The gateway to Idlib goes via Cilica

In this article Ghassan Kadi, our Middle East analyst, looks at the historical reasons that put Syria in a vulnerable position with Turkey. According to his analysis, the buck stops at the long forgotten issue of the Cilician Gates. Ghassan has been warning about this issue for some years now.


The root of the military conflict in Idlib is not something that arose from contemporary times. And with all due respect to Sputnik, the cause did not start 80 years ago.

Actually, the seed of the conflict was sown five centuries ago. Its germination could have been prevented a century ago. However, the colonialists had other plans. They implemented them when Syria was weak and unable to exercise its own right of self-determination.

The Armenian Genocide is believed to be the biggest atrocity perpetrated by Turkey against its neighbours. A good, realistic look, however, reveals that as brutal as it was, the Armenian Genocide almost pales into insignificance when one considers the on-going genocide of Syrian people. What literally adds insult to injury is that the latter is not even recognised and spoken or written about.

I am neither claiming to try to change the course of history in this regard, but it is about time that this very important issue is brought to the surface.

Among all articles written about the war on Syria, I have not seen a single article that addressed the issue of Syria’s natural defences. And, when I finally wrote something to that effect four years ago. The article received a huge backlash and criticism.

It is time that this subject is revisited for those who want to understand and appreciate the importance of the extremely crucial and vital issue of national security for Syria.

What separates Syria from Anatolia are not the political borders drawn nearly a century ago and which, through history, have moved many times. What separates them is the mighty chain of the Taurus Mountains, extending from as far east as its junction with the Zagros Mountains in North East Iraq to as far west as the Turkish coastal city of Antalya.

Map of Taurus Mountains against the existing Syrian-Turkish borderline. This geographical relief map shows how deep the Taurus Mountains are now inside Turkish territory .

It is a rugged, virtually impenetrable, chain of mountains of highly strategic importance. The most significant section of it is the central region – north of the city of Adana.

That central region is of most significance because it has a natural gate that separates north from south; albeit a narrow chain of gates, the Cilician Gates.

The Cilician Gates form a natural gorge that is more than 100 kms long, and have historically been the only access between the north and south, Turkey and Syria to be exact. Advances in technology and means of transport have thus far been unable to change this fact.

Section of the 100 km long Cilician Gates

The Cilician Gates (also which is known as Gülek Pass) is the famous and main pass through the Taurus mountains from the Anatolian plateau to the Cilician plains. It is the most well known way to reach Adana and it has been used since the antiquity. Alexander the Great or Saint Paul are among the most famous travellers across this highly scenic pass.

To shed some importance on its historic significance, I will not use my own words. Here is some of what Wikipedia has to say:

“The southern end of the Cilician gates is about 44 km north of Tarsus and the northern end leads to Cappadocia.Yumuktepe (modern Mersin), which guards the Adana side of the gateway, with 23 layers of occupation, is at 4,500 BCE, one of the oldest fortified settlements in the world. The ancient pathway was a track for mule caravans, not wheeled vehicles. The Hittites, Greeks, Alexander the Great, the Romans, Byzantines and Sasanians, Mongols, and the Crusaders have all traveled this route during their campaigns. The Bible testifies that Saint Paul of Tarsus and Silas went this way as they went through Syria and Cilicia. The Book of Galatians speaks of the cities of Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium – cities visited by Paul on his first journey (Acts 14; Gal. 1:2), with the purpose of strengthening their churches, at the beginning of the second preaching journey (Acts 15:40-41).

The distance from the Anatolian plateau to the Cilician plain is about 110 kilometres (68 mi). In ancient times, this was a journey of nearly five days. Saint Paul spoke, according to the Bible, about being in “dangers from rivers” and “dangers from robbers” (2 Cor. 11:26). This may explain why one of the world’s oldest fortresses was built at the southeastern end of the Cilician Gates around 4500 BCE. The Army of the Ten Thousand, Alexander the Great before the Battle of Issus, Paul of Tarsus on his way to the Galatians, and part of the army of the First Crusade all passed through the Cilician Gates. The Crusaders allied themselves with the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia.[4]

Above the Gates to the southwest is Gülek Kalesi (Armenian: Kuklak; Arab: Kawlāk), a large fortification of considerable antiquity that retains evidence of Byzantine and Arab periods of occupation, but is primarily an Armenian construction of the 12th and 13th centuries.[5] Its circuit walls and towers at the south and west cover a distance of over 450 metres. Below the Cilician Gates is the medieval Armenian fortress of Anahşa with its large horseshoe-shaped towers and three impressive entrances.[6] Also in the vicinity of the Gates is a fort built in the 1830s by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt during his Syrian campaign against the Ottomans.[7]

When German engineers were working on the Baghdad Railway between Istanbul and Baghdad, they were unable to follow the steep-pitched, narrow, and tightly winding ancient track through the Gates. The series of viaducts and tunnels they built are among the marvels of railroad engineering;[8] this route actually follows an ancient secondary road southeast from Pozantı, below Anahşa Dağı with its impressive medieval Armenian fortress.[5] The railroad was opened in 1918; the narrow-gauge working line moved Ottoman troops and war material to the Mesopotamian front in the closing months of World War I.” (For footnotes, please visit the original article)

The big viaduct near Hacikiri of the German-built Baghdad Railway. The line was opened in October 1918; it was heavily used for military purpose since it became the lifeline of the Mesopotamian front in 1917-18 | Malcolm Peakman, 1999

For centuries and throughout the ages, the Taurus Mountains were not only the geographical border/barrier between Turkey and Syria, but the political one as well. Whichever power was able to control the Cilician Gates had the upper hand.

As I have previously written in the article referred to above, upon the Muslim Conquest of Syria Byzantine

“Emperor Heraclius ordered his troops to retreat and evacuate the areas that are to the south of the Taurus Mountains and east of Tarsus; which is at the western end of the mountain chain as it bends south towards the Mediterranean.

What Heraclius made was a very painful decision, but one that was pragmatic and strategic. He left Syria and secured the southern border of what was left of his empire by a mighty natural barrier; The Taurus Mountains.

At the height of the Muslim Empire (i.e., the Umayyad and Abbasid eras), the Taurus Mountains were breached especially in its eastern regions, where gaps are more abundant and the Muslim Empire advanced to as far as Armenia. But as the Abbasid rule fell apart and the Muslim Empire was subdivided, the Taurus Mountains once again resumed their natural “role” as the borderline between Syria and Turkey. This is seen best during the period of the Hamadani Principality”.

“Those borders remained unbreached until a counterattack came from the north this time. That was when the Ottomans invaded and captured Syria in 1516 AD. Syrian regions south of the Taurus Mountains fell under Turkish rule back then, and they remain as such ever since.

During the Ottoman rule, the question of borders between Syria and Turkey was non-existent as Syria recoiled under the iron fist rule of Istanbul. The question did not arise again till after the end of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.”

As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the allied forces had the upper hand and pushed Turkish troops back north as far as the Taurus Mountains and tried to go beyond. The map below shows how the 1916 Sykes-Picot Accord divided the Fertile Crescent between a British-controlled area and a French-controlled area.

The Fertile Crescent as divided by Sykes-Picot

However, following the Franco-Turkish war and the Cilicia Peace Treaty which was not implemented, the French advance did not move up north as planned in Sykes-Picot plan. It stopped at the Taurus Mountains with France in control of the Cilicia Gates.

The Sykes-Picot Accord not only split up the Fertile Crescent, but when France decided to give Syria’s region of Cilicia to Turkey, it actually kept Turkey in total possession of the mountain range. The current international northern borders of Syria with Turkey are now way south of the Taurus Mountains. Moreover, the actual Cilician Gates are now within the territory of Turkey when geographically, strategically and historically they have always constituted the border between the two.

It is easy to find references to those historic and forgotten facts, once again even on Wikipedia. What followed the Franco-Turkish war was the 1921 Treaty of Ankara. According to Wikipedia, “this treaty changed the Syria–Turkey border set by the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres to the benefit of Turkey, ceding it large areas of the Aleppo and Adana vileyets. From west to east, the cities and districts of AdanaOsmaniyeMarashAintabKilisUrfaMardinNusaybin, and Jazirat ibn Umar (Cizre) were consequently ceded to Turkey”

The French well knew the strategic importance of the Cilician Gates,. Even though France and Turkey were on opposite sides of the WWI fence and fought each other after WWI ended, France made a decision that was destined to keep Syria vulnerable. The implications of that decision did not come to fruition until March 2011 – nearly a whole century later.

This is a serious, weak underbelly that modern-day Syria had to contend with. It constituted a weapon in the hands of Turkey, ready to be launched at any time of Turkey’s choosing.

Had the Cilician Gates not been in the hands of Turkey in 2011, Erdogan would have never been able to move Jihadi fighters and heavy equipment into Syria.

France made a further move and donated the Iskenderun region to Turkey. Officially, this is the only Syrian territory that Syria considers to be occupied and demands its return to Syria.

Whilst it is true that the “Anti-Syrian Cocktail” attacked Syria from all directions, the major flux of terrorists came from the Turkish side. And now, a few years after cleaning up the porous western borders with Lebanon at Qalamoun and the southern borders with Jordan near Daraa, the remaining stick in the mud is the north.

The Cilician Gates are Syria’s Achilles heel. They are more strategically important for Syria than Crimea is for Russia.

This is not to encourage a call for nationalist sentiments and “liberating” motherland soil, irrespective of the human cost involved. I am not calling for extending the current conflict between Syria and Turkey either. But what can a nation do when even peace time means that its defences have already been breached even before any war starts? Why should Syria accept to have its neck lying on Turkey’s chopping board? How can Syria sleep in peace when the burglar is inside with the key in his hand? Even worse, how can Syria sleep in peace when everyone has forgotten that the burglar is already inside and wielding a machete?

This is a very serious breach of national security, especially given the fact that Turkey has been occupying Syrian territory ever since the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks in the battle of Marj Dabek in August 1516.

Cilicia continues to have a significant Syrian population, even in cities as far west as Mersin. I have visited and personally spoken to many of them and listened to the stories of ethnic discrimination made against them. The Turks refer to them as “Fallaheen”, which means “peasants”. The term is used in a derogatory manner to humiliate them.

I have crossed by car the Cilicia Gates many times in both directions, and anyone who has done the same would know that there is perhaps no better natural defence system that any other country has, provided of course that it is in the right hands. On one of those trips in the 1980s, I was in Turkey on business traveling by car from Ankara to Adana. My Turkish companion, Servet, was a nationalist zealot who believed that Turkey’s legitimate borders are those of the Ottoman Empire at its zenith. I tried to explain to him gently the historic and geographic significance of the Cilician Gates, but to no avail. It was spring time, and in spring the Syrian landscape is carpeted with beautiful wild flowers. As we crossed the gates, the change in landscape and vegetation was so obvious. We were still many kilometres north of Adana when I saw a huge patch of flowers. I asked Servet to stop the car and he did. I picked a chamomile flower and asked him if he knew what it was. He didn’t. I said to him: “This is a chamomile flower, welcome to Syria.”

It is most brazen and appalling to see Erdogan sending troops inside the international borders of Syria when he already has an internationally-recognized mandate of rule over a huge stretch of Syrian soil.

A fair resolution should be based on drawing the border line at the peaks of the mountain range and have the gates split in half with the northern half for Turkey and the southern half for Syria.

Given the fact that all borders between nations have changed, ultimately, the Cilicia and Iskenderun provinces will one day return to their rightful owners. But whilst Palestinians are rightfully asking for their rights, whilst the Armenians seek acknowledgment of their genocide, whilst official Syria wants to restore sovereignty over the Golan heights and the Iskenderun province, to keep the issue of Cilicia and its Gates alive, Syria must never leave it out of the long list of legitimate demands.

Slightly edited for grammatical reasons – TS

* Ghassan Kadi, a native of Beirut, Lebanon is a political analyst of Middle East affairs and longtime contributor to this blog. He is a member of an old patriotic family with both parents born in Syria, and with family equally spread across both countries, who felt he could better express himself more freely, tackling highly contentious subjects, by using a pseudonym. Ghassan is the author of the definitive work, An Epic of Integrity: The Chronicles of the War On Syria. Visit Intibah and Ghassan Kadi’s website.

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