by Dr. Banjamin Thomas White (University of Glasgow)
The news from Syria has been nothing but bad for several years now, but things have been particularly desperate in the last few days—since Turkish forces, with a green light from the American president, invaded the region of northern Syria that had been under autonomous Kurdish rule, as Rojava. (You can read an overview of the situation and what is at stake in this Guardian article: “What is the situation in north-eastern Syria?”)
Although I mainly work on refugee history these days, earlier in my career I was a Syria specialist, and I spent a lot of time researching the history of the area that Turkey has just invaded. The demarcation of the Syrian-Turkish border in the 1920s and 30s was crucial to the constitution of state sovereignty on either side of it. Turkey and Syria were newly established states, though they were quite different: Turkey was ruled by a nationalist government that had successfully fought off multiple invasions, while Syria was only nominally independent under French colonial ‘supervision’. What I was really interested in, though, was how these interconnected processes shaped the political identities of the people living in what became the northern Syrian borderlands. A lot of them were Kurdish, and the border made them a minority in a new Syrian nation-state.
As a historian, I don’t have privileged knowledge about current events, and I’m feeling pretty helpless and hopeless about them. But if it’s helpful for anyone reading this to get some background on how this part of the world came to be divided between Syria and Turkey, and what that meant for Kurds living there, with permission from the publishers I’m making some of the things I’ve written on the subject freely available.
First, here is a PDF of a chapter of my book (2011) on ‘The border and the Kurds’. It explains the impact that the demarcation of the border had on Kurds across the new Syrian nation-state. Right through the 1920s and 30s, Syria’s borders didn’t have much meaningful physical presence on the ground. But increasingly, the border as a line between two state jurisdictions made it a meaningful presence in people’s lives (and in people’s minds) nonetheless. The drawing of Syria’s borders tended to make all Kurds in the country—whether they lived in the borderlands or in Damascus—into one ‘minority’ community.
Second, my article ‘Refugees and the definition of Syria, 1920-1939’ (2017) argues that the arrival and settlement of refugees brought the geographical borders of Syria into much sharper definition, and accelerated the spread of effective state authority across its territory—as well as raising questions about whether Syrian national identity should be defined to include or exclude the incomers. Kurdish refugees from the new Turkish Republic were one of the three main groups of refugees entering Syria in this period, and the places that became Syrian included the areas that Kurds have governed autonomously for the last few years. The Turkish army’s invasion has prompted the Kurdish government to invite the Syrian regime back in.
Finally, an older article in French, ‘Frontières et pouvoir d’Etat: La frontière turco-syrienne dans les années 1920 et 1930’ (2009), written with my colleague and friend Seda Altuğ, goes into more detail on the process of how the border was drawn on the ground, and what role it played in the constitution of state authority on both sides. For Turkey, a national frontier was being created, that needed defending against local populations that were viewed as a threat (especially Kurds and Armenians) as well as against French imperialism. On the Syrian side, where the border was both a Syrian national and French imperial frontier, the situation was more complicated.
Thanks to Emma Rees at Edinburgh University Press for giving me permission to make chapter 4 of my book freely available, and providing the PDF, and to Anna Bayman and the editors of Past & Present for agreeing to make ‘Refugees and the definition of Syria’ freely available for a period. (‘Frontières et pouvoir d’État’ was already free to read.) And thanks to Sadiah Qureshi for her very helpful comments on a draft of this post.