In Search of a Safer Middle East on the Centenary of Lausanne Treaty

by Prof. Dr. Zekeriya Kurşun

We have left the Treaty of Lausanne a century behind. In this process, we have accumulated many debates. We have spent a century with the questions of what Lausanne brought, what it took away, whether it had a duration, and who it affected. This agreement, which was adopted as the founding document of the State of Turkey (the Republic of Turkey), is in a sense a document that ended the Ottoman Empire. In other words, while Lausanne ratified the State of Turkey, it also registered the de facto occupation of Ottoman lands during the 19th century and severed the ties of the new Turkey with the former Ottoman geography, namely the Middle East and North Africa. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, Lausanne was a treaty that determined the last hundred years not only for Turkey but also for the Middle East and North Africa. Therefore, it is necessary to meet the debates around the treaty, which contains two contradictory outcomes, with maturity.

At the end of the 1st World War, the inhabitants of the former British, French and Italian occupied territories took a close interest in the National Struggle in Anatolia, and in some places there were even partial mobilizations in order to create opportunities for cooperation and support. However, we must admit that the conditions of that day could not carry these movements beyond moral support. Especially with the 1920 San Remo Conference, the former Ottoman lands were completely under the grip of imperialism. The Mandate administrations established in the region did not allow the peoples of the region to establish relations with Turkey. Nevertheless, some inhabitants of countries such as Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, etc. maintained their ties with Istanbul and Anatolia due to their status as former Ottoman citizens, and those of Turkish origin living in those regions either remained within the system or returned to Istanbul and Anatolia. Many Arab-born or Arab-origin civil servants and officers from those regions, who had completed their education in Ottoman schools, especially in the Mülkiye (Political Sciences) and Harbiye (Army Academy), continued to serve and contributed to the birth and subsequent development of the New Turkey. When the Treaty of Lausanne was concluded, the Arab press and intellectuals who followed Turkey proclaimed it as a victory, and in fact, they considered it as a light of liberation from the situation they were in. However, the borders adopted in Lausanne, along with the restrictions on citizenship and property, completely ended the aforementioned unity and caused new problems between the parties. On the other hand, the debts and border issues that were divided among the newly established states were not to mention.

Therefore, the Centenary of the Treaty of Lausanne has been remembered in the Arab world as much as it has been in ours, articles have been written about it and even meetings have been held and will continue to be held.

Discussing Lausanne in Jordan

At the time when the Lausanne centennial meetings were being planned in Turkey, a scientific meeting to which I was invited was held in Jordan on July 25th. The meeting was a joint idea of the Yunus Emre Institute in Jordan, the Jordanian Union of Historians and the Arab Thought Club, and was realized with the support of the Ambassador of the Republic of Turkey to Amman Erden Ozan, the outstanding efforts of YEE Director Ensar Fırat and the contribution of different institutions in Jordan. The meeting was attended by respected scholars from various Arab countries who are experts on the history of the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey, as well as myself from Turkey representing ORDAF and Ahmet Uysal on behalf of ORSAM.

What is the significance of this meeting, which can be held almost anywhere?

Jordan is one of the most timid places to talk about Ottoman History. Although there are prominent Ottoman historians in Jordan, such as Adnan Bakhit, the system in general is hesitant to talk about Ottoman history, and therefore the Republic of Turkey as well. Even though Emir Abdullah visited Turkey early on and partly apologized for his father Sharif Hussein’s rebellion against the Ottomans in his memoirs, it seems that they still prefer to remain neutral or even silent on these issues. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of researchers there, such as Hind Abu Sha’r, who has excelled in his research on Jordan and Bilad al-Sham. Some of these researchers received their PhDs from European countries or Egypt, while others, such as Walid al Arīd, received theirs from Turkey. This dichotomy and difference in approach is always evident in such scientific meetings. Those who completed their PhD in Turkey are respected for their command of the sources, but at the same time they are kept at a distance. In this respect, it is of great importance that such meetings are held there. Because these meetings allow those who have received their education in Turkey to express themselves more and to discuss the existing assumptions.

Indeed, in the preparation and implementation of this meeting, the parties agreed to discuss a special topic with experts on a very special day, even if there were feelings that remained hidden in the conscience of both sides. Therefore, historians and international relations experts from different geographies, both face-to-face and online, discussed the conditions under which Lausanne was prepared in general and its effects on the Arab geography in particular. In fact, the title of the meeting, “A More Secure Middle East in the Centenary of the Second Lausanne” – a proposal that obviously came from Jordan – shows that the aim was to seek solutions on legal and legitimate grounds for the formation of regional structures after Lausanne, the ongoing fragilities and, of course, the problems that the Middle East is facing today.


Although Lausanne delimited the borders of the region and the new understandings that emerged in the region during the mandate and post-mandate period created a new Middle East, no other reassuring agreement or compromise other than Lausanne has been achieved to date.

Does Lausanne Pave the Way for a Safer Middle East?

In his opening speech, our Ambassador to Amman emphasized historical commonalities and cooperation for a more secure future, while Galib Arabiyat, President of the Jordanian Society of Historians, addressed the consequences of World War I and its aftermath, and expressed the expectations of the Jordanian side and the Middle East in general, emphasizing that the main goal of the meeting was the search for a safer Middle East free from conflicts and conflicts. As mentioned above, Galib Arabiyat did not neglect to emphasize that this wish could be achieved in the light of what Lausanne had brought, which was an expression of the fact that they saw Lausanne as a guarantee for themselves as well.

While most of the speakers at the meeting drew attention to Turkey’s recent developments and argued that cooperation with Turkey would ensure regional security, a few voiced concerns that Turkey might have a hidden agenda, a theory that has become outdated. In fact, this idea, which is the common denominator of the approaches of some intellectuals influenced more by Arab nationalism, was not reciprocated at this meeting and was even criticized. As a matter of fact, in the final declaration, more cooperation with Turkey was emphasized as the most important topic. In this regard, both my and Ahmet Uysal’s papers were also guiding.

In conclusion, Turks and Arabs, who had shared a common history for centuries, came to a crossroads at the end of the First World War, but their relationship was not completely over. While the Turks sought to establish a national state in Anatolia, the Arabs sought to organize their own future, even if it was not yet complete. At the end of the National Struggle, when Turkey sat down with the victorious states of the First World War at the Lausanne Treaty, one of the problems it faced was how to maintain its relations with the old geography. At the end of the negotiations, Turkey’s independence was accepted, but at the same time, restrictions were imposed on its relations with its former partners and now neighbors, the Arab countries. Despite the restrictions imposed by the treaty, Turkey took care to establish relations with its Arab neighbors, especially with the countries that were not subject to the Lausanne Treaty, to the extent possible and in areas that would not disturb the Western mandators. The Turkish Diplomatic Archive contains hundreds of documents on these efforts. Turkey’s efforts attracted the attention of its interlocutors and it managed to conclude friendship, neighborhood and defense agreements with many Arab countries before the Second World War.

Although Lausanne imposed a constraint on Turkish foreign policy, it also represented an order. Therefore, it also allowed the Republic of Turkey to do what was possible within the framework of realistic policies. However, after World War II, especially after Turkey’s entry into NATO, this possibility was further restricted and Turkey’s hands were tied in foreign policy until the fall of the Berlin Wall. This paved the way for a negative perception in the Middle East and North Africa. Turkey will try to change this perception and reorganize its relations with the Middle East and North Africa by making good use of the international opportunities that emerged after the 2000s. However, the developments in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which emerged in 2011 and shook the regional balances, will also disrupt these fresh relations. After these decade-long periods, there is now an opportunity that needs to be utilized properly. Therefore, although it may seem small and ineffective, the search for a safer Middle East through Lausanne in Jordan has been meaningful. There is no doubt that if it is well utilized and sustainable, it will have a domino effect. In this period of regional searches, Turkey, with its soft power tools, should be more active in the Middle East and North Africa and be the locomotive of cooperation, development and solidarity.

We must recognize that Turkey is bigger than its geography.

First published in Turkish at Ordaf. org (https://ordaf.org/lozanin-yuzuncu-yildonumunde-daha-guvenli-bir-ortadogu-arayisi/) 

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