Turkey’s occupation of Cyprus

Uzay Bulut
Thursday 17 Sep 2020

Turkey cannot be seen as a trustworthy partner in the region until its occupation of Northern Cyprus ends and its violations of the rule of law and gunboat diplomacy are neutralised

Turkey is more and more in the international news these days because of its violations of the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of Cyprus and Greece. These violations in the Eastern Mediterranean threaten the stability and security of the wider region. 

A maritime deal signed on 6 August set out the sea boundaries between Egypt and Greece and appears to have further escalated Turkey’s regional aggression. Since 2018 at least, Turkey has openly threatened the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea with invasion. Turkey has also illegally occupied the northern part of Cyprus since 1974.

Moreover, the Turkish government does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus as an independent state and claims 44 per cent of the Cypriot EEZ as its own. Another sizable section of that zone is claimed by the so-called “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” an internationally unrecognised entity. 

Cyprus gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1960 following a four-year struggle against colonialism. On 20 July 1974, Turkish armed forces launched a full-scale invasion. Turkey’s excuse in invading the island country was the coup engineered by the Greek military, which toppled the democratically elected Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios III. A few days later, the coup collapsed and democratic rule in Cyprus was re-established. Yet, Turkey had other plans. 

On 14 August of that same year, Turkey launched a second and even more devastating invasion of the island. Many crimes were committed, including ethnic cleansing throughout the northern part. Turkey named its second offensive after Attila the Hun (ruled 434-453 CE), the leader of an ancient nomadic people and the ruler of the Hunnic Empire. 

Atilla’s name, writes US historian Joshua J Mark, “was synonymous with terror among his enemies and the general populace of the territories that his armies swept through.” Furthermore, “the reputation of the Huns for brutality and indiscriminate slaughter was well known and sent the people of the land fleeing for their lives with whatever they could carry.” This is exactly what Turkey did to the north of Cyprus in 1974. 

Before Turkey invaded the island, the borders of Cyprus were internationally recognised. The document granting Cyprus’s independence was signed by three “guarantor” states: the United Kingdom, Greece and Turkey. These three states declared that they would “recognise and guarantee the independence, territorial integrity and security” of the Republic of Cyprus. The Turkish invasion, as declared by numerous UN resolutions since, was a clear violation of Turkey’s commitments.

The crimes committed in the north of Cyprus by Turkey include, but are not limited to, the following: indiscriminate bombings, the killings of civilians including children and pregnant women, the forcible eviction and deportation of Greek Cypriots, the systematic looting, pillage and seizures of homes, churches and other properties, torture, rape and forced prostitution, assault and battery, illegal detention and forced labour, among others. These violations were directed at Greek, Maronite and Armenian Cypriots because of their ethnicity, language and religion.

The ethnic cleansing of the north of Cyprus by Turkey resulted in the displacement of more than 170,000 Greek Cypriots, about 40 per cent of the then Greek population of the island. Turkey’s occupation forces have not allowed them to return home. According to the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus (CMP), established in 1981, 1,508 Greek Cypriots are still officially reported as missing.

These atrocities have been documented by many sources, including through eyewitness accounts, investigations by international organisations and NGOs, the European Commission of Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights and many international media outlets and scholars. 

Professor Van Coufoudakis, rector emeritus of the University of Nicosia in Cyprus and dean and professor emeritus at Indiana University-Purdue University in the US, notes in his 2008 report “Human Rights Violations in Cyprus by Turkey”, for instance, that “the Turkish army, during and in the aftermath of the invasion, committed large numbers of documented cases of the rape of Greek Cypriot women and children from the ages of 12 to 71. It was part of the tactic to humiliate, intimidate and terrorise the Greek Cypriot civilians in occupied Cyprus.”

“Rape and dishonouring women is a particularly heinous crime in a conservative and close-knit society such as that of Cyprus. The evidence of rape came from the testimonies of victims, witnesses, medical personnel and even from Turkish military personnel. Some of the instances of rape involved pregnant women, while others occurred in the presence of family members. Rape was carried out by Turkish soldiers and their officers. There is no evidence of any disciplinary action having been taken by the military for these actions.”


The northern part of Cyprus, like the rest of the island, was predominately Greek prior to the Turkish invasion. 

But through its atrocities, Turkey altered the demographic character of the north of Cyprus and turned it into a Turkish colony recognised by Turkey alone. As of today, over 36 per cent of the territory of the Republic of Cyprus remains under Turkish occupation. Turkey claims that by invading the island it was protecting Turkish Cypriots from Greek Cypriot violence. But even Turkish officials have confessed that the violence was mostly instigated by Turks to escalate the conflict and pave the way for a military intervention. 

General Sabri Yirmibeşoğlu, a Turkish army officer, for example, said in 2010 that Turkey had burned a ‎mosque during the Cyprus conflict “in order to foster civil resistance” against Greek Cypriots. He also said that “the Turkish special warfare department has a rule to engage in acts of sabotage against the respected values [of the Turks], made to look as if they ‎were carried out by the enemy.”

There are also strategic reasons for Turkey’s occupation and colonisation of Cyprus, which can be seen in a statement made by previous Turkish deputy prime minister Tuğrul Türkeş in 2017. “There is misinformation that Turkey is interested in Cyprus because there is a Turkish society there,” Türkeş said. “Even if no Turks lived in Cyprus, Turkey would still have a Cyprus issue, and it is impossible for Turkey to give up on that.”

Turkey’s two invasions and continued occupation of Cyprus have breached the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, the European Convention on Human Rights and many other post-1945 international treaties. However, Turkey remains unapologetic. Its “legacy” in Cyprus would most likely make Atilla the Hun proud. As the US historian Michael Lee Lanning notes, “Attila and his brother valued agreements little and peace even less.”

It is also important to acknowledge that the Republic of Cyprus has a massive strategic importance for Egypt. Its geographical location alone could play a pivotal role against Turkey’s expansionist policy in the Mediterranean. But Turkey’s policies by default eliminate other countries’ interests regarding the Mediterranean Sea, including Egypt’s. Turkey aims to achieve its neo-Ottoman expansionism particularly through the doctrine of the “Blue Homeland” that envisages the Turkish domination of the Aegean, of most of the Mediterranean, and of the Black Sea. 

This threat has also been recognised by France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who advocates a “Pax Mediterranea” in the region. Such a pact would not only aim to block Turkish aspirations in the region, but would also become a catalyst for both commercial and geostrategic opportunities. Macron invited Egypt to join the Middle East Mediterranean (MEM) Summer Summit in 2020.

This “Pax Mediterranea” could very well incorporate the Eastern Mediterranean (EastMed) Pipeline Project that aims to exploit the region’s gas. Not only could both projects, the political and the commercial, add to already cordial Cyprus-Egypt relations, but the EastMed Pipeline could very well act as a major deterrent to Turkey’s destabilising activities in the region.  

It should be noted that Turkey already has about 40,000 well-equipped troops stationed in Northern Cyprus and plans, as announced, to soon build a naval base there. Until Turkey’s occupation of Northern Cyprus ends, and until its violations of the rule of law and gunboat diplomacy are neutralised, Turkey will not be able to be seen as a trustworthy and civilised strategic partner of Egypt, Cyprus, the East or the West. 


*The writer is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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