For the past several years, tensions have heightened in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish government under Erdogan has pushed for a more hostile stance towards Greece and Cyprus’ Economic Exclusive Zone, putting the three nations towards an armed conflict that hasn’t been seen in forty-nine years. This conflict was the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, which the United States took a morally unjust side back quietly backing Turkey in the war instead of the role of the diplomatic power broker. The results were horrifying with a refugee crisis, ethnic cleansing and mass graves still being found to this day.
Cyprus is now divided between the majority Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots in the occupied north, which carved out their own unrecognized rump state. For years in the occupied zones, they gave away the homes of Cypriot refugees to Anatolian Turkish settlers, a violation of the Geneva Conventions and continuously allowed 46000 Turkish troops an indefinite deployment on the sovereign nation.
Tensions have now boiled back to the ethnic conflicts seen in the 60s and 70s, as the Turkish Cypriot President, Ersin Tatar, has suggested he will formally partition the north and potentially allow Turkey to annex the occupied areas—essentially a declaration of war against the recognized government of Nicosia.
America has become the major power broker in between both states, with various military bases in Greece and Turkey—but there is a major problem that hasn’t been addressed. Allowing Ankara to be emboldened to potentially land grab and assisting them with the 1974 invasion has come back to haunt Washington, and now America is caught in a close-knit situation forty-nine years later.
Originally in the 1960s, the U.S. warned Ankara not to invade Cyprus, even threatening to not send military aid if the Soviet Union went to war with Turkey if they tried a formal invasion. The situation changed when Henry Kissinger was put in charge of “deescalating” the ethnic tensions between the Greek and Turkish militias.
When the U.S. backed Greek junta helped overthrow the Cypriot government for a pro Enosis one, the Turkish government conducted its first invasion in 1974. This led to the fall of the junta for a civilian administration. Fearing communist influence in Cyprus and that the British would be expelled, Kissinger drew up plans with Ankara to invade again for the purpose of keeping a NATO presence on the isle.
The second invasion was a humanitarian disaster with massacres and the Turkish government taking more land than what the U.S. and UK expected, nearly reaching the capital until a UN ceasefire. The aftermath saw the American reputation take a downfall in the Cold War and Greece leaving the NATO command for several years. Cyprus would drift towards Russian influence after no longer trusting the United States and the isle has remained divided until this day.
Over the past several years, tensions on the isle have risen as Ersin Tatar has acted as an extended arm of Erdogan’s AKP party, threatening to formally partition the isle and unify it with Turkey. If this occurs, it would be a declaration of war that could see Greece and Turkey, two NATO members who have guarantor status over Cyprus.
There has also been offshore drilling by the Turkish navy in the Cypriot EEZ, a violation of the UNCLOS charter. Biden, for the first time in decades, partially lifted the arms embargo on Cyprus, which the AKP calls a direct threat by Washington and Nicosia. Ankara has vowed to bolster its already heavily militarized forces on the isle if the Cypriot government pursues new weapon transactions.
Parallels to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
One could argue the Russian government has taken lessons from the Turkish government’s tactics that allowed Cyprus to become a powder keg waiting to explode. Ankara’s pretext was that the Cypriot government was committing “genocide” on the Turkish population. The multiple invasions of 1974 were labeled as “humanitarian” interventions akin to the Kremlin doctrine.
The Turkish government would insert a proxy state that claimed it was independent, but ultimately was seen as an extension of Turkey. This was the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” which to this day is only recognized by Turkey, much like the faux proxy states in the Russian occupied areas of Ukraine.
Though the occupied northern sectors of Cyprus haven’t been formally annexed by Turkey, Erdogan has eyed the potential of it. Moscow’s last glance of diplomatic leverage ended with its unrecognized annexations, which have come with condemnation from its own allies such as Serbia and Iran.
The aftermath of the Cyprus’ disaster happened under the nose of Washington and due to a NATO ally getting away with a barbaric invasion without sanctions, this has ultimately emboldened other autocrats to pursue war of conquests.
The United States will have to play a major role in diplomatic efforts to calm tensions, as historically DC played both sides to have a delicate power balance in the Mediterranean. If conflict comes to the region, this time America must learn from its mistakes in 1974 or see history repeat itself once again.
[Image by CIA, World Factbook, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”