by Eric Margolis © 1998 Eric Margolis
Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash walked into my office and said,`the west does not understand Kosova. How will it understand Cyprus?'
The president of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus - recognized only by Turkey - is sadly correct. Listening to Greeks and Turks torturously argue over Cyprus almost makes Kosova sound like a simple dispute.
Greek and Turkish Cypriots have been bitterly wrangling and, occasionally, fighting over divided Cyprus for the past 48 years. Decades of diplomatic initiatives and UN peacekeeping - in which Canada has played a leading rule - have failed miserably to resolve the Cyprus problem. Today, the highly strategic island threatens to become the flash point for a major war in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Greek Republic of Cyprus has ordered the deadly S-300 PMU-01(SA-10) anti-aircraft missile system from Russia. These 48.5-mile range missiles cover the air space above the 30,000-man Turkish Army Corps stationed in northern Cyprus, and can reach across the 40-mile gap separating the island from mainland Turkey, threatening Turkey's coastal air bases. Greek Cypriots have also recently finished a major air base at Paphos, designed to take Greek Air Force fighters, and are rushing to complete a nearby naval base to support the Greek warships.
In a replay of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Turkey has threatened to stop and board any ship bringing the missiles to Cyprus - or to attack them with air and commando forces if they are installed. Russia says the missiles will be transported on a special navy task force from the Atlantic Squadron, possibly led by the carrier `Admiral Kuznetsov.'
Russian troops will guard technicians installing the missiles. Any attack on the S-300 complex `will be considered an attack on Russia,' warns Moscow, which has a growing interest in Cyprus, where 20,000 Russians are now resident. Greek Cypriot crews have just completed training in Russia on the S-300's. Greeks believe the S-300's will help delay any future Turkish attack long enough for the great powers to intervene. Turkey threatens to annex northern Cyprus if the missiles are emplaced.
Tensions over the Aegean and Cyprus between old foes Greece and Turkey are boiling. As reported in this column last year, Greece and Syria have signed a pact allowing fighters of the Hellenic Air Force to use Syrian bases on the Mediterranean coast near Tartus and Latakia. In the event of war over Cyprus, Greek warplanes, flying from the distant Greek mainland and Rhodes, can only stay over Cyprus for a few minutes. Bases in Syria and Paphos (protected by the S-300 system) will permit Greek aircraft to operate at length over Cyprus, fly topcover for the crack Greek Navy, and attack Turkish transports bringing in more troops and armor.
Turkey, which has the second biggest army in NATO, is in a surly, belligerent mood. In recent weeks, its generals have been threatening to invade Syria. Ankara claims Syria is aiding Kurdish PKK rebels in Turkish eastern Anatolia. Turkey's accusations are true: Syria has long helped the PKK - to punish Turkey for employing the gigantic Ataturk Dam project to unilaterally grab half of Syria's and Irak's upstream water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
To further pressure Syria, and to gain an ally in their war against domestic Islamic opposition, the generals, who run Turkey behind a rapidly thinning facade of democratic government, have been deepening their new strategic alliance with Israel's rightwing government. Turkey and Israel are trying to draw Jordan into their new anti-Islamic axis. Turkish support has caused Israel to cease negotiating return of the Golan Heights to Syria.
Egypt has reacted with great concern, accusing Turkey of undermining Mideast peace by giving Israel's hardline Likud Party a big boost. The powerful Israel lobby in Washington has rewarded Turkey by making sure the US Congress does not cut aid to Ankara over Turkey's increasing violations of human and political rights. Israel's lobby is also blocking efforts by the influential Armenian and Greek lobbies to get Congress to halt aid to Turkey.
Turkey believes Greece and Iran are secretly funding its Kurdish rebels, helping neighboring Armenia in its war against Turkic Azerbaijan, and funding Kurdish PKK underground cells in Europe. Greek intelligence is almost certainly aiding the PKK and anti-Turkish Armenian militant groups in Lebanon.
At the heart of these growing regional tensions lies Cyprus. The burly Denktash, a skilled politician, writer, and amateur photographer, who has led Cyprus' 205,000 Turks for four decades, insists, like Quebec separatists, that Cyprus is a federation of two co-equal peoples. Greek Cypriots, by contrast, claim they are the sole legitimate government of the republic of Cyprus, which was established in 1960. Greek Cypriot leader Glafcos Clerides has been around just as long as the eternal Denktash, and is just as stubborn. The Greeks, who number 630,000, have offered the Cypriot Turks a self-governing autonomous state, but reject the Turk's claim to be equal partners.
Both sides argue violently over land. Turks, 24% of the population, occupy 37%. Greece say Turks should return seized lands and allow Greek refugees to return home. Denktash claims Turks owned 33% of Cyprus, but were evicted and massacred in 1963.
The real problem blocking two decades of attempts to solve the Cyprus dispute is psychological. Greeks are always in a state of high nervous agitation over Turks. The two hot- blooded peoples share 600 years of unhappy history, overladen by poisonous mythology, religious hatred, and pernicious racism.
The Greek orthodox Church routinely promotes anti-Turkish, anti-Muslim hysteria, calling for crusades to `liberate' Constantinople (Istanbul), the Aegean, and Cyprus. Greek politicians keep beating the war drums over Turkey whenever the economy goes bad. Put simply, Greeks believe they, not the despised Turks, are the sole, rightful masters of Cyprus. Greek Cypriots have managed to impose and economic and diplomatic blockade on isolated Turkish Cyprus, gravely damaging its weak economy.
Mainland Turks are more relaxed about Greeks, whom they outnumber 6 to 1. Turkish Cypriots, however, feel economically and psychologically outclassed and threatened by the clever, far more industrious and prosperous Greeks. They see how Greece's 150,000 Muslim minority in Thrace are second class citizens, and fear being swamped by the Greek Cypriot majority which harbors deep hatred for Turks. This is not a question of lack of mutual understanding. Alike Israelis and Palestinians, Greek and Turkish Cypriots know and mistrust each other all too well.
Rising tensions in Cyprus come when the Greek part of the island is on a fast-track to join the European Union. Admission will bring major economic benefits for Cyprus, which now thrives on Mideast trade, tourism, money laundering, and espionage. But what about the Turkish Cypriots? They would be far better off joining Europe, but fear losing Turkey's protection.
The west has got to solve the age-old Cyprus dispute before it sparks a major regional conflict. The best solution: reduce the Turkish-ruled portion to, say, 20-25%, pay compensation to Greeks and Turks who cannot return to their lost homes. Form a real federation between the mini-two states under a federal government run by a professional, paid Swiss president/CEO, in which minority rights are guaranteed by NATO, which has important bases in Cyprus. Get Cyprus into the EU, where its communal passions will be cooled, and the rule of law enforced.
The end of the 20th century is an excellent time to bury the long, bitter, bloody dispute between Greeks and Turks, two talented, life-loving, remarkable people - who are more alike culturally, emotionally, and intellectually than either would care to admit.
As President Denktash was leaving, I observed that there is some hope. Germans and French have become mutually respecting brother nations after three wars. Surely the intelligent, big-hearted Greeks and Turks could one day do the same? Denktash smiled, but did not reply.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]
Copyright © 1998 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved