On January 20, the Turkish military began an invasion of the Kurdish-controlled Afrin region in northern Syria. Turkey’s government has declared that its operation aims “to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity,” remove “terrorist elements,” and protect civilians.
The Independent, however, published the first Western media report from Afrin, and Robert Fisk reports that the list of dead includes infants. “One-year old Wael al-Hussein, a refugee…was killed on 21 January, six-year old Moussab al-Hussein from Idlib (clearly from another refugee family) on the same day,” he writes.
Many journalists in Turkey, in the meanwhile, are rubbing their hands. Necati Doğru, a columnist with one of the most read Turkish newspapers, Sözcü, for example, proudly declares that Afrin “should be Turkey’s second Cyprus.” He writes: “You can’t say ‘I will enter Syria, strike them, cleanse the area and return. You should stay there permanently. We are having our second Cyprus.”
The Turkish invasion of Cyprus is considered a “victory” in Turkey and is celebrated every year. For the Republic of Cyprus, however, it was and still is a horrific crime that has completely changed the country ever since.
In 1974, Turkey claimed it was bringing “peace” to Cyprus, which it invaded with a brutal military assault that it calls the “Cyprus peace operation.” The Turkish military code-named the invasion “Operation Attila,” named after Attila the Hun (reigned 434-453 CE). A Turkic military leader from Central Asia, he is known for his ruthless and destructive campaigns and invasions, including those targeting Western and Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empires, and at one time he invaded Italy, devastating its northern provinces.
Following the invasion of the Republic of Cyprus in 1974, Turkey deployed around 40,000 of its soldiers in the northern part of the island, which has turned Cyprus into the most militarized turf in the world. Since the invasion, some 37 percent of Cypriot territory has been under Turkish occupation. Bülent Ecevit, Turkey’s prime minister at the time of the invasion, is still hailed by many in the country as “the conqueror of Cyprus,” although others have recently claimed that it is Necmettin Erbakan, the then deputy PM, who actually deserves the title.
The campaign was accompanied by mass murder, abduction, and rape of Greek Cypriots by Turkish troops. The European Commission on Human Rights has documented the rape of women and children aged 12 to 71.
In their article titled “Gender and Genocide: Armenian and Greek Women Finding Positive Meaning in the Horror,” scholars Artemis Pippinelli and Ani Kalayjian detail the sexual assaults by Turkish troops against Greek Cypriot women and children, which they call the “Cyprus gendercide.” They write:
Rape victims suffered severe gynecological problems as well as psychological trauma. In some cases, women were forced into prostitution. Many were collected from different villages and held in separate rooms of empty houses where they were repeatedly raped by Turkish soldiers. In other cases, members of the same family were repeatedly raped, some in front of their children. Rapes also occurred in public before spectators. The brutality of these violent sexual attacks was followed by extreme physical trauma, including near suffocation. Children and pregnant or mentally retarded women were not spared.
In 1983, Turkey proceeded to issue the unilateral declaration of independence of a new “state” in Cyprus which they call “the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC). Only Turkey recognizes the TRNC, which has transformed northern Cyprus into a Turkish province.
Turks have applied the same methods used to de-Hellenize and Turkify Asia Minor (today’s Turkey), which had a Greek majority until the 1453 Turkish sack of Constantinople (Istanbul), to Turkify northern Cyprus.
For example, the Greek geographical names of the occupied north have been changed to Turkish names. And the violent destruction of the cultural heritage of the area at the hands of its Turkish regime is still ongoing. Hundreds of historic and religious monuments have been destroyed, looted, and vandalized. Many churches have been converted into stables, casinos, nightclubs, warehouses, barracks, and mosques, among other things.
And worshippers in those mosques in the occupied area are now reciting the Koranic verse Surah al Fath (verse of conquest) “for the victory of Turkey’s military operation on Afrin” every day until the invasion ends—as instructed by the government-funded Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet).
Turkey also rejects the Greek identity of Cyprus. According to the official website of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Cyprus has never been a Greek island,” and “there has never been in Cyprus a ‘Cypriot nation.’”
The Turkish ministry is wrong. Not until the Turkish invasion in 1974 did the northern part of the island have a Turkish majority. The occupation forced around 170,000 indigenous Greek Cypriot inhabitants of northern Cyprus out of their homes and flee to the free, southern part of the island. The Turkish government then replaced Greek Cypriot natives with illegal settlers from Turkey, thus forcibly changing the demographic status-quo of the island. That is how a Turkish majority was created in the northern part of Cyprus, which had always had a Greek majority until 1974.
Similarly, Erdogan refuses to recognize Kurdish rule in Afrin, declaring his plan for changing the demographic status-quo there.
“Fifty-five percent of the population of Afrin is Arab, 35 percent is Kurds, who were settled there later, and 6 or 7 percent is Turkmen. The entire issue is to give Afrin back to its real owners. Our aim is to immediately send the 3.5 million Syrians in Turkey back to their homeland,” he said in a public speech.
In recent years, Turkish expansionism has become alarmingly popular within pro-government groups. Turkey’s new maps, published by the pro-government media, have even reclaimed the Ottoman Empire, including Greece and Iraq.
In parallel to that, many Turkish politicians from both the government and opposition have publicly expressed their desire to invade and capture Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. Most recently, Yigit Bulut, one of Erdogan’s principal advisers, has threatened Greece over the islet of Imia, which Turks call “Kardak.” He said:
Athens will face the wrath of Turkey worse than that in Afrin. We will break the arms and legs of officials, of the Prime Minister [Alexis Tsipras] and any minister who dares to step on the Kardak islet in the Aegean. There is not an armed force in this region that could contend against the Turkish armed forces. So, everyone will know their place. All imperialists will accept that the people in this land are Turks and the nation in this land is Islamic ummah [nation] and they will kiss the hand that they cannot bend.
In the meanwhile, the Greek Defense Ministry announced that Turkey violated Greek airspace 138 times in one day alone, on February 1.
Since 1974, Turkey has been a proud and unapologetic occupier in Cyprus. Now Turkish authorities are targeting Afrin, knowing from past experience that they will not be held accountable. They can kill and torture civilians and commit campaigns of ethnic cleansing wherever they wish. Yesterday, their target was northern Cyprus; today it is northern Syria. What country will be the next target? Before even greater catastrophes occur in the region, Turkey has to be reminded that the Ottoman Empire is dead and will never be resurrected.
Uzay Bulut, a journalist and political analyst born in Turkey, is currently based in Washington, DC. She is an associate fellow of the Philos Project. Her journalistic work focuses mainly on Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities, political Islam, and the history of Turkey. Follow her on Twitter: @uzayb.
Photo Credit: Turkish M47 Patton tank deployed to Cyprus in 1974.