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Remembering Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus

July 20, 2021 at 9:00 am

What: Turkey’s invasion of the north of Cyprus following a military coup which aimed to annex the island to Greece

When: 20 July 1974

Where: Cyprus

What happened?

Upon Britain’s granting of independence to the island of Cyprus in 1955, the Cypriots were a mixed crowd of Turks and Greeks who had lived side by side with each other for centuries. Over the course of British rule, however, the seeds of division were reportedly sewn in the fabric of Cypriot society.

The colonial administration, for example, formed a native police force made up of Cypriot Turks who were ordered to quash the calls for independence propagated by some of the island’s Greek population, and who fought against the Greek militant group the National Organisation of Cypriot Struggle (EOKA).

As the island ruled itself following Britain’s habitual rapid evacuation from its former colonies, sporadic intercommunal violence continued to break out between its Turkish and Greek populations, whose division had only been further entrenched. Firstly, there were nationalist ideologies springing up amongst both populations, such as the Greek concept of ‘Enosis’ (unification with Greece) and the Turkish concept of ‘Taksim’ (partition of the island).

Then there was the nationalism that was indoctrinated into both communities over the decades, the clearest example being the ideals of the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk being taught in Cypriot Turkish schools.

After numerous bouts of violence, the most popular in 1963-1964 and 1967, the situation reached its peak on 15 July 1974 as the Cypriot National Guard – led by the Greek forces under the military junta in Athens – carried out a coup to unite the island with Greece.

As Cypriot President Makarios II fled and was evacuated by the British, an Athens-backed military regime was installed with the politician Nikos Sampson appointed as its head. What ensued was days of raids on both Greek and Turkish Cypriot homes, the rooting out of Makarios supporters, and the revived violence between the two communities on the island.

READ: What is behind the UN-led Cyprus peace talks in Geneva?

On 20 July, Turkey retaliated by launching a military invasion of the north-east of Cyprus, in efforts to counter the military coup and prevent the unification with Greece. The primary reason for the invasion and subsequent stationing of Turkish troops in the north, Ankara insisted, was to protect the island’s Turkish community from further attacks and from falling victim to an annexation attempt by Athens.

Turkey notably cited the Treaty of Guarantee struck in 1960, which it said allowed it to make manoeuvers to intervene in the event of any persecution of the Turkish community.

Those claims of persecution were not entirely unfounded. In an experience which the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph labelled “anti-Turkish pogroms”, the intercommunal violence prior to the invasion reportedly resulted in the death of 364 Turkish Cypriots compared to 174 Greek Cypriots, with 109 Turkish Cypriot and mixed villages having been destroyed while up to 30,000 Turks were displaced.

Following the Turkish intervention, however, thousands from both sides were killed, wounded and reported missing.

What happened next?

Ankara’s campaign was destined to last around four weeks, with a second invasion being launched on 14 August and ending on 18 August. The result was the extension of the territory it captured in the island from the beachfront to just over 36 per cent of the island’s territory.

The Green Line was established, separating the north from the south. Turkish Cypriots then created an autonomous government named the Turkish Federated State of Cyprus (TFSC), backed by Ankara and headed by the Turkish Cypriot politician Rauf Denktas. The contemporary Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) was proclaimed in 1983.

As the land was partitioned, the massive migration of the Turkish and Greek populations occurred, with tens of thousands – some reports say hundreds of thousands – from both communities being expelled from both sides of the island in order to cement the north as a Turkish Cypriot territory and the south as a Greek Cypriot one.

The period served as a lasting remnant of the post-Ottoman era when, following the collapse of the historic empire and the birth of the contemporary nation-states after a millennium of coexistence, Turkish and Greek populations were forced to migrate from and to the territories of their respective states.

To this day, the Turkish intervention and the subsequent partition of the island remains an issue of much controversy, with numerous attempts at peace and reunification talks failing over the years. The TRNC is still not recognised as an independent state by any nation in the international community other than Turkey.

That may be set to change in the near future, however, as there have emerged signs that Ankara’s allies Pakistan and Azerbaijan could recognise Northern Cyprus as an independent nation almost five decades after the partition.

While Greece and southern Cyprus favour the reunification of the island, Turkey and the TRNC continue to demand a two-state solution and the recognition of the sovereignty of Northern Cyprus as pre-conditions to the peace talks.

READ: ‘Turkish Cypriots favour 2-state solution on island’

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.