites, Armenians, Druze, and Circassians.
Syria’s Kurds have largely thrown in their lot with Sunni Arabs, obviously hoping for a deal like the autonomy achieved by their Kurdish kin in northern Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the United States and its allies.
Although the Sunni-dominated Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has painted itself as a moderate Islamist party, it has come to the defense of the Salafist Sunni elements trying to overthrow Assad. There are multiple news reports of massive amounts of weapons being supplied to the Islamist radicals in Syria by Turkey.
Hatay Alawites and Turkish Alevis are generally pro-Assad, as can be expected, since Assad and his family and supporters are also primarily Alawite. Of course, that puts the Alawites of Turkey at loggerheads with Erdogan’s AKP government. Hatay Alawites and Turkish Alevis have held pro-Assad demonstrations in Turkey.
The break between the AKP and the Alawites/Alevis may be manageable by Erdogan, except for one major problem. The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which calls itself center-leftist but represents the secular Kemalist doctrine of Turkish politics, is led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who, like Assad, is an Alawite.
The CHP and Kilicdaroglu have been outwardly sympathetic to Assad and have criticized Erdogan for not giving Assad enough time to institute reforms in Syria. The CHP has even moved to a position that, in some respects, is more critical of Israel’s machinations in Middle East affairs, than the anti-Israel position of the AKP.
The CHP’s policymakers have referred to Israel, the United States, and other “imperialists” as being behind the revolutions in Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia. Deputy CHP chairman Faruk Logoglu has accused Erdogan of taking sides in Syria’s civil war. Weighing into the debate, the right-wing Turkish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has accused Erdogan of neglecting Syria’s minority Turkmen trapped in Syria’s civil war.
The future of Syria and Turkey is clouded as long as NATO, including Turkey, and the Salafist states of Arabia and North Africa continue to interfere in the Syrian tragedy. Hatay province will become a refuge for Syria’s Alawites and other minorities seeking protection from expected retribution from a Salafist-controlled or dominated government in Damascus. The CHP and MHP parties will protect the Alawites, Turkmen, Circassian, and other minorities in Hatay. Erdogan’s AKP will be seen as being in league with the Salafists of Syria.
Such a scenario spells a potential civil war not only in Syria, but also in Turkey. In the cross-fire will be Hatay, the “new Gaza Strip” where Alawite refugees from Syria may find themselves swapped for thousands of Syrian Sunnis currently living in Hatay refugee camps. These camps are closely protected by Turkish troops from unwanted media investigators.
There is also the question as to what side thousands of Afghan-Uzbeks who were settled in Hatay thirty years ago during the Soviet-mujaheddin war in Afghanistan will take. Afghans have been used by Salafists in the past as willing mercenaries. Salafist Afghans were spotted among rebels in Libya and have surfaced among the rebels in Syria.
Of course, such details are immaterial to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her “Friends of Syria” contrivance. Clinton’s ignorance of the geo-political ramifications of unwise and unwarranted actions is only matched by Condoleezza Rice among recent U.S. Secretaries of State.
The Gaza Strip, which is 140 square miles and has been turned into a virtual ghetto by Israel for Palestinian refugees, will pale in comparison to the burgeoning refugee-swollen Hatay Strip, which is 1815 square miles in area. Gaza’s beleaguered population stands at 1.5 million, the same as the current population of Hatay.
However, at almost four times the size of Gaza, Hatay could become a major refuge for Syria’s minorities escaping from Salafist brutality. Demands for the restoration of an Alawite-dominated independent Alexandretta/Hatay will ultimately follow and the Hatay Strip will have one major goal: revenge against the Salafists in Damascus.
Wayne Madsen, Strategic Culture Foundation