Historical Observations: The Future of Constantinople and the Straits in January 1919

The victorious allies and associated powers: Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, gathered in Paris to impose their peace terms on the Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria in 1919.

On January 30, 1919, the British delegation met to formulate their plans regarding the future of Constantinople and the Straits. Britain wished "to secure the free passage between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea for ships of all descriptions, whether in peace or war with a free port at Constantinople." Trade was an important factor in Britain's economic interests in the Near and Middle East. Constantinople was the gateway to trade with the Black Sea.

The British admiralty opposed any one power having total authority over Constantinople and wanted the city to stay Turkish but under international control. There was the question of Constantinople becoming a United States mandate under the League of Nations which the British admiralty opposed because the Americans could use it as an excuse to have a strong naval presence in the Mediterranean. The admiralty argued that from a strategical perspective the mandate had to be opposed at all costs.

Assigning a mandate for Constantinople and the Straits to France, Italy, and Greece and leaving the Ottoman government under the control of European powers was dismissed.  

The meeting reached five conclusions with my comments at the end of each conclusion.

"(1). representatives at the meeting strongly favored the mandatory principle of the League of Nations being applied to the guardianship of Constantinople and Straits, the charge being confided to a Great Power such as the United States." It would seem that the views of the admiralty were ignored by the majority of the British delegates. However, Britain wanted an international body to oversee "the control of waterways and ports [with] territory on both sides of the Straits and of the Sea of Marmara, sufficiently large to guarantee the security of the waters against external attack."  No identifiable enemy was mentioned.

"(2). The international authority must be altogether independent of any local sovereignty." Once this body came into existence what would happen if the authority of the international body clashed with that of the Sultan's government? if so, how would their differences be resolved?

(3). The authority of this international body was to be independent of the Sultan's government. It raised the question of what territory would remain under the Sultan to maintain his authority in his empire. After all, his capital had been under allied control since November 1918.

(4). "The executive authority of the international body controlling the zone of the Straits might with advantage be vested in a High Commissioner chosen either from among its members for years, or added by the direct nomination of the League of Nations. The High Commissioner would be assisted (a) by the international body which would include a Turkish representative, and which would act as his Council in controlling and supervising the passage of the Straits, and all ports, quays, docks, wharves, buoys and lights, and in constituting and maintaining an adequate area in Constantinople as a free port (b) by local councils (municipal and other) representative of the inhabitants of the towns and districts included in the international zone, such Councils participating in the administration and thus affording guarantees for the due maintenance of the civil and religious liberty and interests of the Turks, Greeks and other populations."

Several questions arise from the point above. From which nation would the High Commissioner be chosen? How would this international body come into existence? Would the international body be composed of individuals from the major powers or major personalities from Constantinople, or a combination of both? Who would appoint the executive authority? how would the free port operate in Constantinople? What would be the role of the Turkish representative on this international body? Would the Turkish delegate represent the Sultan or the international body? How would the local councils function in this international entity? Would each ethnic group have its representative council, or would there be an overarching Council representative all ethnicities? These are questions that could have formed the basis for further discussion between Britain and its allied partners.  (5). "It should be stipulated clearly that no bridge or tunnel may be constructed across the Bosphorus or Dardanelles."

These were all interesting conclusions that were never implemented.


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