Cyprus Mail
CM Regular Columnist Opinion

Where is Turkey going: thinking the unthinkable

Iconic photo - Turkish tanks standing by as fighting rages in Kobani

By Alper Ali Riza

RECENT PICTURES of Turkish tanks on the Turkish-Syrian border poised to roll into action but frozen in ruthless inaction while Kobani burned captured a moment in history worth a thousand words. The pictures also evoked mixed emotions in Cyprus where in August 1974 Turkish tanks did actually roll into action, the consequences of which are felt intensely to this day. Feelings of indignation, bitterness and frustration among Greek Cypriots, gratitude and respect but dislocation and sadness among Turkish Cypriots.

The decision not to send the tanks into Syria was obviously the right one. It was insensitive of the Americans to ask Turkey to assist terrorist organisations responsible for the deaths of 40,000 Turkish citizens just because the US and Britain – the bad Samaritans who “walked on the other side” while 200,000 Syrians were killed and millions displaced – do not have the stomach to send in ground troops of their own. At least Turkey has provided refuge to 130,000 Syrian Kurds and over a million others compared with the pathetic 50 refugees the British offered to take.

Be that as it may, the pictures were iconic and showed Erdoğan’s Turkey as weak, indecisive and unprincipled. If the tanks were not going to be used they should not have been deployed so conspicuously close to the action. They should have been kept out of sight because standing by and not helping while a city is burning a few hundred metres away was bound to backfire and damage the reputation of Turkey internationally, making it seem callous as well as supportive of Islamic extremism.

The effect of this ambivalence about Islamic extremism on many Turkish Cypriots is to wonder if this will lead to a fundamental realignment that would make Turkey unsuitable as a guarantor power in Cyprus. Turkey has a special place in the hearts of most Turkish Cypriots, but it is the Turkey of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk that has pride of place. Not the regimes that came and went, nor the caliphate of the sultans, nor the illusory neo-Ottoman dreams of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, nor indeed the quasi-Islamic Turkey of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but the secular modern European state envisaged by Atatürk.

Many Turkish Cypriots were not aware there was a religious struggle between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, which seems to be behind the sectarian wars in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, until fairly recently most Turkish Cypriots did not know the precise difference between Sunni and Shiite Islam and cared even less. In any case the struggle for the succession of the caliphate after the death of the Prophet Muhammad was not primarily religious but political and sectarian, as far as Turkish Cypriots are concerned, and ended in Turkey with the abolition of the caliphate by Atatürk in 1924. It is to the credit of Atatürk and a measure of his statesmanship that he resisted pressure from Asian Muslims to become caliph himself, preferring to concentrate on setting up the secular Republic of Turkey, instead of resurrecting the caliphate.

The nature and character of Turkish Cypriots as a people has been shaped by a number of important influences. The achievements and personality of Atatürk, political developments in Turkey, Turkish language and culture, English law and culture and last but not least their love-hate relationship with Greek Cypriots.

Religion, however, has not been a major influence and certainly not as important as that of the Greek Orthodox Church among Greek Cypriots. Friday prayers are not an event in Turkish Cypriot life and very few Turkish Cypriot women cover their heads these days. For the seriously religious it gets worse, because alcohol is freely available and there are casinos everywhere, most of them Turkish owned. There is also a significant and vociferous British community in north Cyprus, and many Turkish Cypriots live and work in Britain and Cyprus with properties in both. Many Turkish Cypriots are British citizens and all them are citizens of the EU, which means they are free to live, work and study anywhere in the EU.

Mainland Turkish presence and influence in north Cyprus is ubiquitous and unregulated. Turkey intervened in Cyprus in 1974 in accordance with the Treaty of Guarantee ostensibly to safeguard the independence of Cyprus but in truth to reassert Turkish strategic interests and safeguard the security of the Turkish Cypriots. That was then. Now many Turkish Cypriots are extremely concerned about the appearance of extremist Islam in Turkey and the possibility of Turkey’s realignment away from the West. They do not regard President Erdoğan’s Turkey with the same respect and affection as they did the secular Turkey of Atatürk which they feel is being deliberately eroded by the present government in Turkey.

President Erdoğan has compelled Turkish Cypriots to think the unthinkable about what would happen if Turkey became an extremist religious country and unsuitable to act as a guarantor power. Not many people remember the Treaty of Guarantee between Turkey and Cyprus. The other state parties are Britain and Greece. Under the agreement each of the guarantor powers has the right to take remedial action in the event of a breach of the treaty. The breach that occurred in 1974 was an attempt by Greek army officers to unite Cyprus with Greece, which is expressly prohibited by the treaty.

The right of the three guarantor powers to take military action is controversial. It was included as a result of the delicately balanced independence arrangements that enabled Cyprus to become independent in 1960 and was designed to avoid union with Greece by the Greek Cypriots and partition by the Turkish Cypriots.

The treaty is recognised by the UN and has to be read in a way that is consistent with the UN Charter. Military action under the Treaty of Guarantee is permissible to preserve the independence of Cyprus in the context of the right to self-defence or a request based on self-defence.

In the context of those restrictions on the use of force under the UN Charter, the Treaty of Guarantee is of procedural rather than substantive importance. Its existence concentrates the mind against any attempt at union or partition and imposes an obligation on the guarantors to consult and seek concerted action before acting unilaterally. Otherwise the treaty does not authorise any of the guarantor powers to use force over and above what is authorised by the UN Charter.

After World War II the system of security based on guarantees is outmoded and not relevant in a world order based on a permanent peace rather than periods of peace between wars. If the Turkish Cypriots manage to sort out the Cyprus problem within the structures and institutions of the EU, their security will cease to be an issue and the need for guarantees will be obsolete. After all, most of the countries in the EU fought two world wars, often on opposite sides, and yet do not need guarantees because their best guarantee is membership of the EU itself.

The founding fathers of the EU set it up to prevent war, and whatever its faults in this respect the EU has been a spectacular success. But for the Turkish Cypriots the EU is also the best example of the meaning of political equality, a principle President Rauf Denktash had tried to persuade the Greek Cypriots about since 1960. So the tension in Turkey between secularism and religion is also an opportunity. Sometimes thinking the unthinkable is no bad thing.

Alper Ali Riza QC of Goldsmith Chambers Temple London, is a barrister and one of HM part time judges. This article was first published in Today’s Zaman

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