The Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier: Cyprus Dispute Explained

September 17, 2019

This is the island of Cyprus. This small island
in the Mediterranean is probably most well known as a popular tourist destination, with
its white-sand beaches and crystal clear waters. But the island has a somewhat troubled past,
and even present as well. Politically, the island is split between the Republic of Cyprus,
a member of the UN and the EU, and Northern Cyprus, a self-declared Turkish republic,
recognised only by Turkey itself, viewed as occupied territory by the rest of the international
community. The island of Cyprus is politically, ethnically,
and physically split through the middle due its troubled past. A United Nations peacekeeping
force has been operating in Cyprus for more than 50 years, with barriers separating the
two communities that once shared the island. So why is an island that would seem so tranquil…
so divided? How exactly did it end up like this? Well, the island became like this due to the
dramatic events of 1974, but we need to look a bit further back in the island’s history
to fully understand of the context behind these events. In 1571, the island was conquered by the Ottoman
Empire, and for the first time in thousands of years, the island’s demographics were
changed, from a predominantly Greek population, to a Greek majority with a significant Turkish
minority. Cyprus was part of the Ottoman Empire for
centuries. Treatment of the Greek Cypriots varied significantly during this time, and
there were numerous uprisings against Ottoman rule. The Greeks and the Turks rarely lived
together in harmony. In the 1820s, Greece (also under Ottoman rule)
fought a successful war for independence. The Cypriots revolted at the same time but
their revolt was crushed by the Ottomans. In the year 1878, Cyprus came under British
administration in secret treaty with the Ottomans, in which the British would protect their territorial
sovereignty from Russia, while securing themselves a strategic position to defend their trade
routes to India through the Suez Canal. The Ottomans maintained sovereignty over the island,
but it was placed under British administration. In WWI however, the British and Ottoman Empires
found themselves on opposing sides, and so the island was annexed by Great Britain. Now ever since the independence of Greece,
the vast majority of Greek-Cypriots had been calling for what’s known as “enosis”
– union with Greece. After WWII, it became increasingly difficult
for Great Britain to morally justify their extensive empire. All of their colonies that
had fought alongside them to fight for the freedom of the world, now wanted freedom for
themselves. The British Empire did of course go through an extensive period of decolonisation,
but with Cyprus, there was a problem. The island has been described as an “unsinkable
aircraft carrier”, and geographically speaking, it was just too valuable to give up. From
Cyprus, the Royal Air Force could reach three different continents with ease. Cyprus is
just 100 miles from the Middle East, and the Suez Canal is just 200 nautical miles to the
south. Now, while the Greek majority of Cyprus often
rebelled against British rule, the Turkish minority were… relatively content with it.
The Turkish-Cypriots absolutely did not want enosis. In the first decade after the second world
war, the British tried to offer Cyprus self-government, without actually giving up any sovereignty.
In 1950, a man who would become known in Cyprus as the “Father of the Nation” was elected
as its leader – Archbishop Makarios III. Of course, this didn’t satisfy the Greek-Cypriots,
and the desire for enosis grew stronger… and more violent. In 1955, a nationalist guerrilla
organisation, called EOKA, was formed to end British rule in Cyprus, with the ultimate
goal being union with Greece. The main figurehead behind the enosis campaign was Colonel George
Grivas, a Cyprus-born WWII veteran of the Greek Army. In the late 1950’s, the British declared
a state of emergency on the island of Cyprus as the anti-colonial violence escalated. In
1958, a rival organisation in opposition to EOKA was formed, the TMT, or the Turkish Resistance
Organisation, formed by the Turkish-Cypriot minority. Their ultimate goal was the partition
of the island, or “taksim”. The two communities generally lived in quite segregated neighbourhoods,
and the Turkish minority of Cyprus wanted the island to be politically divided. So the Greeks of Cyprus wanted to join Greece,
and the Turks wanted to partition the island. In the end, they got what nobody wanted: independence.
The president of the republic was to be Greek, and the vice president Turkish. The president
was Archbishop Makarios… who was actually exiled to the Seychelles in 1957 for his promotion
of enosis, but was allowed to return. The Republic of Cyprus became a country in
1960, but it wasn’t really a fully independent country. Three other countries still had a
huge say in what went on on the island, the three ‘guarantors’ of Cyprus that signed
the very treaties that gave the country its independence: Greece, Turkey, and the United
Kingdom. Also they didn’t even have control of the whole island, the British held onto
the land around their military bases. The treaties of Cypriot independence banned the
country from entering into a union with another country (i.e. no enosis), and each of the
three guarantors had the right to intervene in Cypriot affairs to maintain the status
quo. In 1963, president Makarios made a number
of proposals for constitutional changes, ostensibly due to governmental dysfunction, that would
remove many of the rights of the Turkish minority. This led to an eruption of ethnic violence
between the Greeks and the Turks. Many of the hardliner EOKA sought to rid the island
of “undesirables”, i.e. the Turks. The violence peaked in December in what became
known as “Bloody Christmas”, in which there were hundreds of casualties on both
sides. Thousands of Turkish-Cypriots were run out of their villages, with many leaving
the island altogether, and hundreds more were taken hostage. In 1964, a UN resolution was passed to deploy
a peacekeeping force to Cyprus, as the island was on the brink of an all-out civil war,
or worse still… potential war between two NATO members, Greece and Turkey. Despite the
UN force, the violence did not stop. The two communities had to be physically separated
in the nation’s capital city, Nicosia, as British soldiers erected barriers. Now at this point I’d like to pause for
a second to mention another country that was heavily involved in the Cyprus dispute throughout
the 60s and 70s, just… not publicly. The United States was very much involved in Cypriot
affairs, the CIA operated extensively throughout the island, and the US would often try to
covertly ‘pull the strings’ to get their desired outcome. Since it was becoming obvious that the 1960
solution was not working, London and Washington secretly agreed that a potential way to solve
the impasse would be partition of the island. They began to develop a back-up plan to encourage
Turkey to invade Cyprus and take control of a pre-liniated portion of the island. The
invasion didn’t happen… at least, not yet. But this begs the question… why? Why would
the UK and US want to partition the island? Well, this was the 1960s, the height of the
Cold War. Having a strong Turkish presence on the island would at least prevent the country
of Cyprus from falling into the Soviet zone of influence. The Cypriot president had already
caused some controversy by making some connections with Eastern Bloc nations. Having an ally of the Soviets so close to
NATO’s southern flank would have been disastrous, especially for Turkey, but for NATO as a whole
too. Turkey was an extremely important ally of the US, they were quite literally the border
between east and west. In 1967, the Greek government was taken over
by a far-right military junta in a coup d’état, ousting the democratically elected prime minister.
Now, the president of Cyprus had been a strong advocate of enosis, but he certainly didn’t
want a union with a military dictatorship in Athens. This caused massive disagreements
between himself and George Grivas, still leading the fight for enosis. Over the next few years, Makarios would be
the target of five assassination attempts, as the Greek-Cypriot hardliners tried to overthrow
his leadership, as he was unwilling to pursue union with Greece. In 1974, Cypriot Intelligence discovered a
plan to overthrow the President. This time though, it wasn’t from the Greek-Cypriots,
but from Athens. Yet another military junta had taken over in a counter-coup, and now
they had their eyes set on Cyprus. The coup was successfully carried out by the Cyprus
National Guard. With the help of the RAF, Archbishop Makarios
was flown to London for his safety. He was replaced by Nikos Sampson, former member of
an EOKA execution squad, who fought against British rule in the 1950s. The United States were quietly content that
Makarios was out of the picture due to his, somewhat tenuous, links to communism. It was
later revealed that the CIA was well aware of the plot to overthrow the government, but
nothing was done to stop it. Turkey was understandably furious with the
coup, and made clear their invention to invade Cyprus. Turkey cited Article 4 of the Treaty
of Guarantee, which states that “each of the three guaranteeing Powers reserves the
right to take action with the sole aim of re-establishing the state of affairs created
by the present Treaty”. 5 days after the coup, Turkish troops landed
in Cyprus. The initial invasion only lasted 2 days, as an emergency UN Security Council
meeting called for a ceasefire. Turkey had captured about 3% of Cypriot territory. Both
military dictatorships, in Cyprus and in Greece, fell apart due to the invasion. Sampson resigned
just 3 days after the invasion began. Mediation talks in Geneva between the three
guarantor powers tried to solve the situation diplomatically, and avoid any further casualties,
but the talks became deadlocked. Now at this point, the international community
and public opinion were largely sympathetic towards Turkey and the Turkish-Cypriots. The
Cypriot government had been taken over by a coup with the intention of joining with
Greece against the will of the Turkish minority. However, from 14th of August onwards, things
quickly changed. Turkey launched its second invasion of Cyprus – Operation Attila Two.
This time, it was a full-scale invasion against a much weaker opponent. The fatality numbers
reached into the thousands, and about 200,000 Greek Cypriots were forced to abandon their
homes. Several Turkish-Cypriot community villages were raided by the Greek-Cypriot extremist
organisation EOKA-B as a response to the invasion, with more than 200 civilian casualties in
the first day of the invasion. By the end of the invasion, Turkey had taken
control of about 37% of the island of Cyprus. This territory made up approximately 70% of
the total gross domestic product of the Republic of Cyprus. General sympathy and understanding swifty
turned to almost universal condemnation. The Treaty of Guarantee gave Turkey the right
to intervene in Cyprus, but the treaty was made for the purpose of guaranteeing the independence,
territorial integrity, and security of Cyprus… but in the end, Turkey did the exact opposite.
They forcibly took control of a large portion of the island, causing a de facto partition
of the country. When looking at how Cyprus became divided,
one can’t help but wonder… how was this allowed to happen? How was a NATO member allowed
to launch a full-scale invasion against another sovereign state? Greece demanded to know why
no action was taken to stop Turkey. Realistically the only country that would have been able
to stop the invasion was the United States, but the man who was single-handedly in charge
of US foreign policy with regards to Cyprus, Henry Kissinger, chose not to intervene. In
fact, it was quite the opposite: he encouraged the invasion. There had been talks of the British pulling
out of Cyprus altogether in a round of defense cuts, and Kissinger was worried about having
absolutely no NATO presence on the island. Turkey occupying a large part of the island
would ensure a NATO presence, and prevent Cyprus from falling into the Soviet sphere
of influence, so Kissinger was happy to let the invasion run its course. After the conflict was over, the UN organised
the transfer of 51,000 Turkish-Cypriots from the south to the north, as the island became
ethnically split. In addition, Turkey proceeded to encourage thousands of Turkish citizens
from Anatolia to settle in northern Cyprus, despite this being in direct violation of
article 49 of the Geneva Convention. In 1983, the Turkish Republic of Northern
Cyprus was proclaimed, and has received absolutely no international recognition expect from Turkey
itself. In many ways, Cyprus is a victim of its own
geography. Its violent past was partly caused by the island’s strategic position in the
world of geopolitics. Of course, the underlying reason for the violence was the inter-ethnic
conflict between the Greeks and the Turks of the island, but this was often willfully
ignored or even exacerbated by the West if it were in NATO’s best interest. Even to this day there are tens of thousands
of Cypriots still hopeful that some day they will be able to return to their homes from
which they were displaced. Cyprus joined the EU as a divided island in 2004, three decades
after the invasion, and many were hopeful that this would help solve the dispute. In
the same year there had been a referendum on a plan to reunite Cyprus which ultimately
failed, however there does seem to be a genuine desire among Cypriot citizens to solve the
dispute once and for all. It’s hard to predict what will happen next, only time will tell
what the future holds for Cyprus. This video is brought to you by Squarespace.
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