The Making of the Syrian-Turkish Border through the Lenses of Short Distance Mobilities, 1929-1939

By Jordi Tejel Gorgas
Submitted to Session P5075 (Imperial Mobilities, National Boundaries: Emerging Borderlands of the Interwar Middle East, 2018 Annual Meeting
The Levant;
19th-21st Centuries;
During the interwar period, while the Middle Eastern region witnessed an unprecedented intensification of the movement of people, goods and ideas, the new states that emerged out
of the Ottoman Empire developed more or less effective techniques for monitoring and controlling the borders in order to limit such movements. As a result of these two parallel dynamics of globalisation on the one hand and nationalist state-building on the other, and the
inherent contradiction they appear to harbour, border areas constitute a privileged site to observe how the globalizing processes interacted with more exclusivist agendas.
Drawing from primary source data from the Turkish and French Mandate archives as well as Turkish and Syrian press, the paper will analyse this paradox by exploring short distance
mobilities across the Syrian-Turkish border between 1929 and 1939. It will be argued that short distance mobilities played significant roles in the consolidation of borders and the subsequent mobility regimes that prevailed in the interwar Middle East.
This was also when a standing bilateral Frontier Commission began to work on the actual delineation of the Syrian-Turkish boundary. The work of this commission resulted in the dramatic increase of the number of border posts and guards throughout the 1930s. In this sense, the co-operation between French Mandatory and Turkish authorities to solve “common security problems” considerably paved the way for a much more thorough surveillance and regulation of mobility across the Syrian-Turkish border. Through a careful reading of reports and letters elaborated by border authorities, the paper will also pay attention to the quantitative aspect of the short-distance mobility in the region.
As a matter of fact, during the interwar period, thousands of deserters and criminals crossed that border to escape from military service and/or trials. Similarly, smugglers communities with diverse backgrounds came to perceive the border as a resource to secure new economic avenues and also as a way of sustaining trans-border family connections. In response to this challenge, however, Turkish and Syrian elites launched campaigns seeking to “nationalise” border populations and cross-border economy. In sum, far from being alien regions to the emergence of the modern Middle East, the borderlanders who lived on both sides of the Turkish and Syrian border actively took part in the making of both national and trans-regional processes during the interwar period.