TCS Daily

Cyprus: NATO's Internal Cold War

By Michael Totten - January 11, 2006 12:00 AM

If you live in the United States, the Mediterranean island of Cyprus is not a place you are ever likely to see. Most visitors are middle class tourists from Europe -- Britain, mainly -- who buy cheap package vacations at tacky resorts on the beach. Cyprus is troubled by foreign occupation and ethnic division, but you wouldn't know it from looking at the coastal area where most tourists go. This region looks neither European nor Mediterranean, and has little feeling of identity, history, or place. Agia Napa, in particular, looks and feels like a gigantic outdoor fraternity house. It brings to mind people who drank to forget and have succeeded.

But the capital of Nicosia is interesting because it is troubled. It is the last divided capital in the world, partitioned, as it is, between the Republic of Cyprus on the southern side of the island, which is ethnically Greek, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on the other. And here is where NATO fights its own internal cold war.

The border slashes right through the heart of the city. There it is called the Green Line. Elsewhere on the island it is called the Attila Line after the Turkish invasion in 1974 that carved up the island.

You can see the division from miles away. The main highway into Nicosia from the south directly faces the jagged Pentadactylos Mountains on the Turkish side of the island. An enormous Turkish Cypriot flag, a flag the size of a town, is painted on the side of those mountains. Every Greek Cypriot driving into the city has no choice but to look right at that crescent and star. You can drink and forget in Agia Napa, but not in Nicosia or anywhere near it.

Greek Cypriots away from the coast don't want to forget, though. And they want visitors to know all about what happened, at least from their point of view. Stamped across the top half of the map that came with my rental car were the words "Area Inaccessible Because of the Turkish Occupation." Those words weren't even true. All you need to enter the north is a passport.

I rather liked Nicosia. It isn't the most exciting city around, but unlike the asteroid belt of coastal resorts it has an identity and a sense of place. The Ottoman look and feel inside the medieval walls reminded me of old Lebanon. The twisting streets weren't quite too narrow for cars. But traffic has been blocked from a few of the main streets. Pedestrians can leisurely shop, have a nice meal, sip an espresso in a bohemian coffee shop, or have a drink in an upscale snazzy bar.

I kept walking north, though, away from the boutique stores and the street life, and ran smack into what looked like a war zone.

Houses and shops along the Green Line had been derelict for 31 years. Almost a third of a century's worth of rot had set in. Streets running further north were barricaded with barbed wire, sand bags, and oil barrels filled with poured concrete. Military posts were ubiquitous. It was not possible to cross any of them.

I found a vacant house near the line with furniture still inside. Decades of dust coated the surface of everything. Many houses in the area had no roofs at all. Some were missing even their walls. They were destroyed by the Turks in their assault on the city. Nicosia is not a ghost town. But it does have its ghost streets.

The most starting view of the Green Line can be seen on a viewing platform the Greek Cypriot government erected just for this purpose. I walked up a small flight of steps, stood next to soldiers armed with machine guns, and looked straight out into a scene of vast desolation.

I saw broken windows, bricks in the streets, and weeds pushing up through the cracks. Faded storefront signs were still clearly visible. Goods for sale in 1974 were still displayed behind what filthy windows had not yet been shattered. Lines of laundry were still hung up to dry after all this time. Painted across the top of the platform was a slogan in broken English: "Nothing is Gained Without Sacrifices and Freedom Without Blood."

Right next to the platform was a room displaying enlarged faded photographs from 1974. These photos, which had since been turned into posters, showed the grieving relatives of family members who had gone missing after the Turkish invasion. Many of the people in these photos held aloft their own photos of missing loved ones, most of whom were never heard from again. A grieving little girl was shown holding up a picture of a man who presumably was her dead father. It was a devastating display.

But the Greek Cypriots took things too far. Just down the street I found another series of posters using photographs to document Turkish atrocities. One of those photos showed the World Trade Center in New York City.

The Turkish invasion of Cyprus can't be connected in any way to what happened on September 11, 2001. It was obvious why the spurious connection was made, even so. Those who committed the 9/11 atrocities are Muslims, as are the Turks.

To that I say, so? The division of Cyprus, while tragic, had nothing whatsoever to do with Islamist jihad. When Greek Cypriots wave their bloody shirt, it brings to mind their own role in the disaster.

The overwhelming majority on the island, around 80 percent or so, are ethnically Greek. The rest are ethnically Turkish. Yet Cyprus has never been part of Greece. It belonged to the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I. After the Ottomans lost it, the British Empire ruled it.

In the 1950s the EOKA guerilla movement arose that sought to overthrow British colonial rule and achieve enosis, or union, with Greece. It didn't work out. But Cyprus was granted a limited amount of independence by Britain.

Then in the late 1960s Colonel George Papadapoulos violently seized power in Greece. The Greek junta in Athens sponsored the return of EOKA as a virulently right-wing terrorist organization which rebranded itself EOKA-B. Unlike the original EOKA which, for the most part, waged war against the colonial occupiers, EOKA-B waged its war against Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot civilians.

Papadapolous was bad for Greece, and he was bad for Cyprus. But he wasn't the worst bad actor around. In the 1960s General Dimitrios Ioannides advocated a brutal "solution" to the "problem" of Turkish Cypriots to Archbishop Makarios: "To attack the Turkish Cypriots suddenly, everywhere on the island, and eliminate them to the last one." Genocide, in other words. And in 1973, Ioannides seized power in Greece from Papadapolous.

Ioannides sponsored yet another military coup, this time in Cyprus, that overthrew the elected and popular civilian Makarios government. He installed Nicos Sampson as the new ruler of Cyprus. Sampson, who also at one time advocated genocide against Turkish Cypriots, launched a ruthless campaign of terror against leftist, liberal, and democratic Greek Cypriots who dared to stand up to his rule. Turkish Cypriots, who had every reason in the world to believe Ioannides and Samson planned to destroy them, hunkered down in ghettoes and appealed to Turkey for help.

The Turks had the real opportunity to be saviors here, not only of Turkish Cypriots, but also of Greek Cypriots and even Greeks in Greece. That, for a month anyway, is exactly what they were. Turkey launched a limited invasion of Cyprus and occupied a small part of the island in July 1974. Ioannides' military regime in Greece promptly collapsed. Power was handed back to civilians. Ioannides was thrown into the slammer. When the junta in Cyprus found itself without its patron in Athens, it too promptly collapsed -- and collapsing the very same day.

The Turks should have stopped there. Civilian rule had been restored in two countries thanks in large part to them. Turkish Cypriot civilians really were rescued from the depredations of unelected Greek and Greek Cypriot thugs who threatened to massacre them. Yet they just couldn't help themselves. For years the Turkish military elite had been eyeballing Cyprus as an old Ottoman holding that they wanted back. And so, using the real threat to Turkish Cypriot civilians -- a threat that for the most part had already been vanquished -- Turkey cut Cyprus in half. Then Turkey forced nearly all the Greek Cypriots on the northern half the island to move south of the partition Line. The displaced were, and are, forbidden from returning to their old homes.

In 1983 the Turkish Cypriot side of the island declared itself an independent country called the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. No country in the world aside from Turkey has ever recognized its legitimacy or even its existence.

All of this is deplorable. It's even worse because it could have been prevented. The British military stood by in its barracks on Cyprus when the Greek junta took over and again when Turkey invaded. Worse still is the fact that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger supported not only the military regime in Athens and its sidekick junta in Cyprus, but also the Turkish invasion and partition. The Nixon Administration was consistent at least: At every turn, it stood foursquare with the bad actors in all three countries.

Back at the hotel on the Greek side my traveling companion bought a bottle of water from the bartender in the lobby. He accidentally put Turkish lira, which he had acquired on the north side of the island, on the bar.

"What is this?" the bartender said.
"Oops," my friend said. "That's offensive money."
"But what is it?" the bartender said. He really didn't know.
"It's Turkish," I said.
"You got it in the occupied zone?" he said.
"Yes," I said.
"They use Turkish money in the occupied zone?" he said. How could he not know this?
"Yes," I said.
"I have never been there," he said.
"Are you allowed to go there?" I said.
"Yes," he said. His eyes flashed murderously. "But, I won't."

I wanted to tell him it's nice up there, actually, that it's peaceful. The sinister looking Attila Line is only one part of the story. But I didn't want to offend. I didn't want him to brand me a "Turkish sympathizer," although I guess I am such -- as much as I am a Greek Cypriot sympathizer.

In hindsight maybe I should have told him the north was perfectly pleasant. It can only look sinister if you've never been there and you're standing on the Greek side looking into it. And if my bartender friend has never been there, if he doesn't even know what kind of money circulates there, and if everyone he meets balks at telling him the other side isn't Mordor, how could he be expected to know? He can only find out that the Turkish Cypriots aren't Huns through people like me, who don't have old grievances to nurse.

The Cyprus war (if it can fairly be called that since it was mostly ginned up from abroad) is a cold one. You might even say it's a dead one. No shots are fired across the border.

But peace, real peace, does not yet exist. The enemies on each side of the line, ironically, are otherwise nominal allies. Greece is a member of NATO. Turkey is a member of NATO. The (Greek) Republic of Cyprus is a member of the European Union. Turkey hopes one day to join the European Union.

The West, if Turkey is to be a formal part of the West with its admission to the EU as well as to NATO, cannot and should not abide a militarized frontier that slashes right through it. NATO was forged to counter the threat from the Soviet Union. Now that the common enemy no longer exists, NATO makes no sense whatever if some of its member states seethe in lesser cold wars with each other. The European Union, likewise, cannot function if two of its member states are geared up for war over bad blood, dead soil and old ghosts. It is long past time for these formerly great imperial nations to come to some kind of settlement -- for everyone's sake, not just their own.

Michael J. Totten is based in Beirut, Lebanon. He is a TCS columnist whose work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the LA Weekly, and Beirut's Daily Star. Please visit his daily Web log and Middle East Journal at


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