The War Nerd: Cleanse Thy Neighbor
This week, Syria did the one thing the rest of the world won’t forgive: disturbed the neighbors.
If you’ve ever lived in a really bad building, you know the rules: They can kill each other in there as long as they don’t slam each other into the wall hard enough to knock down your stuff.
I remember in the late 80s I was living in a place with a great location, good price—too good to leave, though I should’ve, because a few months after I moved in, the landlord came up with the great idea of turning it into a hotel for SSI cases.
After you’ve walked past guys mumbling to each other on the stairs, rocking back and forth, chanting some private spell to make you go by without hurting them, you realize most of these people are harmless. But they have some annoying habits, like the time my downstairs neighbor decided to take up the drums and made a firm rule that he’d practice every day, at exactly two a.m. I had to go down and threaten his life—pure bluff—but that was the only time I got involved at all. That’s the rule: If they’re not keeping you awake, you don’t care.
People got their own problems, and besides, there’s nothing you can do when people are truly messed up. Maybe it’s not their fault, but so what? There’s always a reason for stuff but that doesn’t help. Syria has plenty of good historical reason for being messed up, but then so did every one of those SSI cases.
Turkey was letting the Syrians bash each other until this week, because this was the week that Syria went over the line and woke the Turks up. Turkey is one of those neighbors you don’t want to mess with. The Turks have never quite gotten over losing their Empire, and the idea of anybody inching onto the territory they’ve got left sends them over the edge in no time at all.
What happened was that the Syrian civil war, now in full swing, swamped over the border, with mortar rounds landing inside Turkish territory in Hatay Province. Erdogan, the mainstream-Islamist PM of Turkey, told a big furious nationalist rally in Istanbul, "Those who attempt to test Turkey's deterrence, its decisiveness, its capacity, I say here they are making a fatal mistake."
He’s not bluffing, either. Some neighbors (like me with the drummer) are just woofing; Turks aren’t. The Turkish Army could roll over Assad’s loyalists in the Alawite militias and the Sunnis’ Free Syrian Army (FSA) without even trying. Turkey could have occupied Syria easily, even when Assad had the full loyalty of his armed forces; taking the place now would be a genuine cakewalk, especially because the FSA might welcome the Turks as fellow Sunnis.
The Turks don’t really see themselves as comrades to any Arabs, though, even if they share a religion. Turks and Syrians have a long history and, as the saying goes, there’s not a lot of love lost there.
The Turks ruled over all the Arab lands for centuries, and they still feel that the right place for their Arab brothers is taking orders from a Turkish pasha. Turkey had no trouble maintaining good relations with Israel for more than 50 years, even while every other Muslim country was in a fit; they couldn’t get their heads around the idea that it was wrong to colonize Arab lands, even when Jews were doing it. It wasn’t until 2002, 54 years after Israel was founded, that the Islamist JDP took power in Turkey and sort of grudgingly admitted that the Palestinians had to be helped.
Even now, that idea weirds out most Turks, and it can’t compete with a much bigger idea: pure Turkish territorial paranoia. Turkey gave up a big chunk of the world in 1918, and the Greeks tried to take half of what was left after that; so once the Turks had driven the Greeks into the sea (or the grave), they had one simple rule: nobody is gonna touch our remaining territory, ever. And “our territory” is anything we can grab and hold.
So when a few Syrian mortar shells landed in Hatay Province, on the south coast of Turkey, foam started to form on the lips of every Turkish nationalist, which is to say, everybody in Turkey (minus the Kurds). And the fact that Hatay Province isn’t really “Turkish” territory—well, that just makes the Turks more determined to hold onto it.
It’s worth looking up Hatay Province on Google Maps. You see something very interesting when you do that. There’s Turkey sitting on top of Syria like a big angry brick; and down there on the Mediterranean coast is Hatay, running south along the coast like a little trigger. Go a few miles inland and you’re in Syria, but the coastline is Turkish. And if you look at the place names on Google Maps, you’ll see that as soon as you cross the border, every single place-name is in Turkish—you know those outlandish Turkish place-names, twenty syllables long, that sound like a bad fantasy novel? A few samples, names of villages inside Hatay Province: “Bukukburc Koyu.” I can’t even add the little symbols that are supposed to go on that name, making it even less user-friendly. Then there’s “Karaali Ciftligi Mh.”and “Zulufluhan Koyu,” a nice easy one for a change. (I’m guessing “Koyu” means “town” or “village,” but who knows?)
Every single one of those names is Turkish. That may not seem odd to you, but it is, especially when you know that Hatay Province was part of Syria until 1940. If you look at multi-ethnic border areas anywhere in the world, names slop over the borders. You don’t get this sort of total language conformity unless some government has worked very hard to cleanse the place. And that’s what happened in Hatay Province.
When you look on the Syrian side of the border, there’s not one Turkish place-name. That’s because this was all Syrian territory, with an Arabic-speaking majority, until Turkey grabbed it. Imagine if the hotheads in Arizona really had their way and deleted every Spanish-language name in the state. “Mesa” turns into “Table,” “Casas Adobes” turns into “Crumbly Mud Huts”—maybe Tucson could be “Englishonlytown,” stuff like that. Well, that’s what happened when Turkey absorbed Hatay. All the Arabic place-names vanished.
By the time Turkey got around to annexing Hatay, it had had almost 20 years’ experience in ethnic cleansing. In fact, Turkey is a sort of model for how successful ethnic cleansing can be as a way of building your country. Coastal Turkey used to be totally Greek; the Turks, who swept down from the Steppes, were an inland people, left the coast and most of the cities to the Greeks, who were better sailors and merchants. Turks were the soldiers and civil servants, a much scarier, harder people than the Greeks.
After the Ottomans bet on Germany and lost, Turkey barely existed until Ataturk organized angry Turkish vets and started clawing it back, until the so-called “Exchange of Peoples.” Nice civilized name for a messy, bloody, rape-y and pillage-y process, but the end result was 1.5 million Greeks from Anatolia who were giving a helping bayonet back to their ethnic homeland.
Nobody really wants to admit it, but the Turks figured out the big change most of us won’t admit even now: instead of empires based on conquest, we’ve got ethnic enclaves; instead of coastal outposts kept up by sea power, we’ve got land-based blocs, more or less lined up with those ethnic enclaves. Turkey under Ataturk—a very smart, kinda scary guy—made a 180 turn from multi-ethnic conquest-based empire to monolithic ethnic enclave in one very rough decade, 1914-1923.
Since then, every damn person in Turkey is officially a Turk; even the Kurds were, until very recently, Turks, though the authorities were willing to call them, “Mountain Turks,” like slightly shaggier and rougher versions of the basic model. That didn’t mean they were allowed to speak Kurdish, I mean “mountain Turkish”; that was a criminal offense.
It ain’t nice, it ain’t delicate, but it was, like I say, a very logical response to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and Woodrow Wilson’s notion that Europe had to split up into ethnic ghettoes: “OK, this is Turkey, and everybody in it is Turkish—or else.”
The Turkey that Ataturk and his hardbitten officer corps carved out by 1923 consisted of that big Anatolian brick, along with a little triangle of Europe across from Istanbul. Hatay, at that time, was not Turkish, not considered Turkish, even ethnically, by anybody at all. Hatay was part of French-ruled Syria.
The French…well, I’ve been on record saying the French get a bad deal from Anglo military historians and actually have a glorious military history, so I’m not anti-French like most hicks are. But I have to say, the French did a fine job of messing up Syria in classic Imperial style. Basically, they used the standard method of European empires in the third world: They played divide and conquer, promoting the weaker tribes and stomping the stronger ones, so that the weaker ones would always be loyal to their colonial masters for fear of being wiped out by the stronger tribes.
The weaker tribes, in Syria, were the Druze and the Alawites—Assad’s tribe. Both these tribes were considered heretics by the inland Sunni Muslims; both jumped at the chance to be the French colonists’ lackeys and, for once, get to be the ones with their feet on the necks of the Sunni instead of the other way around.
Both were from the coastal mountains, due south of Hatay Province. In fact, the simplest way to see the big divide in Syria is that there are the coastal tribes—Christian, Alawite and Druze—who come out of the mixed-up history of the eastern Mediterranean, with every influence in history stopping by to confuse the locals…and then there’s the dry inland heartland, which looks down east to the Arabian Peninsula, the pure Sunni homeland, for its cues. Aleppo, the big inland city in Syria, is Sunni to the core, and so are most of the towns once you come down the coastal mountains into the big rain shadow. Kind of like the difference between CA and NV, Utah, places like that.
The French divided Syria up into five separate little tribal homelands: The State of Greater Lebanon, meant as a Christian game preserve; the State of Aleppo, the inland Sunni desert; the State of Alawites, the Shia enclave in the coastal mountains; and the Sanjak of Alexandretta, which just happens to be what is now Turkey’s Hatay Province.
Syria’s a smaller place now than it was then; Greater Lebanon went on to become not so great Lebanon, and the Sanjak of Alexandretta was, believe it or not, given away as a bribe. It really is that simple: what is now Turkey’s Hatay Province was handed over by the French in 1937. It’s not one of the happier episodes of French colonialism, which is sayin’ something. You have to remember how Europe felt in 1937. Britain and France are competing to grovel to Germany, both scared out of their wits.
Even Stalin was starting to think about cutting a deal. It’s hard for us now to remember how big, how scary the Germans were in those days, but remember, they took all of Western and Central Europe in 1940 and only lost 30,000 men doing it. That’s somebody worth being scared of.
And the French had had enough. Nobody in the Anglo world gives them much credit, but they’re the ones who held off the WW I era Germans and suffered 1.5 million dead in the process, out of a population of 40 million. They didn’t want to do it again and were desperate to make a deal.
And that’s where the Sanjak of Alexandretta, now known as Hatay Province, comes in. The French needed friends, and Turkey had proved itself a serious military power when it crushed the Greeks, who had the advantage in weapons and international support. Turks can fight; nobody ever argued about that.
And in WW I, they’d fought on the German side, wiping out a Commonwealth force at Gallipoli, where Ataturk made his bones with a motivational speech that went—seriously—like this: “Soldiers, I do not tell you to go out and fight; I tell you to go out and die.” And they did, along with a whole bunch of poor Kiwis and Aussies who believed that Kitchener poster.
The French wanted the Turks to stay out of whatever next big war with Germany was brewing on the horizon. They had to offer something, and that something was Alexandretta/Hatay. Turkey was still hungry for territory, still pissed off over losing the Ottoman lands, and here was this dangling bit of coastline in northern Syria, with a mixed population: mostly Alawite Arabs and Armenian Christians, but about one-third or one-quarter Turks.
Well, if you’re a French administrator sweating over Hitler, that’s an easy one: throw the Turks a bone, keep ’em happy. Nobody ever cared about the Armenians; nobody does even now, except the Israeli lobby that doesn’t want them talking about their genocide and ruining the total uniqueness of the Holocaust. And the Alawites, after all, had their little piece of land a little way down the coast; they could just move.
So the French and the Turks made a deal in 1937: there’d be an official plebiscite (those were big years for phony plebiscites; the word just reeks of the 30s) but the Turks were old hands at creating ethnic unity even where there wasn’t any.
And they did, using their usual methods: they marched into the Sanjak, expelled all the Alawites and all the Armenians and imported loyal Turks. When the Alawites and Armenians objected, the Turks pulled a classic move and blamed the rioting for the crackdown, a nice reversal-on-reality that still works.
By 1939—just two years after taking over—the official language of Hatay Province was Turkish. French, not Arabic, was the official second language. The Turks wanted to de-Arabize their new Hatay province at all costs, and kept shunting Turkish-speaking loyalists to Hatay to make sure they swamped the native Arab population. The city that used to be Alexandretta, a Franco-Latin name, was renamed “Iskander,” the Turkish version of “Alexander” (and the name of a damn good type of kebab, too).
Every single village, well, palm tree and stray dog in the province went through the same process, which is why there is now not one single Arabic name in the whole province, though it used to be Arab land.
It worked out for the Turks; you could even say it worked out for the French, though in hindsight Ataturk had too much sense to ally himself with a loose cannon like Hitler anyway, Hatay or no Hatay.
But it sure didn’t work out for the Syrians, if there is such a thing as a Syrian rather than an Alawite, an inland Sunni, a Druze, a Maronite, or a Kurd. Syria lost a big chunk of what little coastline it had, and losing coastline is usually a sign of a weakened state (see under Bolivia, “Queremos nuestro mar”).
That’s why the Turks are so touchy about any stray mortar shells landing in Hatay. It’s not that they’re in any danger of being overrun by the poor Syrians; one division of the Turkish Army could sweep through the place, declare it part of a new Ottoman Empire, and no one could stop them.
The Turks are like that respectable neighbor in a bad neighborhood, who’s had to brawl for every little knick-knack on the wall, every nice scrap of carpet in their apartment. If you’ve ever known people like that, they’re the ones to be scared of, not the SSI casualties; and if one of those SSI casualties knocks even one of those little knick-knicks off the wall while in the process of disemboweling his roommate, God help him.