Contested Syria: the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. Wikimedia Commons.
HOURS AFTER Syrian president Bashar al-Assad addressed a nation overwhelmed by protests and violence, British foreign secretary William Hague retorted that ‘if President Assad is to restore any credibility the Syrian people need to see concrete action [of reform], not vague promises’. Syria, Hague implied, is at a vital crossroad in its history. The future presents many questions, but few (if any) concrete answers. Will al-Assad maintain his family’s forty-year grip on power? Or will democratic opponents force the Ba’ath Party from Damascus? Can the West really impact Syria’s fate through international sanctions? One fact, however, is certain. Syria’s convulsions lie not only with its current socio-political crisis, but also in its geo-historical position, particularly with Turkey.
Syria, as Sir Leonard Woolley pronounced in the June 1946 issue of The Geographical Journal, ‘indeed occupies a wonderfully central position’ (p. 12). Situated in the heart of the Middle East’s ‘Fertile Crescent’, and bounded by the Mediterranean Sea, Syria stretches across Turkey’s southern border, down along Iraq’s western frontier, before reaching its contentious boundary with Israel, near the Sea of Galilae (Lake Tiberias). The earliest known civilisations spread across the Syrian heartland, fostering some of the world’s oldest cities: Antioch (third century BC), Damascus (second century BC) and Aleppo (first century BC). The most important east-west trade routes passed through Syria, connecting India and the Orient with Europe and North Africa (Carruthers 1918, pp. 157-58). Syria enjoyed tremendous wealth from the Age of Antiquity through the Renaissance.
Syria’s wealth and location also targeted the region for conquest. Turkey’s vital contemporary role as arbiter between Syria and the international community is the result of centuries of Turkish influence (and, more often than not, interference) in Syrian culture. Syria lay at the centre of the Ottoman Empire; its political and economic importance underscored Turkish power. As Ottoman power waned at the turn of the twentieth-century, Western powers stepped in. Syria proved to be the most contentious region. The Royal Geographical Society, in its dual capacity as learned society and imperial instrument, initiated a series of excavations and survey projects. After the outbreak of war in 1914, the Royal Geographical Society increasingly pressured the British Government to ignore France’s own Syrian claims (formally enshrined in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement). The Society’s cartographers, as well as those seconded from the Army and Navy, produced numerous topographical and military charts of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the eastern Mediterranean coast. Unfortunately, so much conflicting data was submitted to the Society’s cartographers that their maps’ intelligence information was often out-dated by the time they reached front lines (Heffernan 1996, pp. 515-16).
Competing Anglo-French claims, however, did not entirely extinguish Turkish and Arab objectives. Syria lost Antioch in 1939 when France, its protector, transferred the region to Kemal Ataturk. Syria continues to claim the province. In 1958, Syria joined Egypt in short-lived ‘United Arab Republic’, intended by nationalists to assert a strong Arab federation. More recently, Turkey protested Syria’s tacit support for separatist Kurds; the Syrians had viewed the Kurds as compatriots against the Turks since at least the First World War (Hogarth 1915, p. 459). Geography, for better or worse, has forced the fates of Syria and Turkey together. Although relations are often fraught with difficulty, modern Turkey remains Syria’s most important partner, a state that enjoys the rare privilege of favour in both Western and Arab diplomatic circles. History suggests that Turkish-Syrian relations will be crucial in solving Damascus’s populist crisis.
Douglas Carruthers, ‘The Great Desert Caravan Route, Aleppo to Basra’, The Geographical Journal 52.3 (September, 1918): 157—84.
William Hague, ‘President Assad’s Speech Today was Disappointing and Unconvincing’, The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 20 June 2011, accessed 22 June 2011.
Michael Heffernan, ‘Geography, Cartography and Military Intelligence: the Royal Geographical Society and the First World War’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 21.3 (1996): 504—33.
D G Hogarth, ‘Geography of the War Theatre in the Near East’, The Geographical Journal 45.6 (June, 1915): 457—67.
Leonard Woolley, ‘Syria as the Gateway between East and West’, The Geographical Journal 107.5/6 (May-June, 1946): 179—90.
Felix Driver, Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire (Oxford and Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2006).
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature (New York, London, Toronto and Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 189.