The awakening of interest in human rights and democracy in Turkey is very welcome and long overdue. It is striking, though, that most accounts of this problem completely omit the question of Cyprus. This is a serious lacunae in the analysis of Turkey, because Cyprus has been the proving ground for the Turkish army and the Turkish right for almost a generation. Cyprus is also the most crucial site of Turkey’s long-running battle with Greece for the Aegean islands. Finally, the thousands of Cypriot victims, both Greek and Turkish-speaking, of the 1974 invasion should form part of the bill of indictment against Turkish military aggrandizement.

The 1960 London-Zurich agreements, which led to Cyprus’ independence, permitted both Greece and Turkey to station military forces on the island. The Turkish liaison officer there was Turgut Sunalp, then a colonel in the Turkish army. In this capacity, he was involved in formulating contingency plans for a Turkish military intervention, and in helping the Turkish Cypriot leadership to develop an armed irregular force. In November 1983, Turgut Sunalp, who had since risen to the rank of general, was the leader of the inaptly named Nationalist Democracy Party, one of the three political formations allowed by Turkey’s ruling military junta to contest the carefully organized “election” last November. Sunalp’s party enjoyed the open support and patronage of the junta, one of whose leading members is Gen. Necmettin Ersin, commander of the Turkish invasion forces in Cyprus in 1974.

A few days after the elections took place (in which the muzzled electorate had taken its revenge on Sunalp’s pro-junta party by relegating it to third place), the junta joined with the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktas in proclaiming a Turkish separatist state in northern Cyprus. The nominal “winner” of the election, prime minister-elect Turgut Özal, was not informed of the move. The only foreign government to welcome it — though even it stopped short of outright recognition?was the regime of Gen. Zia ul Haq in Pakistan.

This little bouquet of ironies provides some idea of the relationship between the Cyprus imbroglio and the rise of authoritarianism in Turkey. When I first visited Turkish-occupied Cyprus, every public office and official building had a photograph of Bülent Ecevit — hero of the 1974 “peace operation” — on the wall. The day after his arrest and imprisonment — for criticizing the political arrogance of the very generals he had uncaged — every picture of Ecevit disappeared. The average, honest Turkish citizen may regard Cyprus as a straightforward case of defending an embattled Turkish minority. But it has always been rather more than that, and Turkey is now suffering the consequences of allowing Cyprus to help incubate an ambitious and chauvinistic military caste.

Since Turkey in a sense “won” the 1974 military round, there was no national inquest of the kind that took place in a humiliated Greece, a devastated Cyprus, an embarrassed Britain or a compromised America. It is only possible to describe relatively piecemeal the way in which Cyprus brought the army and the Turkish right back to power.

In 1971, the Turkish army mounted a coup in Ankara. It did so in response to growing discontent in the Kurdish provinces of the country. The military regime also set itself to halt the leftward drift among the urban poor, the trade unions and the large number of unemployed and discontented students (many of whom had resorted to ugly Baader-Meinhof types of extremism). The military regime of 1971-1972 was not a success. It decided rather grudgingly to relinquish power to the political parties. Bülent Ecevit, who had been the most outspoken critic of the ruling junta, won a large following for his courage in doing so and became almost the natural leader of subsequent coalition politics. The army seemed discredited as a power “above society and faction.”

It was Cyprus which restored the military to a point where it could pose, once again, as a champion of Turkey and the nation. The written record of 1974 shows that it was the armed forces which pushed, at every stage, for a policy of force and conquest. It was the Turkish Security Council, and not the cabinet or the parliament, which took the major decisions and which issued the crucial orders. On July 15, 1974, the date of the Ioannides-Sampson coup against Makarios in Cyprus, Deniz Baykal and Bülent Ecevit talked with the general staff at a Security Council meeting. Baykal (today undoer house arrest at the orders of these same generals) made a speech which canvassed the possibility of intervention. As Mehmet Ali Birand records the occasion:

Ecevit posed the key question to the generals: “In how many days would you be ready?” The answer was definite: “We can begin the operation on Saturday morning.”

The cabinet, meeting on the floor below, was informed of this decision at one o&rsquo#39;clock in the morning. There were protests. “You are taking decisions upstairs and then announcing them to us. Is this appropriate?” In subsequent meetings of political and party leaders, even the conservative Justice Party leader Süleyman Demirel was dubious about a full-scale invasion, which he thought might brand Turkey internationally as a bully and an aggressor. He was supported in this misgiving by Nihat Erim, another ex-prime minister and head of the presidential group appointed to the Turkish Senate. Erim, a venerable jurist who had served in 1960 as a member of the Cyprus Joint Constitutional Committee, saw a trap: “The United States might be behind this coup. Even if it is not certain yet, I sense that Washington has a positive attitude toward Sampson.” Erim spoke, perhaps, more truly than he knew. Turkey was to become the executor for a policy I had not designed. Still, the combined weight of the armed forces and the chauvinist parties, especially Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party, was enough to silence or confuse the doubters. Adm. Kemal Kayacan warned Ecevit that neither of them would survive a failure to act. Ismail Müftüoğlu of the National Salvation Party went one better: A member of the Turkish delegation at the Geneva talks, he threatened to kill himself if withdrawal from the first invasion beachheads was agreed.

His zeal was supererogatory. The Turkish documents show that the first invasion led ineluctably to the second, and that the generals knew it. For a while, Ecevit and Baykal stressed “the independence of Cyprus” as their goal and talked of “geographical federation.” They tried to hold back the Salvationists and the Grey Wolves, who insisted on immediate taksim (partition) or even an outright conquest of Cyprus. The die was probably cast by Gen. Semih Sancar, chief of the general staff: in a message to the troops on August 2, while negotiations on the first landing were still in progress, he declared that “The duty of the army in Cyprus is not over yet.” Ecevit became the victim of the forces he had set in motion. Despite his temporary, almost hysterical popularity, he was replaced within a few months by a coalition of the rightist parties which had, in different ways, supported him over Cyprus. They had supported him, it turns out, as the rope supports a hanging man.

Restored to the center of Turkish politics, and garlanded by their easy triumph in Cyprus, the generals began to take a more activist role. Years before they took formal control of the country in 1980, they had begun to administer martial law in several provinces — especially the Kurdish ones — and several cities. They also placed stringent limits on the ability of civilian politicians to negotiate even a partial Cyprus settlement. Time and again, members of the general staff announced in ringing tones that the flag of Turkey, once planted, would not be withdrawn an inch. On more than one occasion, this detonated discussions about limited and palliative measures, such as the return of Famagusta to its Greek Cypriot inhabitants.

Throughout the remainder of the 1970s, Turkey continued to be rent apart by sectarian and factional warfare, in which all kinds of dubious external influences could be guessed at. The figure of Mehmet Ali Ağca, would-be assassin of Pope John Paul II, has become symbolic of this period. He was a fascist, a gunslinging member of Col. Türkeş’ Grey Wolf paramilitary youth. He was also available for “contract” work in the demimonde of extortion, narcotics and gun running. He is the likely culprit in the murder of Abdi Ipekçi, editor of the distinguished liberal establishment newspaper Milliyet. He also seems to have had connections with the colder world of Bulgarian intelligence services.

This impression of collusion between the extreme right and the extreme left against the democratic center led many people to welcome, or at least to excuse, the military coup of September 12, 1980. Unlike the coup in Greece of April 21, 1967, this was not obviously the work of a clique of greedy and fanatical officers. Rather, it appeared to be the Turkish army exerting itself in defense of “national unity.” There was undoubtedly a strong initial popular support for such a move. This took some time to wear off, as it became apparent that the army was planning to institute permanent authoritarian rule under a quasi-civilian guise.

It became clear early on that the junta was not “evenhanded” between the terrorists of right and left. The parties of the left, and their affiliated trade unions and institutes, were simply abolished. Manifestations of Kurdish nationalism were mercilessly suppressed. The first daily newspaper to be closed entirely was Aydinlik (Clarity), which had been temporarily shut down in 1974 because of its opposition to the invasion of Cyprus, and which had published a series of articles on the links between the extreme right in Turkey, their counterparts among the Cypriot Turks, and certain groups within the Turkish army.

The right were dealt with more leniently. Their terror activities ceased. These had, after all, achieved their objective of bringing about a military government, and their cessation allowed the junta to claim credit for the reduction in violence. An example had to be made of Col. Türkeş himself, because his involvement in violence had been so notorious. While awaiting his trial (still inconclusive at the time of writing, and in any case a greater privilege than many of his opponents have had) the colonel wrote to Gen. Kenan Evren, head of the junta, asking plaintively, “Why am I in detention while my ideas are in power?” Türkeş might have studied the history of the German SA with some profit, as Ecevit might have studied the history of German social democracy. Thugs are dispensable once they have facilitated the seizure of power, and so are “reformers” who vote for war credits.

Shortly after the Turkish junta took power, a document from the Turkish General Staff was given to me by a senior military source. It is headed “Turkish Republic. Official.” Issued by the Directorate of War History of the General Staff and entitled “Greek-Turkish Relations and the Megali Idea,” it was written before the coup, and gives an unusually revealing insight into the ideas which animated those who carried out the invasion. Its concluding section, which sets out Turkish ambitions in the Aegean, would certainly lend weight to Col. Türkeş‘ question. Designed for the instruction of Turkish officers, and classified as highly confidential, it argues that

it would be difficult or impossible for Greece to defend [the Dodecanese] islands…. These islands are situated very far from Greece and the dispatch of forces from the mother country for their defense would be very difficult — even more so because one of the conditions of the Treaty of Lausanne is that they remain unfortified. An intervention by a country outside NATO or the occupation of these islands, which are very near Turkey, by another country, may not result in a crisis insofar as Greece is concerned. But from the point of view of a Turkish defense of Anatolia, this would create a strategic and tactical diversion and would also cause our economic isolation…. For this reason, NATO should pay attention to the rights and memoranda of Turkey, which is more reliable and not unstable like Greece (which changes its position to promote its own interests). From the point of view of Turkish security, apart from the existing borders, there is need to establish an area of security which would include the nearby islands.

The Turkish authorities here make it clear that they regard Cyprus and the Aegean as potential if not actual Turkish possessions. They suit their actions to their words by building and maintaining an “Army of the Aegean,” heavily equipped and well-accoutered with landing craft, in their southern ports. This army and fleet is outside the formal command of NATO.

Since 1974, when American military aid to Turkey was $196 million, it has climbed to over $760 million and next year will probably hit the billion dollar mark. This aid helps to confirm the army in power and spurs Greece into an economically beggaring regional arms race. It also helps the Turkish military to consolidate its presence in Cyprus, contradicting the stated wishes of the US Congress for a Cyprus settlement and enhancing the risk of an Aegean war. It is also one factor postponing the day when the people of Turkey will once again be allowed to vote freely. The 1974 invasion of Cyprus uncorked the genie, and helped to raise the curtain on this dismal scene.

Having declared “independence” — in reality, dependence on Turkey — in November 1983, Rauf Denktaş unilaterally amended his own constitution in order to allow himself another shot at the presidency. He also expanded the number of seats in his own assembly in order to make almost half of them political appointees. It became clear that it was the Turkish junta to whom he owed his primary allegiance.

Meanwhile, the Turkish lira has become the official currency in northern Cyprus. The clocks in that part of the island are set to Anatolian time, necessitating a one hour change in the middle of Nicosia. All Greek-speaking Cypriots, to the number of some 200,000, have been expelled from the area under the Turkish army’s control. The Turkish embassy has publicly intervened to help form a political party based on the right-wing colonists and settlers imported from the mainland. It has also intervened to banish opposition parties, such as the Republican Turkish Party headed by Özker Özgür from participating in any coalition because of its criticism of NATO and of the partitionist policy of Ankara and Denktaş. Just as occupied Cyprus has become a virtual province of Turkey, so Turkey has imposed its authoritarian political methods on an island where democratic traditions were very well rooted.

How to cite this article:

Christopher Hitchens "Uncorking the Genie," Middle East Report 122 (March/April 1984).
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