by Ghassan Kadi for The Saker Blog
The root of the military conflict in Idlib is not something that arose from contemporary times. And with all due respect to Sputnik, the cause did not start 80 years ago
Actually, the seed of the conflict was sown five centuries ago and, its germination could have been prevented a century ago. However, the colonialists had other plans; and they implemented them when Syria was weak and unable to exert its own power of self-determination.
The Armenian Genocide is believed to be the biggest atrocity perpetrated by Turkey against its neighbours. A good, realistic look however, reveals that as brutal as it was, the Armenian Genocide almost pales into insignificance when one considers the on-going genocide of Syrian people. What literally adds insult to injury, is that the latter is not even recognised and spoken or written about.
I am neither claiming to try to change the course of history in this regard, but it is about time that this very important issue is brought to the surface.
Among all articles written about the war on Syria, I did not see a single article that addressed the issue of Syria’s natural defences. And, when I finally wrote something to that effect 4 years ago http://thesaker.is/syrian-turkish-border-security-check-point-taurus/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cilician_Gates, the article received a huge backlash and criticism.
It is time that this subject is revisited for those who want to understand and appreciate the importance of the extremely crucial and vital issue of national security for Syria.
What separates Syria from Anatolia are not the political borders drawn nearly a century ago and which, through history, have moved many times. What separates them is the mighty chain of the Taurus Mountains, extending from as far east as its junction with the Zagros Mountains in North East Iraq to as far west as the Turkish coastal city of Antalya.
Map of Taurus Mountains
It is a rugged, virtually impenetrable, chain of mountains of highly strategic importance. The most significant section of it is the central region; north of the city of Adana.
That central region is of most significance because it has a natural gate that separates north from south; albeit a narrow chain of gates, the Cilician Gates.
The Cilician Gates form a natural gorge that is more than 100 kms long, and have historically been the only access between the north and south, Turkey and Syria to be exact, and advances in technology and means of transport were thus far unable to change this fact.
Section of the 100 km long Cilician Gates
To shed some importance on its historic significance, I will not use my own words. Under this article on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cilician_Gates
I am quoting some of what Wikipedia has to say:
“The southern end of the Cilician gates is about 44 km north of Tarsus and the northern end leads to Cappadocia.Yumuktepe (modern Mersin), which guards the Adana side of the gateway, with 23 layers of occupation, is at 4,500 BCE, one of the oldest fortified settlements in the world. The ancient pathway was a track for mule caravans, not wheeled vehicles. The Hittites, Greeks, Alexander the Great, the Romans, Byzantines and Sasanians, Mongols, and the Crusaders have all traveled this route during their campaigns. The Bible testifies that Saint Paul of Tarsus and Silas went this way as they went through Syria and Cilicia. The Book of Galatians speaks of the cities of Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium – cities visited by Paul on his first journey (Acts 14; Gal. 1:2), with the purpose of strengthening their churches, at the beginning of the second preaching journey (Acts 15:40-41).
The distance from the Anatolian plateau to the Cilician plain is about 110 kilometers (68 mi). In ancient times, this was a journey of nearly five days. Saint Paul spoke, according to the Bible, about being in “dangers from rivers” and “dangers from robbers” (2 Cor. 11:26). This may explain why one of the world’s oldest fortresses was built at the southeastern end of the Cilician Gates around 4500 BCE. The Army of the Ten Thousand, Alexander the Great before the Battle of Issus, Paul of Tarsus on his way to the Galatians, and part of the army of the First Crusade all passed through the Cilician Gates. The Crusaders allied themselves with the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia.
Above the Gates to the southwest is Gülek Kalesi (Armenian: Kuklak; Arab: Kawlāk), a large fortification of considerable antiquity that retains evidence of Byzantine and Arab periods of occupation, but is primarily an Armenian construction of the 12th and 13th centuries. Its circuit walls and towers at the south and west cover a distance of over 450 meters. Below the Cilician Gates is the medieval Armenian fortress of Anahşa with its large horseshoe-shaped towers and three impressive entrances. Also in the vicinity of the Gates is a fort built in the 1830s by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt during his Syrian campaign against the Ottomans.
When German engineers were working on the Baghdad Railway between Istanbul and Baghdad, they were unable to follow the steep-pitched, narrow, and tightly winding ancient track through the Gates. The series of viaducts and tunnels they built are among the marvels of railroad engineering; this route actually follows an ancient secondary road southeast from Pozantı, below Anahşa Dağı with its impressive medieval Armenian fortress. The railroad was opened in 1918; the narrow-gauge working line moved Ottoman troops and war material to the Mesopotamian front in the closing months of World War I.”
For centuries and throughout the ages, the Taurus Mountains were not only the geographical border/barrier between Turkey and Syria, but the political one as well. And whichever power was able to control the Cilician Gates, had the upper hand.
As I have previously written in The Saker article referred to above, upon the Muslim Conquest of Syria, Byzantine “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 was 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”.
“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 non-existent as Syria recoiled under the iron fist rule of Istanbul. The question did not arise again till after the end of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.”
As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the allied forces had the upper hand and pushed Turkish troops back north as far as the Taurus Mountains and tried to go beyond. The map below shows how the 1916 Sykes/Picot Accord divided the Fertile Crescent between a British-controlled area and a French-controlled area.
The Fertile Crescent as divided by Sykes/Picot
However, following the Franco-Turkish war
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franco-Turkish_War and the Cilicia Peace Treaty https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cilicia_Peace_Treaty which was not implemented, the French advance did not move up north as planned in Sykes/Picot plan, and stopped at the Taurus Mountains with France in control of the Cilicia Gates.
The Sykes/Picot Accord did not only split up the Fertile Crescent, but when France decided to give Syria’s region of Cilicia to Turkey, it actually kept Turkey in total possession of the mountain range. The current international northern borders of Syria with Turkey are now way south of the Taurus Mountains. Moreover, the actual Cilician Gates are now within the territory of Turkey when geographically, strategically and historically they have always constituted the border between the two.
It is easy to find references to those historic and forgotten facts, once again even on Wikipedia. What followed the Franco-Turkish war was the 1921 Treaty of Ankara https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Ankara_(1921). According to Wikipedia, “this treaty changed the Syria–Turkey border set by the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres to the benefit of Turkey, ceding it large areas of the Aleppo and Adana vileyets. From west to east, the cities and districts of Adana, Osmaniye, Marash, Aintab, Kilis, Urfa, Mardin, Nusaybin, and Jazirat ibn Umar (Cizre) were consequently ceded to Turkey”
The French knew well the strategic importance of the Cilician Gates, and even though France and Turkey were on opposite sides of the WWI fence and fought each other after WWI ended, France made a decision that was destined to keep Syria vulnerable. The implications of that decision did not come to fruition until March 2011; nearly a whole century later.
This is a serious, weak underbelly that modern-day Syria had to contend with. It constituted a weapon in the hands of Turkey, ready to be launched at any time of Turkey’s choosing.
Had the Cilician Gates not been in the hands of Turkey in 2011, Erdogan would have never been able to move Jihadi fighters and heavy equipment into Syria.
France made a further move and donated the Iskenderun region to Turkey, and officially, this is the only Syrian territory that Syria considers to be occupied and demands its return to Syria.
Whilst it is true that the “Anti-Syrian Cocktail” attacked Syria from all directions, the major flux of terrorists came from the Turkish side. And now, a few years after cleaning up the porous western borders with Lebanon at Qalamoun and the southern borders with Jordan near Daraa, the remaining stick in the mud is the north.
The Cilician Gates are Syria’s Achilles heel. They are more strategically important for Syria than Crimea is for Russia.
This is not to encourage a call for nationalist sentiments and “liberating” motherland soil, irrespective of the human cost involved. I am not calling for extending the current conflict between Syria and Turkey either. But what can a nation do when even peace time means that its defenses have already been breached even before any war starts? Why should Syria accept to have its neck lying on Turkey’s chopping board? How can Syria sleep in peace when the burglar is inside with the key in his hand? Even worse, how can Syria sleep in peace when everyone has forgotten that, the burglar already inside and wielding a machete?
This is a very serious breach of national security, especially given the fact that Turkey has been occupying Syrian territory ever since the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks in the battle of Marj Dabek in August 1516.
Cilicia continues to have a significant Syrian population, even in cities as far west as Mersin. I have visited and personally spoken to many of them and listened to the stories of ethnic discrimination made against them. The Turks refer to them as “Fallaheen”, which means “peasants”. The term is used in a derogatory manner to humiliate them.
I have crossed by car the Cilicia Gates many times in both directions, and anyone who has done the same would know that there is perhaps no better natural defense system that any other country has, provided of course that it is in the right hands. On one of those trips in the 1980’s, I was in Turkey on business traveling by car from Ankara to Adana. My Turkish companion, Servet, was a nationalist zealot who believed that Turkey’s legitimate borders are those of the Ottoman Empire at its zenith. I tried to explain to him gently the historic and geographic significance of the Cilician Gates, but to no avail. It was spring time, and in spring, the Syrian landscape is carpeted with beautiful wild flowers. As we crossed the gates, the change in landscape and vegetation was so obvious. We were still many kilometers north of Adana when I saw a huge patch of flowers. I asked Servet to stop the car and he did. I picked a chamomile flower and asked him if he knew what it was. He didn’t. I said to him: “This is a chamomile flower, welcome to Syria.”
It is most brazen and appalling to see Erdogan sending troops inside the international borders of Syria when he already has an internationally-recognized mandate of rule over a huge stretch of Syrian soil.
A fair resolution should be based on drawing the border line at the peaks of the mountain range and have the gates split in half with the northern half for Turkey and the southern half for Syria.
Given the fact that all borders between nations have changed, ultimately, the Cilicia and Iskenderun provinces will one day return to their rightful owners, but whilst Palestinians are rightfully asking for their rights, whilst the Armenians seek acknowledgment of their genocide, whilst official Syria wants to restore sovereignty over the Golan heights and the Iskenderun province, to keep the issue of Cilicia and its Gates alive, Syria must never leave it out of the long list of legitimate demands.
Nice article, thank you. I wondered why the French wanted the dark blue area protruding into the centre of Turkey. Was it to control the mountains and their passes? Also, let’s not forget that it was the Samsanov – Sykes – Picot Agreement. The Russians actually captured eastern Turkey and would have retained it but for the Bolsheviks.
One may ask what dark forces opposed what should have been the just outcome of WW1, the complete disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. The Sykes-Picot agreement was indeed a Franco-British and Russian agreement (the name of the Russian who ‘disappeared’ was Sergey Sazonov). Not only that Russia would have liberated ‘Eastern Turkey’, i.e. Armenia, but it would have gained control of the Dardanelles and imposed the clause of internationalization of Jerusalem).
Thank you so much for the geography lesson. So Turkey already had its “buffer zone” and more as suggested by your quote:
“The current international northern borders of Syria with Turkey are now way south of the Taurus Mountains. Moreover, the actual Cilician Gates are now within the territory of Turkey when geographically, strategically and historically they have always constituted the border between the two.”
That clarifies matters entirely. We shall see how the Turkish army really fights when faces people tested in battle for a long time.
Thanks for the perspective of the lay of the land and history lesson. Turkeys excursion into Syria is beyond the simple explanation of containing the US/israel NATO backed Kurds from creating a shatter belt area that will include now Turkish land (turkeys biggest fear)
The Clicia gates and Clicia empire are now largely into what we today know as Republic of Turkey est in 1923 . The last remaining area of Clicia empire is Kessab, Syria . When Syria gifted Antioch / Antikaya (Hatay) to Turkey the remaining people mostly Alawites and Christians were dumbfounded . Always others bargaining for the land which has been under your feet for centuries. Iskenderum is a huge port for oil barges which transport Iraq & Azerbaijan oil to eastern europe via the Tanap pipeline. The other major hub was via Ukraine from Russia’s Gasprom Petro. Of course much of the Ukrainuan hub was destroyed by recent NATO terrorism and the cutting off Russian Gazprom to Europe and expand the other routes via northern Syria while destroying Russian partnership with Syria and control Golan Heights via Genie Oil. …when in doubt pull up a petro map.
The French and British carved up the areas to suit their oil and other greed. British carving up Baghdad and the birth of BP oil which had already been worked and developed by a Constaniople business man “mr five percent” (IPC) who only took 5 % with the rest investing in hospitals, schools, stadiums etc.
Last time I checked some of those buildings still bare his name.
Gear up for Cyprus off shore drilling despute valued at $10 trillion same players same fighting & destruction.
“Me 5%’s real name was Golbenkian. I remember it from the PBS Documentary, a 5-part series that played during the run up to GWI in the Fall of1990. I learned a lot from it and at the time explained a lot. I don’t remember the name of the film, but I think it was “Oil”. Thank you for jogging my memory and especially thank you Mr Kadi for this wonderful lesson on how Geography is the determining factor for Borders and Wars. As usual the British and the French are behind all of our Wars.They are the worst criminals in History since the early18th Century.
Thank you for a very interesting perspective.
I think there is a natural continuation into the modern design with the british/french empire’s Paris Peace Conference and the creation of League of Nations and the French mandate of Syria and Lebaonon, and the british mandates of both Palestine and Mesopotamia (respectively). There was of course the french empiric interest and the british empiric interest where they seperated the lands and installed rulers and governments who would serve as their vasalls. The kurdish people remained divided between several countries in the region and may own the rightful historical inheritance to the lands up to the Taurus mountains, although it is shared with turkish peoples. This can be seen from a map of etnic groups.
The kurds have been refused their historic rights to lands because the empires created vasall states run by a central arab ruler, or in the matter of Palestine ruled it by themselves. The only country that remained independant was Iran because they failed to capture it militarily.
The map however is vastly inaccurate regarding the claim of settled arabs (blue). It is not historically correct, these countries were only culturally arab based on the conquests and inclusion in the caliphates , for example the people of Palestine were palestinians constisting of many etnic groups. Likewise for Lebanon and Syria there are many etnic groups which became converted to islam during the Rashidun Caliphate. Even ancient israelis were converted to islam and are thus “arab” according to the british. Such misconceptions were used by the british empire and the french empire to create full takeover under new arabic rulers. As such the map cannot be trusted as it is a british map, Maunsell’s map,” Pre-World War I British Ethnographical Map of eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and western Persia”. In order to establish their vasall rulers in the Middle East, the british replace the Ottoman rule with a vasallic arabic rule that gave the empires all rights to natural resources, their extraction, transport and communication for a 100 years. O fcourse in terms of legality there is no such thing involved then in either the League of Nations, the UN, the mandates, and so on. They are all corrupt established for the purpose for which they were made in many cases as this one, for exploitation and robbery , and even imperialism itself.
As I mentioned the british empire’s map of etnic groups in the Middle East was grossly falsifying etnicity although I also made that clear , while it illustrated a couple of points I made.
Here is a detailed map of the kurds that shows that in order to have made a correct nationbuilding post ww1, the dissolvment of Ottoman Empire, Kurdistan should have been created as a stablility to the region because the Kurds were actually the rightful owner of the lands and that of the now turkish Hatay province as well,including the gates of theTaurus Mountains based on the people of the lands.
I believe the European who knew the most about the geographical terrain of the Eastern Ottoman Empire was Gertrude Bell. It was she who spoke Arabic and other languages, traveled the whole terrain, spoke to all of the tribal leaders, understood the aspirations of various groups, etc. and tried to influence the British government in its postwar initiatives. She drew the lines in the sand. And many of the maps.
Bell was strenuously against the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Forget the movie (Nicole Kidman, ugh) and read a real biography—far more interesting—of this extraordinary woman. Here is an introduction: https://www.biography.com/writer/gertrude-bell
Superb article!Thanks for this,Ghassan Kadi.
So, the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire is unfinished business?
Is it necessary to have a country called Turkey?
Maybe it is time to disperse the rest of the Empire.
The French did not give Cilicia to Turkey – it was sold to the Turks. A relative of my father was a French policeman in Adana after World War 1 and was a guard of the wagons of Gold that the Turks provided to the French to pay for Cilicia. Armenians then had to flee South to Syria and Lebanon.
AriusArmenian. Even if the French were paid, this doesn’t change the final outcome. The French and the Turks decided what was to happen to a land neither one of owns. They each had their own interests, and the legitimate owners had no say.
One thing for sure the Alawites that hail from Antioch/Hatay and lived side by side with Armenians for centuries were as dumbfounded over this giving/selling of the ancient area to Turkey.
It’s as Ghassan states both countries buying and selling a significant region that neither historically owned or resided.
Today it was unfortunately used as a gateway into Kessab by various NATO terrorist groups from Chechen, Tunisia and other savage criminals .
I agree with your article about the strategic importance of the Cilician Gates, but when has Cilicia ever been a part of Syria? I have always known them to be separate regions. Even back to the time of Caesar when he was kidnapped and held for ransom by Cilician pirates, Cilician had its name as distinct from Syria.
If you mean they belong to Syria, the modern nation state as a distinct entity from the ancient region of Syria, that makes more sense, but you seem to imply that the border is ancient that always separated to the two. Turkey itself is also a modern creation, so any reference to Turkey pre-Kemal as distinct to Ottoman lands doesn’t really make sense.
I don’t bring this up to defend Turkey; ideally it would be broken up into smaller pieces, and Syria would do well to take Antioch, but I’m just confused with your point besides highlighting the strategic importance of the region.
Antioch was the ancient capital of the Seleucid Kingdom, of the Roman Province Syria. It become a chief center of early Christianity (it is where the Christians were named Christians for the first time) and it remained one of the most important centers of Christianity in the East, the See of the Patriarchate of Antioch. Antioch remained in Christian hands for most of the time. The Sykes-Picot-Sazonov Agreement attributed Antioch to what should have become Syria taking into consideration the interests of the Christian population. The provisions in favor of Christians are interpreted as ‘imperialism’.
I agree Antioch is in Syria, and can become a jewel for her once again after she (Syria) is rebuilt and the foreign occupiers are either dead, have come to their sense, or have fled.
Antioch is in Syria though, not Cilicia.
Anonymous. Syria is the name of the region, and it hasn’t been always historically the name of the state. Assyria was Syria, so was the Umayyad and Abbasid Empires and many others in between. I hope this addresses the issue you raised.
Assyria was an ancient empire who ruled the entire Middle East and Egypt.
Assyria exist today as people are identifying as assyrian, Syria was a historic renaming based on a mention of Israel by unknown source . It has however nothing to do with the naming of Syria.
After studying the issue I came to the conclusion that Syria is a mispelling of Eserel (akkadian) form of Israel where S+er-el became Syrea. The naming was done by the Roman empire based on their historian who was a follower of and referred to Herodotus (his travel to Egypt) to rename Palestine and Syrea. The capital of Syrea were described to him geographically to have a view (on clear days) to the (mediteranean) sea, it coincided with the ancient capital of Israel, Jerusalem. Herodotus is known for third party sources as in this case it was only described to him as he possibly made landfall at todays Gaza which was described as Phillistine at least historically correct at the time after also having been subject to exile by Nebuchadnezzar II King of Babylon. It was not the end of Phillistines who were subject to war by Alexander the Great later, and dissappeared from history after subject to total destruction by Alexander as is described the rest were taken away as slaves.
The rewriting of history and naming were done by the roman empire after the total war and extinction of isralites also renaming the territories Palestine again refering to historian Herodotus.
I’m not sure where you got your information from, but Syria was known as Syria before Rome ever stepped foot in the east. Some two hundred years before Syria came under Roman control, the Seleucids were known as the Kings of Syria. Nothing to do with the ‘Roman empire’. And nothing to do with ‘Israel’ or ‘Eserel’.
It is subject to debate obviously, but I refer to my own research of roman history of the Levant and the script of Herodotus was the historical reference in the roman period.
“in the Roman Empire, Syria and Assyria came to be used as distinct geographical terms.” (wikipedia).
The later roman empire is the historical reference in western history today, it is later and continues today. The greek naming (seleucid) was an earlier naming and refer to Assyria (Assur) by a misnomer.
This is explained in Wikipedia.
The Greek name appears to correspond to Phoenician ʾšr “Assur”, ʾšrym “Assyrians”, recorded in the 8th-century BC Çineköy inscription.
Writing in the 5th century BC, Herodotus stated that those called Syrians by the Greeks were called Assyrians by themselves and in the East.  In Greek usage, Syria and Assyria were used almost interchangeably in reference to Assyria, although Herodotus distinguished between the names Syria and Assyria, and for him, Syrians are the inhabitants of the Levant. Randolph Helm emphasised that Herodotus never applied the term Syria on the Mesopotamian region of Assyria which he always called “Assyria”.
In the Roman Empire, Syria and Assyria came to be used as distinct geographical terms. “Syria” in the Roman Empire period referred to those parts of the Empire situated between Asia Minor and Egypt, i.e. the western Levant, while “Assyria” in northern Iraq, southeast Turkey and northeast Syria was part of the Persian Empire as Athura, and only very briefly came under Roman control (116–118 AD, marking the historical peak of Roman expansion), where it was known as Assyria Provincia.
Most later references to the subject have Herodotus as the origin of modern Syria, so it is only fair that he is the source. I referred to my own research on Herodotus script to the matter.
An aerial view of Gülek Pass (the Cilician Gates):
thanks !! That’s a beautiful hike.
I wish Russia would really become Syria’s friend….I was wondering while I read this about the the Turanians – they must have been was are now ‘Turkish’ people – Turkmenistan too has that beginning in its etymology – and the Iranians fought the Turanians for centuries – maybe even in this mountain gateway ?
And to complete the thought of my first sentence – Russia allays herself with the Iranians I believe – not the Turanians – Iranians back then maybe called Aryans ?
Anyway- what a fabulous article about history. I have read the Acts of the New Testament many many times and know the journeys of Paul…where he walked through this gateway – in frost and he slept under the freezing skies while doing his Christ work.
Thats Ghassan. I always love your articles and wow !! You are an awesome historian.
Thanks Ann. As usual