Alexandretta: A Victim of Bad Diplomacy
Edmond Melhem
The Geography of Alexandretta

Alexandretta covers an area of 4.805 square kilometres of the Levant coast along the Eastern Mediterranean. It is located on the Western section of what is known as the 'Syrian Saddle'. Its port (namely, the port of Alexandretta) is said to be "the first natural harbour in the Eastern Mediterranean".1 It offers safe anchorage for large ships in a gulf over 35 miles in length. Furthermore, it is "the natural outlet for the vast hinterland of Aleppo and the Upper Euphrates valley and is connected by rail with Osmanich and thus with the main lines running west to Ankara and Istanbul, east to Baghdad, and south, through Aleppo, Damascus and Haifa, to the Suez Canal".2 Within the boundaries of the sanjak of Alexandretta, however, lie, in addition to the port of Alexandretta, the ancient historical town of Antioch (Antakya) that has become the sanjak's capital; the fertile valley of the Orontes; and the Southern section of the Amanus Range.

The History of Alexandretta

Historically, the city of Alexandretta was founded by Alexander the Great to commemorate his victory over Darius III at Issus in 333 B.C. It was built on a coastal strip of sand and shingle about 1/2 mile wide near the Phoenician town of Myriandrus. It was designed as a great caravan centre, but was soon surpassed in that respect by Antioch. In the third century A>D, the Persians destroyed it, but it was rebuilt by Wathiq, a grandson of Harun al-Rashid in the ninth century. Its old history is best summarized in an article written by Syjak Adam in 1937. At Alexandretta, Adam wrote, "the winds whisper, not of Celtic Saint and highland Cheiftain, but of Alexandretta of Macedon, and the fierce feuds of Roman and Persian, Egyptian and Seleucid, Byzantine and Arab, Turk and Armenian, not to mention the Prophet Jonah, spewed ashore hereabouts from the whale's belly. Old as ages, and wild and savage is the history of the land."3

The Economy of Alexandretta

Economically, Alexandretta is seen as a trade outlet. Its port is excellent and its natural hinterland is far-flung and potentially rich. The potentialities of its sea fishing are also considerable. Moreover, "the trade of the Southern section of the Jezira, the districts of Mosul and the two Zabs, of Bitlis and Lake Von, and the Rowanduz Iran trade would all naturally flow to Alexandretta via Beylon rather than to Tripoli".4 The potential importance of Alexandretta was described in a British document in 1937 as a "mercantile port which could serve an extensive belt of territory running astride the Turkish-Syrian frontier eastwards into the northern Iraq and north-west Persia, or as a possible naval base". 5

The Strategical Importance of Alexandretta

Strategically, it is said that whoever controls the port of Alexandretta, the Southern Amonus range and the Pass of Beylon leading to the plain of Aleppo, "acquires a dominating position at a key-point in Asia Minor".6 This importance, moreover, has been stressed by many writers. For instance, the Arabic paper al-Muqattam reported, in 1938, that the Beylon Pass was very essential for defending Turkey.7 The latter was involved in Alexandretta, the paper pointed out, not for the sake of a Turkish community, but for acquiring the strategical position in the region, i.e., the Beylon Pass. This position was considered important for Turkey because it would facilitate the process of defending the country in the part of South Anatolia. Moreover, if it was controlled by Turkey, not many troops would be needed to defend the country on this front. The paper added that at all the stages of history, the Beylon Pass was considered strategically important for both Anatolis and Syria.

From his part, Antun Sa'adeh, the leader of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party highlighted the strategical importance of Alexandretta for Syria. To him, there are certain positions on the borders that must be kept under the Syrian Army's control otherwise the entire country will be exposed to the danger of conquests, colonization and humiliation.8 Sa'adeh added that the position known as "the Cilician Gates" must necessarily be always under Syrian sovereignty not for the security of the Attna-Maash region and the Alexandretta-Aleppo's region only but for the security of the entire country as well.9

It might be claimed that because traces of oil had been found at Alexandretta10, or possibly because of its strategic importance and its potentiality as a trade outlet, Turkey disputed with France over this part of Syria. Whatever the decisive reasons, Alexandretta, at present, is considered strategically and commercially important due to considerable improvement that have been made in its port facilities and along the shore, and due to "its choice as a military centre and Turkish naval base on the Mediterranian".11

Turkish Exploits France's Weakness

Turkey annexed Alexandretta in 1939, when Syria was under the French mandate. France was in a difficult situation due to the deteriorating international situation. Her main concern at the time was her own security in Europe and in the Eastern  Mediterranean where she was facing the Italian menace. Turkey, on the other hand, was in a better situation than France. She was advantaged by her strategic position and diplomatic strength resulting from her sovereignty  over the Straits since the Montreux Convention of 1936. Recognizing the opportunity to exploit the dangerous international situation, Turkey began to exert pressure on France claiming that the Turkish element constituted the 'vast majority' in Alexandretta and demanding a a series of concessions in this sanjak, until in July 1939, France agreed to cede the territory to Turkey. In this context, Sanjian Avedis commented on France's political and military weakness and the factors which determined her to cede Alexandretta. He wrote:

Containment of the axis in Europe and guarantees for the security of the Dardanelles were more urgent requirements for her own security than the 'expendable' Sanjak of Alexandretta. It was certainly this basic conflict in France's obligations at home and abroad which was so carefully exploited by Turkey.12

A Franco-Turkish Compromise

For two years France negotiated with Turkey using a political and military expediency and following a delicate diplomacy. Finally, a settlement was reached between the two countries ending their dispute over Alexandretta. The Franco-Turkish settlement enabled France "to maintain and even to strengthen and extend , her relations with Turkey, the 'Guardian of the Straits' since 1936."13 As far as Britain was concerned, the compromise between France and Turkey was received "with relief as ending a dispute between two important friends and allies at a time when serious dangers were pressing from other quarters".14

To Syria the loss of Alexandretta occurred at a time when she was weak and placed under the control of the mandate. The cession took place in disregard of her rights and interests and against the wishes of the non-Turkish majority of Alexandretta.

An Illegal and Immoral Act

Juridically, the Franco-Turkish compromise violated a number of international agreements governing Alexandretta. One of these agreements was the Charter of the Mandate which stipulated that:
the Mandatory [France] shall be responsible for seeing that no part of the territory of Syria and Lebanon is ceded or leased or in any way placed under the control of a foreign Power(Art. 4).15

Other agreements included: a) the "Franklin-Bouillon Agreement", signed in Ankara between France and Turkey on October 20, 1921, which guaranteed a special administrative regime for this Syrian territory; b) the Covenant of League(article 22); c) the 'de Jouvenel Agreement' signed between France and Turkey on May 30, 1926; d) the Treaty of Lausanne; and the decisions of the League Council of 1937, "which had reaffirmed the Sanjak's distinct status within the Syrian political framework."16

"France", as an international jourist, M. Georges Scelle, remarked, "committed an illegal act, by disposing of territory in which she had not a free hand".17 By the same token, Patrick Seale pointed out that "by disregarding its pledge to protect the integrity of Syria, France had committed a flagrantly immoral political act."18 In short, As Britain by virtue of Balfour Declaration sacrificed a part of southern Syria (Palestine), in 1917, to return a favour to the Zionists, in the same way France sacrificed another part of northern Syria (Alexandretta) to appease Turkey.


1. Sanjian, Avedis K. "The Sanjak of Alexandretta (Hatay): Its impact on Turkish-Syrian relations (1939-1956)",
   Middle East Journal, vol. 10 (4), 1956, p. 379.

2. Toynbee, A. "The Hatay (Autonomous Sanjak of Alexandretta)", Documents on International Affairs. 1937, p. 465.

3. Adam, Syjak "The Charm of Alexandretta", Great Britain and the East, Vol. XLV III, January 28, 1937.

4. Adam, Syjak "The Importance of Alexandretta", Great Britain and the East, Vol. XLV III, January 21, 1937, p. 82.

5. Wood, J. G. "Franco-Turkish Dispute over the Sanjak of Alexandretta", British Documents on Foreign Affairs, Part 2,     June 1936- June 1938, Document no. 156, p. 237.

6. Toynbee, A., op. cit., p. 465.

7. Al-Muqattam, 24 June 1938. "Will the Turks Occupy Alexandretta".

8.  Sa'adeh, A. The Ten Lectures- 1948, (Beirut: SSNP,1976), p.  93.

9.  Ibid.

10. Williams, Kenneth "Turkey's dispute with France over Syria", Great Britain and the East, December 17, 1936, p. 880.

11. Britannica Encyclopaedia, Vol. 6, p. 409.

12. Sanjain, Avedis K. op. cit., p. 381.

13. Toynbee, A. op.cit., p.381.

14. Ibid.

15. Sanjain, Avedis K. op. cit., p. 382.

16. Ibid.

17. Quoted in ibid.

18. Seale, Patrich Asada of syria, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 28.