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Troops to Turkey? The ‘Chanak Affair’ of 1922 and Its Relevance Today

Should Canada send its armed forces to war in Turkey? The increasingly violent civil war in Syria means this could become a real question, for two reasons. First, the fighting is leading to confrontations between Turkish and Syrian troops along their shared border. Turkey is a NATO ally, and Canada is pledged to assist Turkey if things escalate. Second, Canadian forces might be based in Turkey to assist if a military intervention is launched to protect civilians in Syria. Although debate on such an intervention has been somewhat muted by the U.S. election (neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama has addressed it honestly), this may change after November 6. If the U.S. begins to look seriously at establishing no-fly zones or ‘safe havens’ in Syria, Canada will be called on to participate.

Curiously, in the autumn of 1922, the Canadian Government was confronted with a similar question of whether to aid an ally in Turkey. The British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, sought Canadian support for his decision to keep British troops in Chanak (today Cannakale), a town on the Dardanelles. The British troops were threatened by the Turkish army, led by Ataturk, which had just forced the evacuation of the defeated Greek army that had invaded Anatolia three years earlier. British, Greek and French forces had occupied large chunks of Turkish territory at the end of the First World War, and remained there pursuant to the Treaty of Sèvres—a largely imperialist initiative that was forced on a defeated and weakened Ottoman regime, but was never accepted by Turkish nationalist forces. Lloyd George was expecting the ‘Dominions’, including Canada, to support the decision to defend Chanak and to promise troops if the need arose.

“Although the crises of 1922 and 2012 seem worlds apart, a bright line connects them in at least one respect: namely, the danger of committing to a military strategy divorced from a credible political goal.”

At the time, an independent Canadian foreign policy barely existed. Canada had joined an ‘Imperial War Cabinet’ from 1916-18, and its successor, the ‘Imperial Peace Cabinet’, in 1920, but the British saw these as purely consultative bodies. Though it had joined the League of Nations as an independent nation, Canada had neither a foreign service nor a foreign affairs minister. Lloyd George was thus confident of Canadian support.

Yet the new Liberal Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, refused to provide the expected support. Knowing little of the dispute in far-off Anatolia, distrustful of British intentions and mindful that Canadians were weary of war, Mackenzie King insisted that Parliament would have to be consulted—and as it was not in session, he delayed. Notwithstanding criticism by Arthur Meighan’s Tories that he was being disloyal and unpatriotic, King refused to be rushed.

In the event, the crisis passed. Lloyd George’s enthusiasm for yet another attempt to deny the Turks full self-determination was his downfall: his coalition government fell apart and his French allies deserted him. Several months later, the Treaty of Lausanne required the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Turkey. King had made the right decision—and had taken a first step towards an independent Canadian foreign policy.

Some aspects of the ‘Chanak Affair’ of 1922 resonate even today. A case in point is the mix of political, military and humanitarian arguments deployed to justify the use of force. In 1922, Canadians were told that a British presence in Turkey was needed to maintain stability in a volatile region; to uphold international law (i.e. rights of passage through the Dardenelles); and to protect Greeks and other minorities threatened by Turkish nationalist forces. Today, interventions abroad require legal justification—which is readily available if Canada were to aid in Turkey’s self-defense but only doubtfully so were we to contribute to a non-UN sanctioned military intervention in Syria to protect civilians. This fact suggests that the defense of Turkish territory will figure prominently in the justification of any intervention that does occur if it lacks UN authority.

Second, the assertion of a truly independent Canadian foreign policy—at least with respect to deploying troops abroad—seems no less difficult today than it was 90 years ago. Indeed, it may even be more so: although Mackenzie King refused to support the British in 1922, today Canada would find it very hard to stand aside from a NATO mission either to aid Turkey or to protect civilians in Syria (or both). Of course, the government, backed by public opinion, might feel this is the right thing to do. But if doubts existed, our alliances and our unwillingness to disappoint the U.S. (except in extreme cases such as Iraq) would almost certainly outweigh them (as happened with Afghanistan).

Finally, although the crises of 1922 and 2012 seem worlds apart, a bright line connects them in at least one respect: namely, the danger of committing to a military strategy divorced from a credible political goal. What was really at issue in 1922 was the doubtful rationale for the continued presence of British troops in Turkey; their only ‘right‘ to be there was pursuant to the discredited Treaty of Sèvres. Today, a limited deployment to aid in the defense of Turkey’s borders is a clear enough strategy. However, a humanitarian intervention to defend civilians in Syria is much less so, since it is becoming increasingly clear that even as the fall of the Assad regime will remove one threat, it is likely to unleash others. Even a limited intervention (no-fly zones, for example) that has the effect of aiding the rebel forces risks being perceived as a hostile act by all those who fear for their future in the region if a Sunni autocracy emerges in Syria (as a Shi’a one has emerged in Iraq).

The only hope for Syria is a negotiated agreement with international guarantees that assure security and fair representation to all ethnic and religious groups. It is this goal that Canada should be energetically working towards. And if in the meantime our leaders are faced with the question of committing Canada’s armed forces in the eastern Mediterranean, we can only hope that, like King in 1922, they refuse to be rushed into doing so.

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