Whether by shelling Kurdish fighters in Syria or downing a Russian fighter jet, Turkey undeniably seems more willing to protect and sustain ISIS rather than confront it. This shouldn’t come as a surprise because Turkey has been conducting politics with the same old field manuals for decades. Proxy warfare to destabilise a region and further strategic ends has not been the brainchild of AKP’s government, but has rather been a staple in Turkish military thinking for decades, starting with the Armenian, Pontian Greek and Assyrian Genocides.
So while the nebulous ISIS became a household name, very few heard of TMT (Türk Mukavemet Teşkilatı), a paramilitary formation that operated as a Turkish proxy in Cyprus between 1957 and 1964. TMT unified under its banner several other political and paramilitary organisations operating since 1955. Its objective was to create the necessary destabilising conditions that would facilitate a Turkish military invasion in order to artificially partition the island into two ethnically clean zones. To do that, it employed provocations, assassinations, fomentation of inter-communal strife, and large-scale demographic engineering.
I will juxtapose today’s events with examples from Cyprus sixty years ago, focusing on ISIS and the Turkmen militias, which are the ones closest to Turkey.
Provocations and False-Flag Operations
The first and most glaring similarity between ISIS and TMT is their benefit from state-orchestrated provocations and false-flag operations, with the dual purpose of radicalising extremists and galvanising Turkish opinion. A Turkmen who allegedly smuggled weapons for MİT was linked to the May 2013 Reyhanlı explosions. According to leaked conversations, in March 2014, Ahmet Davutoğlu and the head of MİT discussed the possibility of a false-flag “direct attack” against the Tomb of Suleiman Shah in Syria to “make up a reason for war”. Then in December 2014, a known whistle-blower suggested that MİT was “planning to blow up crowded areas” to curb internal opposition. And in July this year, the Kurdish opposition leader Selahattin Demirtaş accused the government of instigating the Suruç bombing, which killed dozens of Kurdish peace activists.
It was exactly these sorts of activities that ushered Turkey into the Cyprus problem. In September 1955, the government of Adnan Menderes instigated the Septemvrianá pogroms against the Greek community of Constantinople. The pogroms, which also hit the Armenian and Jewish communities particularly hard, were ignited by an insignificant bomb blast at the Turkish Consulate in Thessaloniki, and placed by an agent provocateur of the Turkish secret services. He later became the governor of Nevşehir.
In 1958, another bomb at the Press Office of the Turkish Consulate in Nicosia led to the first serious conflicts between Cypriot Greeks and Cypriot Turks on the island. The leader of TMT Rauf Denktaş admitted that the bomb was placed by “Turkish teddyboys”. These incidents, accompanied by a sustained propaganda campaign, cultivated and nurtured the hate against Cypriot Greeks, who at the time were waging an anti-colonial, national-liberation revolution in pursuit of self-determination.
TMT called for its members to join the British colonial police as auxiliaries. They often used their privileged positions to further TMT’s goals, with many serving as brutal torturers of Cypriot Greek political prisoners. It is easy to understand that the British colonial authorities were rubbing their hands with glee as the attention was partially deflected from them. But many British officials acknowledged in their internal reports that the situation was getting far beyond their control as they were playing with fire. And that’s exactly what happened.
TMT’s activity didn’t cease after the establishment of the fragile Republic of Cyprus in 1960. In 1962, two other bombs tore apart the Bayraktar and Ömeriye mosques in Nicosia. General Sabri Yirmibeşoğlu, once the commander of the special warfare department of the Turkish army, inadvertently confessed in 2010 that the blasts were a result of a provocation, justifying it by saying that “in special war, certain acts of sabotage are staged and blamed on the enemy to increase public resistance”. These actions paved the way for the “Bloody Christmas” of 1963, which opened a new round of fierce inter-communal strife which lasted well into 1964.
Destabilisation Patterns and False Victimhood as a Pretext
The second similarity is the chronological succession of destabilising events that make overt Turkish intervention “justifiable”. Turkmens took up arms against Assad after the uprising of 2011. MİT had been arming both ISIS and Turkmen paramilitaries since at least 2011. In 2013, it trucked weapons to the Bayır-Bucak Turkmens under the guise of humanitarian aid. British jihadi volunteers and double-cabin trucks were also channelled through Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus. ISIS officers “mostly speak in Turkish“ as they cooperate with the Turkish army which has been directly and indirectly assisting them.
Many Turkish nationals moved to ISIS after purposefully joining the Free Syrian Army for a while. The “Syrian Turkmen” commander who allegedly killed the Russian pilot is a Turkish national, the son of a Turkish mayor, and a member of the Grey Wolves ultranationalists, a group intrinsically linked to the Turkish “deep state”. It is clear that Turkey’s general meddling took place prior to its accusation of an imminent “ethnic cleansing”, “massacre”, “slaughter” or “genocide” of the Turkmens by, either or all, the Syrian government, the Russians, the Kurds, and even ISIS, and “their” subsequent calls for a Turkish intervention.
It is through these seemingly minor details that the pattern emerges. Both in the cases of Cyprus and Syria, Turkey cries foul well in advance, while it proactively equips the party that is supposed to be the victim of an attack! Remember that even the Genocide was justified on the grounds that Armenians were conspiring with Christian European powers against the declining Ottoman Empire.
Prior to the 1955 anti-Hellenic pogroms, a spurious story was circulated that AKEL, the Cypriot Greek communist party, and the only party with a strong base of Cypriot Turkish supporters, was supposedly planning an “imminent massacre” of Cypriot Turks, which even the British denied. The provocative bomb, along with this ludicrous accusation provided the necessary fuel of hatred. And throughout its terror campaign on the island itself, which included the slaughter and beheading of the innocent Cypriot Greek villagers of Kontemenos in 1958, TMT maintained that its actions were aimed to avert a “massacre” of Cypriot Turks. All of the above occurred despite Cypriot Greek revolutionaries reassuring Cypriot Turks as early as July 1955 that their lives, property and dignity won’t be harmed as they were considered “genuine friends and allies”.
In October 1959, while negotiations between Britain, Greece and Turkey for the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus were taking place, Turkey continued to secretly arm and equip TMT in order to destabilise a state that had not even come into being, and which was supposed to be a compromise that was largely catering to its interests. A British minesweeper intercepted Deniz, a Turkish motorboat loaded with Turkish army personnel, rifles, bombs, and ammunition. It was just one of many.
Between 1959 and 1963 Turkey continued to clandestinely channel arms through secluded anchorages and train Cypriot Turks. Major İsmail Tansu, a Turkish army officer, was the head of TMT and its hierarchy was comprised of many other serving Turkish officers. Its operational centre was the feared Özel Harp Dairesi. Using TMT, Turkey instigated conflict all over the island, crippled the dysfunctional consociational state, and forced the Cypriot Turks, often at gunpoint and against their will, to move into tightly controlled ghetto-like enclaves, despite having for centuries lived in mixed villages alongside Cypriot Greeks.
In August 1964, and in order to protect TMT’s leadership (which found itself isolated in a small area after a Cypriot government counter-offensive), Turkish fighter jets bombed the area of Tillyria. Turkey threatened to invade, only to be halted by the diplomatic interventions of USA and USSR. From 1964 until 1974, when the Turkish military invasion did eventually take place, the Cypriot Greeks had the military superiority, the political freedom, and plenty of opportunities to “massacre” the Cypriot Turks had they truly wished to do so. Yet, they refused.
Policy of Denial and Silencing of Opposition
The third similarity relates to the vehement denial by Turkey of its operations, no matter how well-documented they might be, a trend established since the Genocides. But criticism is also actively silenced with physical intimidation. After the Suleiman Shah Tomb conversations were leaked, access to social networking sites was blocked on national security grounds. An American journalist who reported trafficking of ISIS militants in World Food Organisation trucks died in a suspicious car accident. Journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, editors of Cumhuriyet, were arrested and prosecuted on charges of “treason”, “espionage” and “terrorist propaganda” for exposing the channelling of weapons and the interlinks between ISIS and the Turkmens.
The comparison here has an ironically macabre twist. In April 1962, a Cypriot Turkish newspaper with the same name, Cumhuriyet, published information from the investigative work of journalists Ayhan Hikmet and Ahmet Muzaffer Gürkan. The latter concluded that those responsible for the bombings of the two mosques were Cypriot Turkish criminals with the purpose of re-igniting inter-communal conflict. The journalists eschewed TMT’s methods and plans for partition and supported peaceful coexistence. Denktaş accused them of being agents of the Cypriot government. Masked TMT members then broke into their houses at night and murdered them, averting the publication of the perpetrators’ names.
Western audiences are often unable to comprehend Turkish transformations and rapidly shifting allegiances because they are not aware of the country’s “perennial insecurity complex”, and the “national security syndrome” which animates them.
The examples presented are only droplets in an ocean of possible comparisons, but are adequate to confirm the pattern. Turkey takes advantage of the fluctuating relationships amongst the myriads of anti-Assad forces, using the tactical and operational methodology already used in Cyprus. ISIS serves as a useful destabilising tool, and with the pretext of protecting the Turkmens, Turkey furthers its expansionist agenda in the wider context of creating a regional new world order of neo-Ottomanism.
Lambros George Kaoullas has completed his BA in Sociology & Criminology at the University of Essex, England, with a brief exchange period at the Universitetet i Bergen in Norway. He earned his MSc in Criminology & Criminal Justice at The University of Edinburgh. He is currently a Doctoral Candidate in Criminology at the School of Law of The University of Edinburgh. His thesis explores the development of the security structure of the Republic of Cyprus in its turbulent post-colonial years following the national-liberation revolution and independence, with a particular focus on the Police, the National Guard and the paramilitary formations.