On March 29 Turkish Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit dismissed suggestions that the recent agreement to resume negotiations to reunify Cyprus would lead to the withdrawal of the estimated 35,000 Turkish troops deployed in the north of the island.
On March 21 newly elected Cypriot President Demetris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat met for the first high-level direct talks between the two sides for nearly two years. They agreed to open the Ledra Street crossing in Nicosia, establish a number of working groups and technical committees, and prepare a detailed agenda for reunification negotiations in advance of another meeting in June 2008 (see EDM, March 24).
On March 26 Buyukanit arrived in the Turkish Cypriot-controlled north of the island for a three-day official visit. It was the first time he had visited the island since becoming chief of staff in August 2006. Turkish military sources insisted that the visit had been scheduled long in advance and was unrelated to the meeting between Christofias and Talat. However, relations between Talat and the Turkish military have often been tense. Talat has frequently resented the Ankara government’s tendency to dictate policy to the Turkish Cypriots. While hard-line Turkish nationalists, including many in the Turkish military, have often suspected that Talat may be too willing to make concessions to the Greek Cypriots and lack the commitment of his predecessor, Rauf Denktas, to preserving the north’s status as a de facto Turkish protectorate. As a result, Buyukanit’s visit was regarded by many – particularly in the Greek Cypriot south of the island – as an attempt to put pressure on Talat ahead of the forthcoming negotiations.
The Greek Cypriots have long insisted that the 35,000 Turkish troops in northern Cyprus must be withdrawn, or at least reduced to a token level, as part of any comprehensive settlement. However, no Turkish government has ever been bold enough to tell the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) to withdraw its troops from anywhere, least of all from Cyprus. Even if many Turks resent both the huge diplomatic price that Turkey continues to pay for its 1974 invasion of the island and what they frequently perceive as the Turkish Cypriots’ ingratitude for Turkey’s sacrifices, most still regard Cyprus as a matter of national honor. Publicly, Turkish officials insist that the troops are needed to prevent a repeat of the discrimination, isolation, and violence suffered by the Turkish Cypriots prior to the 1974 invasion. Privately, they also often argue that a military foothold on Cyprus is vital to the security both of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast and the shipping routes to the port of Mersin and the oil terminals at Iskenderun and Ceyhan. However, it is unclear where a threat would come from. It would certainly be foolish in the extreme for the tiny Greek Cypriot armed forces to risk a confrontation with what is, together with Israel, one of the two strongest military powers in the region.
After meeting with Buyukanit on March 26, Talat reassured his visitor by issuing a public statement declaring that the Turkish troops would remain in northern Cyprus until a “just and lasting peace had been achieved” (Milliyet, Hurriyet, Vatan, Sabah, March 27).
However, Talat did not say what he meant by a just and lasting peace being “achieved” or to what extent he would support a reduction in the Turkish deployment in northern Cyprus. One of the key issues in the forthcoming negotiations is likely to be the timetable for a phased withdrawal of Turkish troops, particularly how many will remain on the island while any agreement is being implemented – with the Greek Cypriots likely to insist that a substantial troop reduction is a precondition for any agreement coming into effect. Speaking at a press conference on March 29, shortly before he flew back to Turkey, Buyukanit insisted that a substantial number of troops from Turkey would have to remain on the island for an unspecified length of time after any agreement had come into effect.
“There can’t just be any old agreement,” said Buyukanit. “The TAF are the guarantee of a permanent peace on the island. If a permanent peace [agreement] is secured on the island, then the Turkish soldiers will remain on the island to ensure that it is applied” (NTV, CNNTurk, March 29).
Buyukanit also made it clear that he believed that any comprehensive settlement would need to respect the sovereignty of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which was established in the north of the island in 1983 but which has so far only been recognized by Turkey. Nor did he attempt to conceal his desire for the TRNC to remain a de facto Turkish protectorate.
“Whether people recognize it or not, the TRNC is a sovereign state,” said Buyukanit. “As a soldier, it makes me happy to see the Turkish and TRNC flag flying side by side” (NTV, CNNTurk, March 29).
Since March 21, Turkish and Greek Cypriot officials have held two meetings and agreed to establish six working groups and seven technical committees. Each one will focus on a separate aspect of the comprehensive negotiations that are due to begin in June (Cyprus Mail, March 30). Preliminary work has also begun on the Ledra Street crossing, which is currently scheduled to be opened before April 7.
Nevertheless, underneath the optimism generated by gestures such as the opening of the Ledra Street crossing and the agreement to resume the negotiation process, many observers remain skeptical about whether the latest initiative will succeed, while so many others have foundered on decades of mutual suspicion and distrust. Logically, all of the sides in the Cyprus dispute – including Greece and Turkey as well as the Turkish and Greek Cypriots – have much to gain from a comprehensive settlement. However, if logic had been the primary determinant, the issue would have been settled decades ago.
In an interview with the Turkish Cypriot news portal Yurtsever Kibrisli, a Turkish Cypriot identified as Ali Katipoglu commented: “Opening gates doesn’t mean anything. What is needed is to tear down the walls in people’s minds” (Yurtsever Kibrisli, March 30).