Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan walks down the stairs in between soldiers, wearing traditional army uniforms from the Ottoman Empire, as he arrives for a welcoming ceremony for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace in Ankara January 12, 2015. Image Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Damascus: This week, a 100-years ago, Ottoman troops frantically marched out of Damascus, fearing advances of invading troops of the Great Arab Revolt. The First World War was coming to an end, and so was 400 years of Ottoman rule in Syria.

In his memoirs, British Colonel T.E. Lawrence — better known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ — wrote: “When Damascus fell, the Eastern War — probably the whole war — drew to an end.”

Some fired bullets at the retreating soldiers, while others tried protecting them from the mob. Prominent Syrian researcher Amr Al Mallah, a specialist in Ottoman history, told Gulf News that in the countryside of Aleppo, nationalist leader Ebrahim Hananu “forbade the tearing of the Ottoman flag”.

Ottoman army in Syria in a show of force, a year before its departure.

An interim self-appointed government was set up, headed by the Damascus-based Algerian Emir Said Al Djezairi, who was the only notable with a military force at his disposal, capable of restoring order to the city.

Algerian warriors took to the streets, rounding up bandits, expelling troublemakers, and making sure that the Ottomans departed in peace. They buried the dead, rotting on the streets of the future Syrian capital, who had perished because of the war, famine, or numerous plagues that had broken out, due to deteriorating health conditions.

A Christian pastor from Minneapolis who visited Damascus at the time noted: “Starvation is everywhere. The men of Damascus are either in military service or hiding. The women and children are reduced to beggary.” The Damascus police collected no fewer than 70 unidentified bodies daily.

Emir Al Said protected the city’s gold reserves — or what remained of it — and made sure the ancient markets re-opened, and restored electricity to Damascus, which had been cut off completely for an entire year by the Ottomans.

Four days later, he was disposed by Colonel Lawrence, who accused him of taking the law into his own hands and hampering British ambitions in the Levant.

The Hashemite emir who had led the revolt against the Ottomans, Faisal Bin Al Hussain, was crowned king of Syria and ruled the “Arab Government in Damascus” from 1918 until his disposal by the French in 1920.

“When Damascus fell, the Eastern War — probably the whole war — drew to an end.”

 - T.E. Lawrence | British military officer


During his brief rule, Ottoman titles were abolished, and a Syrian currency was established to replace the Turkish lira. The Ottoman schools of medicine and law were re-opened, with the word “Arab” replacing “Ottoman”. They eventually merged to form Damascus University in 1923. In 1919, a few months after the Ottoman evacuation, Syria voted in its first parliamentary elections.

The fall of Aleppo was no less dramatic, said Al Mallah. “The Ottoman Army, led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha, had reached Aleppo, which maintained its loyalty to the Ottomans. Bedouin tribesmen backed out on him, however, entering Aleppo on October 22, 1918. Clashes erupted in the city, and the Ottomans blew up a gunpowder storehouse, to prevent the Bedouins from seizing it.

On October 24, Aleppo notables met at the Grand Serail and created the Council of Ten, headed by the veteran notable Mar’i Pasha Al Mallah, who had formerly served as representative of the city in the Ottoman Parliament. They restored order and state institutions, and prevented looting and chaos. The Ottoman commander eventually withdrew, taking with him the land registrar of the Vilayet [province] of Aleppo, which remains in Ankara to this day.”

Current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan knows this history only too well, and is still bitter at having been ejected from the Arab world, with little respect or ceremony, one hundred years ago. In 1939, his country annexed the Sanjak of Alexandretta, a Syrian coastal plain that included the strategic city of Antioch, causing uproar among Syrian nationalists.

Turkish soldier and Free Syrian Army members display Turkish and Syrian Flags in Afrin town center after Turkish Armed Forces and Free Syrian Army (FSA) took complete control of northwestern Syria's Afrin within the 'Operation Olive Branch'

But the people of Syria never imagined that an entire century later, their grandchildren would see the return of the Ottomans — in different shape and form — to the Syrian northwest.

Since outbreak of the Syrian conflict nearly eight years ago, Erdogan has had his eyes set on an Ottoman comeback in Syria. Like his role model, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, he had a soft spot for Damascus, due to its Umayyad past, with both men often referring to it as ‘Sham Sharif’ or ‘Noble Damascus’.

Ottoman graves

During his frequent pre-2011 trips to Damascus, Erdogan would visit the Umayyad mosque and the Takieh Sulaimanieh on Shukri Al Quwatli Boulevard, where seven of Abdul Hamid’s children are buried, and so are two children of Sultan Abdul Majid I, three children of Sultan Murad V, in addition to other members of the Ottoman Dynasty.

Last to be buried at this site was Bader Al Din Effendi, the youngest son of Abdul Hamid, who died in 1980. The 36th and last Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet VI, was also buried in Damascus in 1926, and so was Aref Hekmat Pasha, the Sultan’s son-in-law and former Ottoman Minister of Education.

These figures all died in exile after the empire collapsed and returning home was forbidden by the Kemalists, prompting their families to choose Damascus as an alternative to Istanbul.

Erdogan takes Ottoman graves very seriously. In February 2015, he ordered his troops to dig up the remains of Sulaiman Shah, the grandfather of the empire’s founder, who was buried in Syria.

Erdogan’s Syria policy 2003-2011

Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman policy calls for the Turkish intellectual, political, economic, and social influence throughout former territories of the Ottoman Empire.

In 2015, he received Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a palace constructed in Ottoman spirit, surrounded with Ottoman iconography and calligraphy.

He toyed with the idea of reinstituting Ottoman Turkish in schools, and announced that by 2030, Turkey would have reached the influence and power of the Ottoman Empire during its heyday. He also ordered that the Turkish National Anthem be played on modified drums and brass instruments, making it sound imperial rather than presidential, reminding people of their Ottoman past.

Trade was boosted with the Arab world, with Erdogan speaking before Arab investors in Damascus, saying: “Work with us, and we will extract milk even from the male goat.”

Trying to create what he called a “regional Schengen”, he lifted visa regulations with six Arab countries, promoted the dubbing of Turkish soap operas into Arabic, and bankrolled a mega-production on the life of Sultan Abdul Hamid starring Syrian and Egyptian actors, aired on Arab satellite networks in 2010.

Post-2011

When the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011, Erdogan broke off relations with Damascus and put his full weight behind the opposition, expecting a speedy collapse of the Syrian regime. At one point, rebels supported by Turkey controlled entire chunks of land in strategic ex-Ottoman territory, like the countryside of Damascus, the vicinity of Hama, and Aleppo.

After Russia entered the Syrian war in September 2015to prop up the embattled regime of Bashar Al Assad, Erdogan realised that he could not keep backing rebels in these pockets — but if he pulled the right strings with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, he might get something else in return. In 2016, he looked the other way as Russian troops re-took eastern Aleppo, and in turn, they did not stop his army from crossing into Syria earlier that summer, overrunning the border cities of Jarablus and Azaz, and the inland one of Al Bab.

Earlier this year, in exchange for eradicating Kurdish separatists in Afrin, west of the Euphrates River, Erdogan gave up on Turkish backed rebels in East Ghouta.

Jarablus Azaz, , Afrin and Al Bab are all now considered part of a “Turkish zone” in Syria, dubbed by some as a “Turkish protectorate”. The regime in Damascus insists this is an illegal occupation that needs to end. Turkish flags now fly in Jarablus, after all, while schoolbooks teach Ottoman history in Azaz, and the Turkish lira is accepted currency in Al Bab. Electricity to all these provinces comes from Turkey, and so does their police force and their monthly salaries. 
More recently at a summit in Sochi, Erdogan and Putin agreed to co-manage the city of Idlib in the Syrian northwest, where 12 Turkish military posts have existed since 2017. The city would be sparred a regime military assault, and the 70,000 members of the armed opposition — backed by Turkey – will charged with cleansing it of extremists like Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, and even Daesh.