In 1936 Ataturk and the Kemalists had reasons to want to wag the dog. To be fair, they also had genuine reason to worry about Mussolini’s Eastern ambitions; Italy had conquered the Ottoman-held Dodecanese islands in 1912, and Italian fascists felt that they had been cheated out of their rightful opportunity to acquire a large chunk of Anatolia at the close of WWI. Il Duce was hungry for Empire. So when Italy began to fortify the Dodecanese islands in 1934, Turkish fears that this presaged an invasion were not unreasonable. Whether Turkish fears that Italy was about to grab part of Anatolia justified Turkey’s grabbing of the Sanjak of Alexandretta is a different question.
The piece of land that Turkey decided to grab is the bit that juts into Syria. Iskenderun is the Turkified version of Alexandretta. All of the Greek and Armenian place names were Turkified by the Kemalists.
Which brings us back to Turkey’s fear of being invaded by Italy. It provided a pretext for Turkish annexation of Alexandretta. Especially after Mussolini invaded and annexed Ethiopia.
The population of the prosperous Sanjak included Greeks, Armenians, Assyrian Christians, Jews, Maronites, Kurds, Alawis, Arabs, Circassians and Turks. Turks were as much as 40% of the population. More if you counted the Alawis and Circassians as Turks, a tactic that Turkey found useful in presenting its case to the world.
The Turkish argument was that the Sanjak was a Turkish province that had mistakenly been placed outside the fatherland and that Turkey had a right, even a duty to reunite Alexandretta’s Turks with Turkey.
In May 1937 a League of Nations “Committee of Experts” disingenuously accepted a Statue and Fundamental Law of the Sanjak of Alexandretta recognizing the Sanjak as a majority Turkish region and declaring it autonomous.
With Italy creating alliances in the Balkans and a Civil War being fought in Spain, France pushed the deal though because it wanted to secure its dominion over Mandatory Syrian by appeasing Turkey.
The Germans stood up and cheered. First the League of Nations had violated it’s own principles by failing to defend Ethiopia from invasion by fascist Italy. Now it was willing to allow Turkey to grab an unwilling province. This augured well for the Nazi intention to claim the “right” to reunite the ethnic Germans of the Sudetenland, Austria, Poland and other lands with the German fatherland.
Pierre Arnal, French Deputy Chief of Mission in Berlin, was appalled, “If Turkey obtains satisfaction in some way, what encouragement for the Reich!” Arnal was a prophet without an audience. A massive European peace movement demanded peace at any price, and got it.
The people of Alexandretta protested in every way they could, but they were facing daunting odds, not to mention Kemalist thugs.
France and Turkey came to a “private arrangement” to rig an election that would decide the future of the Sanjak. Upon being informed of the details, the responsible official at Whitehall summarized the agreement, “Its substance was that the elections, somehow or other (presumably by fair means or foul), should result in a Turkish majority.”
The means used by Turkey were foul, thugs and troops were sent into the Sanjak, the fraudulent vote was held and counted, and Alexdretta was handed over to Turkey and renamed Hatay Province. Many pious Muslims left, fearing the Kemalist program of secularization and Turkification; eighty percent of the Sanjak’s Christians fled.
And the regimes in Turkey and Germany were reinforced in their belief that might makes right.
The best source on the incident period is Fezzes in the River: Identity Politics and European Diplomacy in the Middle East on the Eve of World War II, Sarah D. Shields, Oxford University Press.