Across the Middle East, from the Morocco through Iran, nearly every country has border disputes with its neighbors (Israel’s borders with Egypt and Jordan being prominent exceptions). Syria recognizes Lebanon only grudgingly, and the border between Syria and Turkey has been a long if often dormant dispute. The Syria crisis may soon end the dispute’s dormancy, however. The disagreement between Syria and Turkey centers on Hatay, a province in Turkey which extends down the Mediterranean coast and abuts Syria. In the early twentieth century, maps depicted the area (previously known as the Sanjak of Alexandretta), as part of Syria.
In the wake of World War I, Turkey complained about Hatay’s inclusion in Syria, protesting that the Arab government was violating the rights of the Turkish minority. In 1937, the League of Nations granted Hatay autonomy. The following year, against the backdrop of heavy Turkish police presence, Hatay declared its independence. Its legislature used its power to bring Hatay’s laws into conformity with Turkey’s, adopt the Turkish currency and, on July 23, 1939, Turkey formally annexed Hatay.
Syria has never accepted Hatay’s incorporation into Turkey, however, even if it preferred to emphasize the Golan Heights dispute to international audiences. Still, when Syria sponsored a traveling antiquity and culture exhibit years ago, it displayed maps depicting Hatay as part of Syria.
Now, realistically, Hatay isn’t going to break away from Turkey. Still, Syrian claims to Hatay are likely to increase in the near future. The population of Hatay is predominantly Alevi, a Turkish minority closely related to Syria’s Alawites. The violence Bashar al-Assad has directed against the Syrians has not been random: He has systematically sought to cleanse certain areas of Sunni Arabs in order to incorporate them into part of an Alawite enclave, which in turn has been centered on Latakia, the province of Syria just south of Hatay. That many of the Syrian refugees seeking refuge inside Turkey have been fleeing into Hatay only adds to Turkish concern, which is now percolating to the surface of public discussion. On September 1, Turkish Alevis rallied in support of Assad in Hatay.
If Turkish papers are to be believed, Ankara is growing more worried about Alawi activity in Hatay than in Kurdish separatism emanating from northeastern Syria. One thing is clear: No matter how the Syrian uprising ends, the map of Syria has forever changed. Change does not come easy in the Middle East; it reverberates in all directions.