The Ambassador in Turkey (Skinner) to the Secretary of State

No. 695

Sir: At the extraordinary session of the Council of the League of Nations of April 15–17, 1935, Dr. Aras proclaimed the Turkish Government’s belief that the demilitarized zones in Turkey are not in harmony with the military preparations threatened in Europe and that should there be a change in the situation established by existing treaties Turkey would be obliged to take appropriate measures for the defence of the Straits.19 The Powers were not receptive and emphatically reminded Dr. Aras that the matter was not on the agenda of that particular meeting of the League Council. This is not the first time that Turkey’s vivacious and peripatetic Foreign Minister has expressed such views. Early in May 1934, he told the Counselor [Page 1035] of the British Embassy that he was going to Geneva and if, as he fully expected, it became clear that the Powers would do nothing in the way of disarming he proposed to announce Turkey’s intention of fortifying the Straits and doing away with the demilitarized zones. At about the same time the Minister spoke in similar terms to the French Ambassador who became somewhat agitated and sent an eleven-page telegram to his Government. The British Admiralty was also understood to have been upset upon hearing of Dr. Aras’ remarks. Before actually leaving for Geneva in May, 1934, however, Dr. Aras spoke more reassuringly, but it was evident that his first statements reflected a thought which was developing in the minds of the Turkish leaders. In the past year this thought has been consolidated. The military temper and preparations in Europe have become more marked and in particular Turkey’s fear of Italy has been given far more point by the latter’s war preparations against Ethiopia. It is not surprising, therefore, that Dr. Aras has again talked at Geneva about the Straits and that the matter was considered at the May and June meetings of the Balkan Entente at Bucarest. On June 25th, Dr. Aras told me that everything that had been said by Turkey on this subject up to the present time was in the nature of exploration and that as yet Turkey’s ideas had not been put in writing.

What are the causes of Turkey’s desire to abolish the demilitarized zones and fortify the Straits? First and foremost should be mentioned the profound impression that the re-arming of Europe has made in Ankara. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at Ankara there is and has been for many months a conviction that when Germany has completed her military preparations there will be war in Europe, and that the possibility of war even sooner as a result of some assassination or other untoward incident is by no means to be excluded. The Turks point out that when they signed the Straits Convention on July 24, 1923, there appeared to be reason to believe that disarmament would be general and seriously carried out. Precisely the contrary has proved to be the reality. In other words, they picture the demilitarization provisions of the Straits Convention as essentially part of a general disarmament movement which has not been carried out. The contention that the Straits Convention was imposed on Turkey, as the Treaty of Versailles was imposed on Germany, is not put forward by Turkey. They state that the Convention embodies what they themselves wanted in 1923. They are perfectly aware of the contrast between the atmosphere of the Paris Conference in 1919 and that of the Lausanne Conference four years later. The circumstances under which the Straits Convention was negotiated are generally known and any failing memory could easily be supplemented by the [Page 1036] Lausanne Procès-Verbaux. What is really worrying the Turks is the defence of their territory first against Italian aggression, whether with or without Bulgarian support, and second, against the many unforeseeable threats which might arise from or in connection with a general European conflict. As previously stated the first of these dangers seems to the Turks more real every day as the Italian aggression against Ethiopia becomes more crudely obvious and the second, if more remote, is hardly less tangible. As for the protection of the Straits, provided for in Article 18 of the Straits Convention, with the examples of Corfu, China and now Ethiopia in mind, the Turks may perhaps be pardoned for preferring to rely upon their own military preparations rather than upon the quite unpredictable activities of Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan as agents of the Council of the League of Nations.

In putting forward the consideration of defence as the first reason of Turkey’s attitude on the Straits question, I am not excluding other reasons. Turkey’s feeling of prestige may be involved and demilitarization of certain Turkish territory by an international agreement may have come to be thought of as humiliating. It is true that from the outset Turkey has done everything possible to minimize the importance of the Straits Commission set up under the Convention, just as the Judicial Advisors provided for in the Lausanne settlement were assisted along the path of a pleasant but innocuous existence. But the importance of the prestige factor can be overemphasized.

It has been said that the Straits Convention does not prevent Turkey from defending the Straits. This statement cannot be accepted without reservation. It is true that with the present disposition of her armed forces just outside the demilitarized zones Turkish troops could reach the Straits within three or four hours and heavy mobile artillery could be placed in position probably within twelve hours. The question at issue is not between a defence of the Straits and no defence at all, but between a more effective and a less effective defence. The point will become clearer if the present disposition of Turkish forces near the Dardanelles and in Thrace is studied with the help of a map showing the demilitarized zones. That disposition, according to the Military Attaché, is as follows:

In the Dardanelles Area (Headquarters at Balikesir):
 4th Division (at Edremid) 6000
 11th Division (at Bursa) 6000
 66th Straits Brigade (Ezine) 2000
 2nd Mountain Brigade (Darica) 2000

In addition to the foregoing, there are 3000 gendarmes in the Çanak area—the equivalent of three picked regiments. Excluding the division at Bursa as being too far away, Turkey is now therefore in a [Page 1037] position to place 13,000 men on the Çanak side of the Straits in a few hours time.

In Thrace:

3rd Corps at Çorlu
61st Division at Tekirdag 10000
(Troops at Çorlu, Tekirdag, Malkare and Kesan).
Division at Lule Burgas 10000
(Troops at Vize, Lule Burgas and Baba Eski).
Cavalry Division at Kirklareli 6000
Zone troops at Çatalca 6000

To the foregoing should be added the 1st Division at Istanbul and the 23rd Division at Ismit, each of 10,000 men.

It is significant that today two-thirds of the Turkish army is stationed at points west of Ankara, whereas a year ago the same proportion was stationed east of the capital. With the settlement of all questions at issue with Persia and the transfer of many Kurds to the west and south-west, the situation in the eastern vilayets has greatly changed. But more important than all else is Turkey’s evident conviction that she has nothing to fear from the Soviets. Are we not justified in the view that this conviction was fully consolidated by the visit of Voroshiloff, Budeny and Soviet staff officers to Turkey in October and November 1933? It will be recalled that these two distinguished Soviet soldiers under the guidance of Turkish military leaders visited Izmir, Balikesir and the Straits region generally. It was shortly after this visit that the first Soviet mines began to arrive in Turkey.

The Turkish navy, as a whole, is hardly to be considered as an efficient fighting force. It has been found impossible to provide the kind of man needed for the yeoman class with the result that much of the work of warrant officers has to be handled by commissioned officers. The gunnery has been poor and the commanders of the new destroyers built in Italy have never felt sufficiently sure of themselves to hold full power trials. To the generalization as to inefficiency of the Turkish navy there is one important exception. The submarine service is first rate. It has been built up by a former German U.-Boat Commander. There are seven submarines of modern design and a submarine base in Artaki Bay. This force would play an important part in the defence of the Straits.

If the demilitarized zones were abolished what steps would the Turkish military leaders take to put the Straits in a better state of defence? The local press has recently furnished some information in this connection in reporting the approval of the Balkan Entente [Page 1038] of certain specific requests of the Turkish Government. That the approval of the Balkan Entente actually was given at the Bucarest meeting of June 20th, and that the requests as set forth in the press, while somewhat vague, nevertheless represent the Turkish position as it has so far been formulated, was confirmed to me by Dr. Aras on June 25th. The requests are the following:

The installation of a certain number of mobile artillery units.
The protection by mobile artillery of certain roads leading to the Dardanelles.
The installation of torpedo tubes along the shore.
The establishment at Çanakkale of two submarine bases with a certain number of submarines.
An aviation base and a base for hydroaeroplanes, presumably somewhere along the Straits.

With the possible exception of point 4 these requests cover approximately the field which any military observer might have anticipated. Presumably the forces now distributed between Balikesir and the neutral zone would be established in permanent barracks nearer the Straits; presumably also manoeuvres and target practice would be carried out reproducing as closely as possible the conditions of an enemy attack upon the Straits. In short, Turkey’s ability to defend the Straits would be increased to an appreciable degree.

There have appeared in the press and elsewhere many statements to the general effect that Turkey has already violated the demilitarization provisions of the Straits Convention. There is no proof to warrant such statements and in the opinion of the foreign Military Attaches in Turkey they are false.

Turning now from the military to the political side, we are immediately confronted by a somewhat confused picture. Several months ago at Geneva Dr. Aras expressed a willingness to drop the matter of rearming the Straits if England would furnish a guarantee to protect the Straits in case of need. It is not entirely clear whether Dr. Aras had in mind that England would act alone or as the signatory of a Mediterranean pact which would include other Mediterranean countries, presumably Italy and France. Unless some one Power were clearly to assume responsibility for protecting the Straits in case of need it is not altogether clear what Turkey would secure that she has not already in large measure got under Article 18 of the Straits Convention. At any rate it is a fact that the British Government was not receptive to Dr. Aras’ suggestion, on the theory apparently that they already had quite enough responsibilities in the international field. However, there is reason to believe that if Turkey should work out some kind of Mediterranean pact the British would be prepared to approve it publicly and thus give it a certain amount of moral support. Naturally, the British are sensitive to anything affecting the Straits. [Page 1039] A traditional attitude and a number of sore points are involved. Furthermore, the British, as Sir Percy Loraine recently told me, are fearful lest if the Turks are allowed to do away with the demilitarized zones, the Germans will raise the question of the demilitarization of the Rhineland and thus challenge not only the Versailles Treaty but the Locarno Pact as well. Presumably, the French have this possibility also in mind, although their attitude on the Straits question has been up to the present somewhat ambiguous. The Soviets are said to have been energetically pushing the Turks in the matter of doing away with the demilitarized zones and the Balkan Entente—Greece, Yugoslavia and Rumania—is also well disposed to the Turkish point of view.

Any change in the regime of the Straits is naturally of great interest to European diplomacy. Old sore points and new diplomatic combinations are very much affected. From the American point of view these are not matters with which we are directly concerned, although in so far as the rearming of the Straits is a phase of the rearming of Europe in general, we cannot but deplore it as a step in the wrong direction. It is hard to see, however, that we can do anything effective about it since Turkey can be influenced only by Powers willing to give some sort of undertaking to take military measures or at least to bring effective political pressure to bear. Our more tangible interest is in the freedom of navigation of the Straits. For the past eleven years even without any provision specifically applying to us the benefits of the Straits Convention, our shipping has received precisely as favorable a treatment as that of any other country. Should the demilitarized zones be abolished and Turkey take over unrestricted control of the Straits, I do not believe that freedom of navigation would in any way be affected in time of peace. In this respect at least, it would clearly not be in Turkey’s interest to establish any regime less generous than that provided in the Straits Convention. In time of war, whether Turkey should be a neutral or a belligerent, we are perhaps justified in believing that a Turkey in unrestricted control of the Straits might not accord the same degree of liberty of navigation as that which is set forth in the Straits Convention. On the other hand, it is but fair to point out that the Straits Convention has not been tested out under war conditions, and that even under its terms Turkey, as a belligerent, is given “full power to take such measures as she may consider necessary to prevent enemy vessels from using the Straits”, although these measures “are not to be of such a nature as to prevent the free passage of neutral vessels”. Article 9 of the Convention is also interesting in this connection. What these provisions might be made to mean in practice we do not know.

From my recent talk with Dr. Aras it is clear that no sudden action will be taken by Turkey in the matter of arming the Straits. There [Page 1040] will doubtless be conversations and negotiations. If, however, Turkey persists in her desire to do away with the demilitarized zones, it seems to me the obvious course for the Powers to follow would be to endeavor to draw as sharp a distinction as possible between the provisions of the Straits Convention having to do with demilitarization and those which deal with freedom of navigation. A serious effort should be made to induce the Turks to incorporate these latter provisions in a new multi-lateral treaty. I feel confident that the Turks would be entirely receptive to such an idea. In fact, Dr. Aras declared before the meeting of the Council at Geneva last April that such changes as Turkey might have to take to protect the Straits would not affect the freedom of the Straits in any way. The question before us Americans, therefore, will probably be something like this: are the demilitarized zones and the International Commission essential to the freedom of navigation of the Straits, or can the principle be satisfactorily safeguarded in other ways?

Respectfully yours,

Robert P. Skinner
  1. See League of Nations, Official Journal, May 1935, pp. 562–563.