Hoping to capitalize on the improved relations between Turkey and Greece, both victims of recent earthquakes, US president Bill Clinton is once again attempting to impose a political settlement on divided Cyprus. Last month, he appointed a new special envoy, Al Moses, for the island to replace Richard Holbrook, now US ambassador to the United Nations, who tried to several times last year to bring the Turkish and Greek Cypriots to the negotiating table. But considering Washington’s past support for the Greek Cypriots and the anti-Muslim bias of US special envoys for other areas, such as Bosnia and Sudan, Clinton’s repeated efforts to bring about a reunification of the island cannot be in the interest of its Turkish population.
Turkish troops entered Cyprus in 1974, after a Greek-inspired military coup which aimed to annex the island led to violent attacks on its Turkish Muslim population. Turkey then helped to establish the new, independent state of north Cyprus, and has maintained a 30,000-strong garrison there ever since to protect it from Greece. The operation, characterised as an ‘invasion’ in the west, led to a deterioration of relations between the US and Turkey, and Washington imposed an arms embargo on its Muslim NATO ally, and pressured its Muslim proxies and other countries not recognize the new state. To this day, north Cyprus has only been recognized by Ankara.
But relations between Turkey and Greece have improved dramatically since then, and prime minister Bulent Ecevit of Turkey is no longer the left-wing politician he was in 1974, when, as premier, he ordered the troops into northern Cyprus. Relations between Britain, the island’s former colonial ruler, and Turkey are also close. American and British warplanes fly from Turkish bases to bomb Iraq daily, and the left-wing Ecevit does not seem to mind.
Clinton ï who seems confident that he can persuade Ecevit to accept the US plan for Cyprus because of the changed circumstances of the dispute ï received the Turkish premier at the White House on September 28. After the meeting he said he was optimistic that a new ‘atmosphere of hope’ between Greece and Turkey could lead to progress in resolving the dispute. He also said that the US was strongly supportive of closer integration between Turkey and the European Union, but that much depended on continued improvements in human rights and other areas.
Statements by administration officials after the meeting, however, indicated that Ecevit had turned down the US request for early talks between the two Cypriot communities while agreeing to the assignment of the new US special envoy. “The Turkish leader supported the idea of sending Al Moses to the region to explore ways of moving toward a negotiated settlement,” they said.
On returning home, Ecevit declared that there was no such a thing as a Cypriot problem: it had been “solved in 1974.” The prime minister has to reckon with the views of the Turkish Cypriots, who oppose peace negotiations whether under UN or US auspices, and above all those of the Turkish army, which is the final arbiter of power in the land. Reports indicate that although Ecevit is opposed to UN-sponsored talks, he is open to persuasion on the issue of US mediation.
Ecevit’s public coolness towards Clinton’s proposal is also explained by Washington’s rejection of Ankara’s request for substantial aid for post-earthquake reconstruction. Turkish officials had said that they hoped the US could provide guarantees for about $5 billion in loans. But the Clinton administration, after consultation with Congress, offered backing for about $1 billion. Rather than risk losing face the prime minister turned down the offer of limited guarantees.
Ankara has also sought compensation for the $40 billion it lost as a result of its support for the Gulf War and the UN sanctions against Iraq. The loss in trade and commissions from the pipeline carrying Iraqi oil through its territory is substantial. Ankara also demanded privileges like those enjoyed by Jordan, which is allowed to trade with Iraq under the UN sanctions regime.
Turkey’s failure to obtain positive results from the Clinton-Ecevit summit on September 28 raises the question of whether Ankara would ditch the north-Cypriot cause if Washington and Greece came up with the appropriate bribe. Certainly the manner in which the Turkish government prepared for the summit shows that Ankara’s actions and ambitions are not governed by moral considerations. Three months before his Washington visit, Ecevit instructed his officials to step up Turkey’s cooperation with Israel and Jewish lobbies in the US in order to ‘court’ Congressmen who might veto the substantial amounts in aid and loan-guarantees that the administration was set to propose.
Another reason for Ankara to look for a way out of the stalemate in Cyprus is the substantial financial burden of funding and defending North Cyprus, where 30,000 Turkish troops are permanently based. Turkey’s economy is coming under especial strain because of the recent earthquake and because of the substantial loss of trade with Iraq. The aid and other concessions sought at the Washington summit, and securing the route of the oil pipeline out of Azerbaijan, would constribute massively towards solving Turkey’s economic problems.
But the biggest prize for a Turkish climb down would be entry into the EU. The secular elites that govern the country are keen to distance themselves from the country’s Islamic identity and to be seen as ‘European’ rather than as Muslim. Any secular politician would consider it an honour to be the leader to take Turkey into Europe.
The Clinton administration is also eager to see Turkey join the EU, provided entry is not at the expense of its NATO membership. Clinton knows that Turkey’s entry into the EU would weaken its links with the Muslim world while strengthening its links with Israel and the west. He would also like to see Turkey get rid of its Cypriot burden and the resulting tension with Greece so that it would be free to be of greater service to US interests in Central Europe and Central Asia.
But Ankara will have to show its readiness to play ball before Washington comes up with the big bribe. Ecevit has signalled that Ankara is open to persuasion by accepting Al Moses’ assignment as a special envoy to Cyprus. This is a setback to Rauf Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot leader, because the central plank of the US initiative is that the two Cypriot communities should resume negotiations, suspended in 1992, without prior conditions. Denktash insists that he will not join any talks unless north Cyprus is recognized as an independent state first. Denktash must be aware, however, of the very real possibility that Bulent Ecevit, the Turkish premier who sent troops to Cyprus 25 years ago, could well prove to be the premier who brings them home again, leaving the Turkish Cypriots to the Greeks’ tender mercies.
Muslimedia: October 16-31, 1999