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Remembering the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire

July 23, 2020 at 9:30 am

Signing of Treaty of Lausanne [Wikipedia]

What: The dissolution and division of the Ottoman Empire and its former territories through the Treaty of Lausanne, leading to the establishment of the modern Republic of Turkey

When: 24 July, 1923

Where: Turkey

What happened?

By the early 1900s, the Ottoman Empire had long been decaying and declining from decades – over a century, in fact – of strategic blunders, territorial losses, delays in administrative reforms, slow technological innovation and rampant corruption. Once the foremost power spanning the Middle East and Europe, the empire, had been surpassed by its European colonial neighbours, these decaying factors that had been hindering the Ottoman state had earned it the nickname “the sick man of Europe”.

Despite various attempts at reform by later sultans such as Abdulmecid I with his Tanzimat reforms, Abdul Hamid II with his efforts at exerting direct control over the state’s affairs, and the secular Young Turk Revolution in 1908, the Ottoman Empire had already fallen too far behind its European rivals. This finally culminated in the Ottoman’s entry into World War I in 1914, led by its ally Germany, which resulted in the military defeat of the centuries-old empire on multiple fronts in the Middle East. This caused Ottoman troops to withdraw from its last remaining territories in the Levant, having already lost its European territories in the nationalist Balkan uprisings prior to the war.

Following the British, French, Greek and Italian invasions and the occupation of Anatolia after the war, the remains of the Ottoman army – led by the military leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – then fought and drove the European colonial powers out of this last bastion of Ottoman control.

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Much of the discourse around the shaping of the modern Middle East and its artificial borders is centred around the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a deal brokered by Britain and France to carve up the territories of the then-dying Ottoman Empire amongst themselves. Many often neglect, however, the legacy of the Treaty of Lausanne which dealt with the borders and the future of the successive Turkish Republic.

In this peace treaty – which was the result of the seven-month-long conference in the Swiss city of Lausanne – Turkey officially relinquished all claims over its former Arab territories, recognised Britain’s annexation of Cyprus and Italy’s annexation of the Dodecanese islands, and opened up the Turkish Straits of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus to international shipping. In return, the allied powers abandoned efforts to intervene within Turkey’s borders, dropped their demands for an autonomous Kurdistan and more territory for Armenia, and did not impose any control on Turkey’s finances or military forces.

The Treaty of Lausanne effectively gave international legitimacy to the Republic of Turkey after the Ottoman Empire was no more. It was signed on this day – 24 July, 1923 – 97 years ago, by Turkey, Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Greece, Romania and Yugoslavia, and came into effect on 6 August the following year.

What happened next?

Although the Lausanne Treaty has formed the foundation of the status quo over the past century for Turkey’s place in the region, it has been subject to debate in recent years, and has partially reignited tensions between the republic and neighbours such as Greece.

While Kemalists and Turkish secularists reportedly see the deal as the product of its time and as an indisputable achievement by Ataturk in securing Turkey’s future and stability, other political camps have been questioning the viability of the treaty, and essentially view it as a limiting factor obstructing the country’s geopolitical interests.

The argument of the latter camp, which has largely shaped contemporary Turkish foreign policy in many ways, is that the Turkish delegation at the time of the treaty’s signing had recently emerged from the Turkish War of Independence and recaptured Anatolia, resulting in them overestimating their gains from the treaty. This allegedly led to a blunder that the delegation overlooked or thought unnecessary, namely that there were a number of Mediterranean islands remarkably close to Turkey that had not been bartered for, and were allowed to be taken by Greece.

Border violations have subsequently resulted from this, with one example being in 1996, when Turkish commandos set foot on an inhabited island with a size of 40,000 square metres, located a mere seven kilometres from the Turkish coastline. Another example was in January this year, when it was revealed that Greece had illegally militarised 16 of its islands in the Aegean Sea, and then refused Turkey’s request for them to be disarmed.

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In a speech in Ankara in 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the controversy over the strategic islands and expressed regret over Greece’s possession of them after the treaty. “Look now to the Greek islands. We gave away these very near islands. Is it a victory? Those places were ours. Why? Those seated at the table were not up to challenge. Because they could not deliver, now we are having problems,” Erdogan stated.

Turkey’s proposed solution to the issue is to have an update or amendment of the treaty, using the argument that the treaty has indeed been revised and updated twice in the past – firstly in 1936, when ownership of the Turkish Straits was returned to Turkey, and secondly in 1939, when the province of Hatay, formerly Iskenderun in French-controlled Syria, was returned to Turkey following a referendum by its inhabitants.

This reasoning was again applied by Erdogan in an interview with Greek media outlet Kathimerini in 2017, prior to his trip to Athens, in which he urged for the treaty’s revision by stating: “First and foremost, the Lausanne Treaty does not only encompass Greece but the entire region. And because of that alone – I think that over time all treaties need a revision – the Lausanne Treaty, in the face of the recent developments, needs a revision if you will.”

This was then rebutted by Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, who stressed that it: “Defines the territory and the sovereignty of Greece and of the European Union (EU), and this treaty is non-negotiable.”

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Another more neutral aspect of the treaty was the agreement that all religious minorities should be able to have their own religious and educational institutions, while being allowed to elect their own religious leaders. This has not been honoured by Greece, however, as it has constantly blocked its Turkish Muslim minority of 150,000 from electing their own leaders and imams since the 1990s, with the state picking them for the community instead.

At a time when Turkey is once again asserting its rights and role in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as battling for its relations with the EU, the effects of the Treaty of Lausanne can be felt to this day. With its expiry date on 24 July, 2023, it will set the precedent for Turkey’s new regional role, and its Vision 2023 will mark a century since the end of the Ottoman Empire.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.