Is Syria’s historical territorial claim to Turkey’s Hatay being resurrected amid Idlib crisis?

A recent article in Russia’s state-run press published amid increased Turkey-Syria tensions reminds its readers of the former’s historical claim to the Turkish province of Hatay. The timing of the piece seemingly suggests that Moscow may be aiming to send a message to Ankara over its actions in Syria’s Idlib province.

The article in question was published by Sputnik News and stated that Hatay, which borders Idlib, was carved out of the French Mandate for Syria by France and then annexed by Turkey in 1939 after a disputed referendum on Hatay’s status was held in the province.

The timing of the article is questionable since its only connection to current events is that Syria and Turkey are engaged in hostilities in Idlib.

Turkey briefly detained the editor-in-chief and three members of Sputnik’s staff based in Istanbul shortly after the article’s publication.

Mustafa Gurbuz, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington DC, believes that the article deliberately aimed to provoke Turkey.

“Similar to Turkish context, truly independent press is marginal in Russia,” Gurbuz said.

“Russian media is one of the most effective tools in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s hands, not only in domestic context but also in diplomacy.”

Consequently, the Russian press is a weapon in Putin’s hands that he can use to exert pressure as well as convey subtle messages, which may well have been the intent of the Hatay article.

After Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber over its border with Syria in November 2015, ties between Ankara and Moscow were severely strained. The Russian press published several articles against Turkey alleging, among other things, that it helped the Islamic State group trade illegal oil.

This chorus of critical articles on Turkey in the Russian press uniformly ceased after both sides reached a rapprochement following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s expression of regret over the shootdown incident and the subsequent beginning of Russian-Turkish cooperation in Syria.

“It is important to note how international editions of Russian media is actually influential in the Middle East,” Gurbuz said.

“Such media arms are also a part of Russia’s long-term expansion strategy in the region.”

Timur Akhmetov, an Ankara-based researcher for the Russian International Affairs Council, doubts that the article “was a deliberate and well-thought move by Sputnik.”

“I think there was a mistake by the editorial team,” Akhmetov said. “I don’t think that Moscow would want to publish a Turkish article about this sensitive topic now, considering that both sides are seeking ways to solve the crisis in Idlib diplomatically.”

Akhmetov also doubts that Damascus will resurrect the Hatay issue, even amidst its conflict with Ankara. This is because Syria needs to retain good relations with Turkey if it wants political stabilization, reconstruction and trade after the lengthy conflict in the war-weary country finally comes to an end.

“If Damascus decides to speculate on the Hatay issue it will alienate Turkish nationalists, who would like to see stable relations with the central government in Syria in their fight against Kurdish separatism,” Akhmetov said.

Nicholas Danforth, a Senior Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, believes the Sputnik article “represents some uninspired irredentist trolling rather than a serious claim against Turkish sovereign territory.”

This is likely the case, he added, since Damascus hasn’t yet retaken control over the entirety of Syria.

Professor Joshua Landis, Director of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, noted that the reopening of this issue is an indication of just how bad Ankara-Damascus relations have deteriorated.

“Sputnik’s reporting on the issue indicates that Russia is also looking for ways to increase pressure on Ankara short of going to war,” Landis told Ahval.

At the same time, however, the Hatay issue has not been a burning one for decades now. While official Syrian government maps often include Hatay as part of Syria, most Syrians and Turks consider it an over and done issue.

Landis recalled that when he studied Arabic in Damascus back in the 1980s, he was with a handful of Turkish Arabs from Hatay who were seeking medical degrees from the University of Damascus.

“When the Syrian professor would tell the class how Hatay was Syrian, the Hatay students would snicker in the back of the class because they did not want to be Syrians and thought the professor was beating a dead horse,” he said.

Even Syrian state-run media seldom brought up the Hatay question, except for one noteworthy occasion in 2013. But even then, it was abundantly clear that was mere rhetoric and not indicative of a fundamental shift in longstanding Syrian policy on the issue – which contends that Hatay’s was unjustly annexed by Turkey but is, nevertheless, Turkish territory.

Damascus might, nevertheless, attempt to raise the Hatay issue once again if the present conflict between it and Turkey persists.

In February 2016, former Turkish Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış essentially predicted this possibility in comments he gave to the newspaper Today’s Zaman when discussing the prospect of Turkish military intervention in Syria.

“The world would not accept such interference [by Turkey’s military in Syria],” he said at the time. “It would not allow the border to be redrawn unilaterally.”

“What’s more, if the Turkish military faced defeat, Syria might reintroduce the claim that Hatay belongs to Syria.”

Yakış also predicted in the interview that “It is guaranteed that Russia will be the main actor in shaping the future of Syria.”

Today, Yakış doubts that Russia and Turkey will “burn the ships” over their divergent interests in Idlib due to the fact they are very interdependent economically.

“Hatay’s return to Syria is not likely,” Yakış told Ahval. “What I said on this subject in the past was that Syria might raise the question of Hatay if the relations continue to deteriorate.”

“This does not mean that Turkey will let Hatay go to Syria without an all-out war,” he said.