By FRANKLIN LAMB
North of Latakia, Syria
Every school kid here in Syria learns at an early age about the various colonial land grabs that have lopped off key parts of their ancient country, and they receive instruction about their national duty to recover this sacred territory. The concept applies equally to still-occupied Palestine, or at least it did before the 2011 uprising got started, albeit since then a degree of resentment has arisen over participation by some Palestinians with rebel groups seeking to topple the Syrian government.
Be that as it may, one such land grab historically remembered, and which is currently galvanizing resistance on behalf of Syria, is that of Iskenderun, north of Latakia, in a disputed Syria-Turkish border area. As Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari-sponsored jihadists continue to enter the country, well worth remembering is it that Iskenderun is rich in natural resources and that for thousands of years it was part of Syria. But that status changed more than half a century ago when France cut it off from Syria and grafted it onto Turkey--and now some pro-government militias are fighting to get it back.
The name derives from Alexander the Great, who around 333 BC encamped in the area and ordered a city be built, although the exact site of the historic city is subject to dispute. At any rate, the strategic importance of Iskenderun comes from its geographical relation to Syrian Gates, the easiest approach to the open ground of Hatay Province and Aleppo, and the dispute over it has been heating up recently, partly as a result of the current crisis.
It all started on July 5, 1938, when Turkish forces under Colonel Sukril Kanath launched an aggression, with French approval, and ethnically cleansed the local Armenian Christian and Allawi populations. The Turkish invasion was enabled by the French, partners with Britain in Sykes-Picot, who had remained as illegal occupiers of Syria, a holdover from the League of Nations mandate. The French were complicit in a rigged referendum, essentially ceding to Turkey this Syrian territory, which by then was referred to as the Republic of Hatay. It was a land grab. Pure and simple. And it was part of a secret deal to secure Turkey's help with the fast approaching war with Germany. Paris and Ankara struck a deal: Turkey, while not joining the allies against Germany, declared neutrality and essentially sat out World War II.
Commander Ali Kayali, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Iskenderun (PFLI)
Syria, rather than being expansionist, as it is sometimes accused of by Turkey and the Zionist regime, has actually been losing territory, not gaining it. "We lost northern Palestine in 1918, Lebanon in 1920, and the Iskenderun area through French duplicity," said a retired diplomat here. "Surely Lebanon must also be returned to Syria. It was never a real country and it never will be as far as I am concerned. It is part of Syria!" Indeed, as Robert Fisk points out, after the First World War, most Lebanese wished their land to remain part of Syria (see the results of the King-Crane Commission) rather than live in a separate "nation" under French domination. As we parted, the gentleman shook my hand and declared: "Of course Iskendurun is part of Syria. No honest person can deny this!"
Enter one remarkable Syrian nationalist, Ali Kayali, aka "Abu Zaki". So how did a polite gentleman from this region of Turkish-occupied Syria end up leading one of the most effective resistance militias in the northern theater in the current Syrian crisis? Basically he did it the same way as untold numbers of Palestinians supporting young Syrian men during the early 1980's. Ali went to Beirut to resist the 1982 Zionist aggression. There he was baptized by fire, so to speak, carrying the banner of his new group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Iskenderun (PFLI) under the tutelage of Dr. George Habash and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Ali fought in a number of south Lebanon fronts, and also inside West Beirut, but then after the PLO withdrawal (on 8/20/82), he returned to Syria, to Tartous, joining the rebellion against PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Near Bedwari camp he fought, as part of the Fatah Intifada uprising, this following the PLO split along -pro-Arafat and pro-Hafez Assad cleavages.
Later, Ali undertook study on his own in Tartous (Tripoli, Syria), and at one point escaped from prison in Turkey where he had been jailed for demonstrating against the fascist regime in Ankara. Returning to Syria, he joined Syrian Army battles against the Bilal Shaaban-led Al Tawhid Islamic (Muslim Brotherhood ), following which he and the PFLI moved to the area of Halba in Akkar, Lebanon, and organized a resistance training camp. Eventually, however, he returned to Syria to continue the fight to liberate the Syrian territory of Iskenderun, and while supported by Syrian citizens, the Kayali-led group was not formally part of the Syrian security/resistance apparatus.