by Ghassan Kadi
My previous article titled “Kurdish Autonomy; Partition Or Master Plan” was met with some controversy. Some readers seemed to have missed a very basic point it raised. Others misunderstood the main issue and tried to put words into my mouth saying that the article condoned partition and argued that Syrian Kurds should not be given independence and a separate state, even though the article clearly indicated that such was not its objective. This article herein is intended to shed more light on the subject and emphasize an issue that is paramount for long-term Syrian security.
With the return of Tadmor (Palmyra) to the custody of the Syrian Army, the military victory of secular Syria is drawing nearer. Now, this was, still is, a war that was waged on Syria by many nations and facilitated by neighbouring countries that opened their borders to militants and their munitions to cross over, unopposed, carrying everything from small hand-carried machines guns all the way to heavy artillery and even tanks.
Little has been said about the actual route that those supplies took; and specifically, the routes they took from Turkey into Syria. And unless one takes the history of this region into account, the significance of this subject cannot be seen and appreciated.
Like some nations, Syria has natural geographical boundaries. The Syrian Social National Party (SSNP) was founded by Antoun Saade in 1932. The party calls for the reunification of “Greater Syria” (aka Natural Syria and the Fertile Crescent). This article is neither meant to promote the doctrine of that particular party nor is it meant to reject it. This is said because the doctrine of the said party comes in a whole “package” that includes issues other than the natural barriers on Greater Syria, and there is no need to dwell into those issues here and now. On the issue of Greater Syria alone however, what Antoun Saade suggested as the boundaries makes a lot of common sense, especially with respect to the northern borders.
The reason as to why the northern borders are specifically of significance is because Turkey has not been a good and friendly neighbour of Syria. This in fact is a gross understatement as Turkey has been bullish and brutal to an extreme, and for a very long time.
If neighbouring states and nations have good relationships with each other and do not harbour any hostilities towards each other, then all differences and disputes, including border disputes, can either be negotiated or dropped as being of no significance when they do not pose any threat and danger. But such is not the case when it comes to the Syrian-Turkish border line.
Historically, the first real superpower was the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians were very powerful, and they breached all natural barriers and extended their empire over to Egypt and to most of Anatolia. The borderline between Turkey and Syria did not become a sticking issue till the Muslim conquest of the Byzantines. Faced with the outcome of several military defeats, Emperor Heraclius ordered his troops to retreat and evacuate the areas that are to the south of the Taurus Mountains and east of Tarsus; which is at the western end of the mountain chain as it bends south towards the Mediterranean.
What Heraclius made was a very painful decision, but one that is pragmatic and strategic. He left Syria and secured the southern border of what was left of his empire by a mighty natural barrier; The Taurus Mountains.
At the height of the Muslim Empire (ie the Umayyad and Abbasid eras), the Taurus Mountains were breached especially in its eastern regions, where gaps are more abundant and the Muslim Empire advanced to as far as Armenia. But as the Abbasid rule fell apart and the Muslim Empire was subdivided, the Taurus Mountains once again resumed their natural “role” as the borderline between Syria and Turkey. This is seen best during the period of the Hamadani Principality as per map No 1.
Those borders remained unbreached until a counterattack came from the north this time. That was when the Ottomans invaded and captured Syria in 1516 AD. Syrian regions south of the Taurus Mountains fell under Turkish rule back then, and they remain as such ever since.
During the Ottoman rule, the question of borders between Syria and Turkey was nonexistent as Syria recoiled under the iron fist rule of Istanbul. The question did not rise again till after the end of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
As empires often do, they try not to sever relationships with each other when they can. It is only in rare cases that they totally destroy each other. The example of Rome destroying Carthage remains thus far unique. The Romans killed every Carthaginian man, woman and child. Even World War II, with all of its atrocities, did not thankfully reach such proportions.
With the rise of Ataturk to power, colonial France wanted to turn a new leaf with the new Turkey, at the expense of Syria. The annexation of the Syrian Cilicia and Iskenderun regions to Turkey is often spoken of, but the “gift” of land south of the Taurus Mountains to Turkey is hardly ever mentioned.
With Syria in a constant state of war with Israel, the “liberation of Palestine” high on its early agenda as a new independent post WWII state, the ensuing need for taking back the Golan Heights from Israel climbed its way up the priority ladder to take the lead role.
How many wars Syria should fight and can fight? The region south of Taurus became so ignored and even almost forgotten; but shouldn’t be as such, not anymore.
If one takes a drive from Adana (a Syrian city under Turkish occupation) north towards say Ankara, he/she will have to cross the mighty Taurus Mountain chain. This is a highly inaccessible chain that can only be crossed at certain gates in between the mountain peaks. The Cilician Gates (Gulek Bogazi in Turkish) is the one that has to be crossed taking this particular route.
Troops and armaments that have crossed Turkey into Syria must have used that route. Got the picture?
This harangue is not meant to be a lesson in history or geography. It is about highlighting a basic issue that is essential for the security of Syria.
If one looks at Map 2 with a fresh look, it becomes clear that Syria’s natural defense line had been in Turkey’s hands for a whole century. It did not cause a threat until Erdogan decided to use this strategic advantage to flood Syria with Jihadists.
Had the line joining the mountain peaks been the political border between Syria and Turkey, it would have been virtually impossible for Turkey to send those troops into Syria. And this is the strategic weakness that Syria has, the one that has been and continues to be overlooked despite all of what has happened.
Had Syria had positions and watch towers on mountain tops, breaching its borders would have been close to impossible. With this advantage on Turkey’s side, troops were able to take their time crossing the gauntlet and move into the flat terrain where the current political borders are.
Another close fresh look at Map 2 reveals something else if it hasn’t been picked up in the first look. The cities of Gaziantep and even Diyarbakir are within geographical and historical Syria. Got the picture?
This is heartland Kurdish territory. This is where virtual real battles are currently raging between the Kurds and the Turkish Army. Hundreds of Kurds have been slaughtered under the watchful eyes of the international community with very little condemnation.
These Kurds are not Turkish Kurds, they are Syrian Kurds. They live and have lived within Greater Syria for centuries. There is also a huge number of non-Kurdish Syrians who live in that region.
The proposed unilateral declaration of Kurdish Federation is nothing but a bit of a joke. It does not represent the views of all Kurds, and not even those of a reasonable minority. It did however receive a lot of hoo-ha perhaps more due to its nature rather actual ability to see the light.
Now here is the deal. Syria can pretend that there is no such thing as a Kurdish question and can pretend that her current northern borders with Turkey do not warrant any concern. On the other hand, she can see in wartime an opportunity to mop up as Pandora’s Box is already open.
With or without any such proposal for federation, Syria should take a leading role and try to capitalize on the situation north of its borders. The time has never been more opportune for Syria to act on this front.
With Russia on her side, with an impending military victory and with turmoil within Turkey, Syria has a golden opportunity to win the hearts and minds of Syrian Kurds living south of Taurus.
As mentioned in the previous article, if those Kurds see their cousins enjoying privileges they don’t have, if they see themselves persecuted and bombed by Erdogan’s troops whilst their cousins are living in peace, prosperity and have the respect they have earned and deserve, they will naturally gravitate towards it.
In a recent interview on Sputnik I drew parallels with Ukraine. Who would have thought that the events of Maidan would lead to the reunification of Crimea with Russian motherland? And we haven’t seen the end of this one yet have we?
Adversity can be turned into opportunity. Crimea was reunified with Russia without a war and without bloodshed.
The bottom line here is that the Kurdish issue needs to be resolved, and there are perhaps only four ways to deal with it:
1. Ignore it and hope that it will go away, but it won’t.
2. Deal with Kurds the Erdogan way, which is inhumane and totally unacceptable to put it very mildly.
3. Succumb to present and future pressure and eventually allow for federation under dangerous terms that may lead into partition, or
4. See the silver lining and try to turn the situation against Turkey and get Kurds and other non-Kurd Syrians living south of the Taurus Mountains to seek reunification with mother Syria.
This is not a call for a new war. Given Turkey’s history of aggression and thuggery, and given that it may act aggressively again, Syria has all the right to seek the prevention of new wars and secure its northern borders within her geographical barriers and hold the key for checkpoint Taurus.
Map No 1 The Hamadani Principality of the Tenth Century AD.
Map 2 Showing the Taurus Mountains against the existing Syrian-Turkish borderline