We should avoid pouring oil on these ethnic fires
Iskenderun. Now there's a faraway place of which we know little. But it wasn't always so. Three-quarters of a century ago, in 1938, Iskenderun was, for a moment, front-page news in serious papers. The historic city and surrounding area became a cause of international concern when France lopped it off from Syria and gifted it to Turkey.
The city dates back to 333BC. It was built on the instructions of the Macedonian leader Alexander the Great, who had recognised its strategic significance, offering access to a region centred on the rich city of Aleppo – now being fought over again 2,347 years later.
(Speaking of time-scales and Macedonia: any assumption that the Macedonian question is a thing of the distant past might be counteracted if you chanced into the company of Macedonians and made the mistake of addressing them as Greeks.)
Armenian Christians and Alawites were ethnically cleansed from Iskenderun in the 1930s by Turkish forces. The Christians were seen both as too well-disposed towards Christian Europe and even more infidel that the Alawites – the minority tendency within Islam from which the dictator Bashir Assad is drawn.
The status of Iskenderun may now be re-emerging as an issue, not only for historical reasons, but because it provides a route for jihadist fighters headed for Aleppo. This paper carried a story with accompanying picture last week of jihadists about to chop off the hand of a suspected thief before a crowd in a square in Aleppo.
A year after the area's status had been set, for the time being anyway, by its seizure from Syria, in 1939, by which stage its ethnic mix had significantly changed, a referendum produced an Iskenderun majority for Turkish rule. On this basis, Turkey argued that the annexation was in line with the democratic will.
The parallels with Crimea today are striking. A referendum on the peninsula's future is planned for next weekend. Pro-Russian "paramilitary groups" (aka Russian soldiers) have emerged to encourage Putin's desired outcome.
There's no need for speculation about the impact of the poll. Campaigning will inevitably be based on the competitive mobilisation of the different communities.
Among these are the Tatars, who have suffered horrendously at the hands of the rulers of Russia for centuries. They will oppose Putin's designs ferociously, with results which are unpredictable, but which we can say for certain won't be good. Even if the worst doesn't come to the worst, the referendum will sharpen and deepen divisions.
The most powerful argument of advocates of the Russian option is that the peninsula has only been Ukrainian since 1954, when the Soviet leader Khrushchev detached it from Russia and handed it over. At the time, the Soviet Union was apparently strong and secure. Khrushchev will have seen the move as internal reorganisation, rather than an alteration of national borders.
There is no reason for the rest of us to plump for one position or the other. Just as – the general point has previously been made in this column – there were no grounds in 1956 for choosing between the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, or in 1968 between the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the US invasion of Vietnam, or between one side or the other throughout the Cold War.
If there's a case for tilting coverage in any direction, it's towards the Russian position – if only to counteract the bias of virtually all of the Western media. Ms Yulia Tymoshenko (above), a billionaire on the basis of her family's seizure of state assets at the time the Soviet Union was disintegrating and every robber-baron (and baroness) in the land was grabbing whatever public property they could lay their hands on, and a leading member of the distinctly dodgy Fatherland party, was widely projected last weekend on a visit to Dublin as a heroine of a democratic revolution and accorded a lengthy, fawning interview on RTE. "Where do you get your inexhaustible courage from and why were you born so beautiful?" – that sort of thing.
Everywhere that the great powers have scrawled national boundaries across the bodies of living nations remains unstable and potentially explosive. The great powers continue to meddle and make things worse.
One interim objective we could all, perhaps, embrace, in relation both to Syria and Ukraine and to all such conflicts, is an embargo on the supply of arms to any side. There being no takers for this at the top, the imperative is to exert pressure from below.