I and others here at COMMENTARY have written many times about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s efforts to transform Turkey from a secular state to an overtly religious one. As Erdoğan has consolidated power and dismantled checks and balances within Turkish society, he has increasingly made good on his promise to eschew secularism and instead “raise a religious generation.” He has done this not only by encouraging greater religiosity among his own constituents, but also by seeking to impose his conservative interpretation of Islamic values upon those for whom they are not part of daily culture.
Enter Cyrpus: It is a problem that has confounded Turkey, Greece, and Europe more broadly for more than four decades. In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus to protect the Turkish minority against a hardcore, Greek nationalist group seeking to incorporate the island into Greece. Internal and forced displacement segregated the island. In 1983, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) declared its independence. While Pakistan and Bangladesh briefly recognized the new state, once the United Nations declared it illegal, they withdrew their recognition.
Nevertheless, the TNRC has maintained theoretical independence from Turkey, even as it has depended on Turkish subsidies for decades and relies on the Turkish military for security. In reality, it remains Europe’s longest occupation—and makes Turkish complaints about Israel’s presence in the West Bank completely hypocritical, all the more so because the status of the West Bank has always been a subject of dispute, while Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus was an invasion of an internationally-recognized, existing sovereign state.
The past has seen repeated international mediation efforts come to naught. The closest the two sides came to resolution was a decade ago, when they negotiated the “Annan Plan,” which would have recognized a united Cypriot republic characterized by loose federalism. While Turkish Cypriots recognized the plan, Greeks rejected it in a referendum.
Ironically, Erdoğan may now accomplish what statesmen for years have failed to: uniting the island, albeit against him. Turkish Cypriots are increasingly unhappy at efforts by Turkey’s ruling party to impose their conservative Islamic values on the island, where the ethnic Turkish community has always been a bit more laid back. And while Turkish Cyprus remains poor, Cyprus proper has moved to exploit, in partnership with Israel, its significant offshore gas reserves. According to conversations I had in Turkey with Turkish Cypriots last month, this has encouraged Turkish Cypriots to seek a settlement more on Greek Cypriot terms, albeit one that would recognize the rights and freedom of ethnic Turkish Cypriots. Turkish troops would have to go but, then again, with the ethnic Turkish minority no longer under threat, there is no reason why Turkey should continue its decades-long occupation.
Across the Middle East, oil often fuels divisiveness. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran, for example, uses its interests in Iran’s oil infrastructure to fund terrorism around the globe. Oil was at the heart of the dispute (although, of course, not the only factor) between the Iraqi central government and Iraqi Kurdistan. It remains a major source of conflict in Libya. How refreshing it would be if new gas discoveries combined with a rejection of the Turkish government’s radicalism actually contributed to peace in the long-divided nation of Cyprus.