Andrei Tirtan considers the hopes Arab leaders invested in Turkey at Lausanne, and the lessons learned from the shattering of their hopes.

Andrei recently completed a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.

In November 1922 Arab delegates of a “bruised and oppressed Orient” poured into Lausanne to reclaim their “rights, liberty and life.” [1] Expectations were high. Even Emir Shakib Arslan (1869-1946), leader of the Syrian-Palestinian Congress, who rarely crossed the lines of prudent optimism, hoped that the 1922-3 Conference would not permit the furtherance of the western work of colonization under the guise of mandates. Nor would he stand by and let it.

With France and Britain rushing to secure international support for the mandates, Arab failures left two options for derailing Western designs remaining: Pan-Islamism and the Turks. Before the conference, Arab (Syrian-Palestinian, primarily) efforts to obstruct the mandates had focused on direct negotiations: petitions to the League of Nations (613 of them concerning Syria and Palestine alone) and appeals to this or that major power (e.g. Italy).[2] Recent Turkish military victories gave pro-Turkish feelings new energy. So much so, in fact, that articles and declarations either warned that Turkey would soon drive the French from Syria or called for Turkish mandates. Turkey became a model for liberation, national regeneration and ‘Oriental awakening’. 

Arab delegations returned with promises of support from their coreligionists in Ankara and Constantinople. But the question remained: to what degree was Kemalist Turkey willing to uphold the Arab cause? With complete Arab exclusion from the Conference, dependence on Turkish success elicited intensified forms of support. This support took Pan-Islamic forms. Division among Orientals was seen as a crime against the homeland and against Islam.

At this decisive hour, Turks, Arabs, Egyptians, Persians, etc. must unite to escape the danger which threatens them, to make triumph the cause of Islam, and by implication, all the national causes of their various countries.

La Tribune d’Orient, 20 January 1923.

In January 1923 the head of the Turkish delegation, Ismet İnönü (1884-1973), made a categorical statement: The Grand National Assembly had no claims on the territories of the former Ottoman Empire beyond Turkish borders, and the fate of territories exclusively inhabited by Arab majorities had to be regulated according to the will, freely expressed, of the local populations. Although it made a great impression, Arslan remarked on the difference between Ismet’s statement and the Turkish National Pact (cessation vs referendum). The representative of the Hedjaz in London, Naji al-Assil (1895-1963), assured Arslan that owing to Turkey’s difficulties with Britain, the wording of the statement was designed to leave a loophole so that Arabs could decide for themselves whether to join the Turkish sphere. [3]


Days afterwards a high tea was organised by Arslan’s Syrian-Palestinian delegation. The guests at this celebration of Oriental solidarity included Egyptian delegation leader Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid (1872-1963), Iraqi Minister of Defense Ja’far Pasha al-Askari (1885-1936), Dr Naji al-Assil as well as the Indian revolutionary Maulana Barkatullah (1854-1927). Speeches addressed the “necessity to establish a single Oriental front against western encroachment” (Arslan) and the need for “a most complete and fraternal union between Arabs and Turks” (Barkatullah).

The Arab leaders had reservations, especially regarding Article XVI of the Treaty, which crucially did not indicate in whose favour the Turks were renouncing their rights and titles south of the Turkish border. This represented yet another step back from the National Pact. In Arab eyes Turkey had to hold firm in the negotiations. Should they fail, a so-called “Muslim world” was prepared to react. In fact, the Afghan representative in Ankara declared that if the clauses imposed by the Allies were contrary to the National Pact, prolonging the war, then the Anglo-Afghan Treaty would be scrapped.     

In early February another secret meeting took place in the rooms of the Egyptian delegation at the Hotel Cecil in Lausanne. There al-Assil claimed that he was authorized to propose that if Turkey were prepared to recognize Sharif Husayn as king of the Arabian Peninsula, the latter would establish an alliance with Turkey and launch an offensive against Britain. [4] Al-Askari approved and offered Iraqi support, implying the abandonment of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty.


On 4 February a small group which included al-Assil and Arslan approached Ismet with the proposal. Despite the problem of Mosul and the issue of recognizing Sharif Husayn as king, a matter which Ismet viewed as strictly an Arab affair, the latter agreed. Five days later Ankara recognized the independence of Arab countries (the Hedjaz, Syria, Palestine and Iraq) and a little-known series of telegrams between al-Assil and Sharif Husayn appears to have validated the agreement regarding a united Turco-Arab front. 

With “Plan B” secured, in April 1923 Arab attention returned to Lausanne. Fears regarding Art. XVI were not assuaged. The Syrian-Palestinian delegation pressured Ismet and Ankara to force the amending of the article before the conclusion of the Conference. Failure went contrary to the provisions of the National Pact and would have dealt “a mortal blow to the hopes of all those who turn[ed] their eyes towards Angora”.[5] 

170 days of nerve-racking negotiations brought the materialization of the Arab’s worst fears. A Turkish agreement on the new treaty entailed the recognition of British and French mandates. The lesson was learned. When it came to defending their interests, the Arabs could only rely on themselves:

Egyptians and Arabs are clearly dissatisfied with the peace of Lausanne, which pains them because it sacrifices them on the altar of Turkish nationalism. […] This sacred egoism is easily conceived; what cannot be conceived is the way in which the Turks played their Egyptian and Arab co-religionists who had placed in them all their confidence and who could not doubt either their assistance or their promises, or, above all, their National Pact. Will the treaty of Lausanne actually bring peace to the Muslim Orient?

La Tribune d’Orient, 10 August 1923.

FEATURE IMAGE: SHAKIB ARSLAN, SOURCE: Family Archives of Mohammed Daoud, Courtesy of Umar Ryad.


[1] La Tribune d’Orient, 28 Nov. 1922.

[2] Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 83.

[3] Andrei Tirtan, “Contrasting Visions and Purposes of Muslim Unity: Pan-Islamism(s) and Muslim Political Activism in Interwar Europe ” (PhD. diss. KU Leuven, 2020), 162.

[4] Joshua Teitelbaum,“”Taking Back” the Caliphate: Sharif Husayn, Mustafa Kemal, and the Ottoman Caliphate,’ Die Welt des Islams 40.3 (2000): 412-24(421).

[5] La Tribune d’Orient, 5 Jul. 1923.