Ask anyone over the age of fifty in the Republic of Cyprus which single individual is to blame for the island’s ongoing division, and the answer will be almost unanimous: Henry Kissinger. He was US secretary of state during the fateful summer of 1974, when Turkish troops occupied the island following a Greek-sponsored coup. As such, many Greek Cypriots view him as the architect of American support for both the Greek and Turkish interventions that have divided the island in its present form.
Kissinger’s image today rests on two pillars. On one hand, his admirers will remember him as a cunning diplomat who paved the way for US-led “peace” initiatives in the Middle East and drew China away from the Soviets. On the other hand, he is more accurately regarded as a Machiavellian figure whose policies left a trail of blood from Santiago to East Timor.
Kissinger’s role in Cyprus is interesting, because its overall balance sheet lies in the intersection of both of these perceptions: while Kissinger engaged in a balance-of-power game in the Eastern Mediterranean in 1974, the consequences of his actions signaled nothing but misery for thousands of people, and they solidified Cyprus’ ethnic divisions.
To be fair, the outline of Kissinger’s policies toward Cyprus was inherited from previous US administrations. In close proximity to the Middle East, Cyprus’s strategic location made it a prize for any power wishing to control the flow of oil and the entrance to the Suez Canal. The island’s troubles began when the British strengthened emerging divisions between the island’s Greek-speaking majority and its Turkish-speaking minority. This, however, did not happen all at once. Terrified by the island’s growing communist movement in the 1940s, the British strengthened the Greek Cypriot bourgeoisie as a counterweight. This bourgeoisie, however, which coalesced politically around the powerful Orthodox Church, always had an ambivalent attitude toward the British; their stance oscillated between collaboration and wishing for enosis, or union with Greece.
While in pursuit of its national project, the bourgeoisie had clashed with the British in 1955, engaging in guerrilla struggle against a bloody counterinsurgency campaign by London. Hoping to contain the situation, the British exploited Turkish Cypriot concerns about Greek nationalism by encouraging Turkish involvement on the island. This only hardened the divide between the two communities, as well as the ensuing political stalemate. As a compromise between Greek demands for union with Greece and Turkish demands for partition, the British negotiated an independent status for Cyprus in 1959, leaving Greek Archbishop Makarios in power, alongside a Turkish vice president with significant veto powers. In order to keep Cyprus within the Western sphere of influence, Britain retained military installations, and rights of intervention by Britain, Turkey, and Greece were inscribed in the independence treaties.
The United States Strives for Partition
Makarios’ assigned role was that of a tame postcolonial ruler who held an unquestioned loyalty toward the West — and in many ways this was the case. An ardent anti-communist, his main objective was to complete the Greek national project on the island and do away with what he termed Turkish “super-privileges.” But his attempt to do so in 1963 led to an intense revival of bloody intercommunal strife, as well as threats of Turkish intervention.
Hoping to achieve his goals through peaceful means, Makarios made overtures to the Soviet Union and the Non-Aligned Movement. The situation on the island was already beginning to cause friction between Greece and Turkey, both indispensable allies of the US. Together with Makarios’ independent posturing, this made Cyprus a top concern for the United States, which had by then replaced Britain as the dominant power in the Middle East.
Increasingly, the United States began to view partitioning Cyprus as the best possible outcome for their interests. To this end, the administration of Lyndon Johnson proposed a secret settlement in 1964, whereby the bulk of Cyprus would unite with Greece, and Turkey would retain a large military base at the island’s northeastern tip. Drafts of the plan were viewed favorably by both Greece and Turkey, but Makarios rejected these, refusing to concede Cyprus’ independence. This only deepened American suspicion toward Makarios, and this concern was eventually passed to the State Department under Kissinger.
The sequence of events that led to the island’s partition did not begin in Washington, but in Athens. Fearing the election of a slightly left-of-center government in 1967, the military intervened, imposing a brutal dictatorship. The “Colonels’ junta,” as it was known, was deeply unpopular, not just in Greece but among many Europeans. However, this did not prevent Western governments, first and foremost the United States, from treating it as a respectable partner in the context of NATO.
For the existence of the regime, the colonels, many of them CIA assets, enjoyed Washington’s generous support. The United States had built Greece’s post–civil war “deep state” and intimately knew the dealings of almost every level of government. It is quite plausible, then, to assume that the United States not only had firsthand knowledge of the junta’s plan toward Cyprus, but that the junta would not execute any of these goals without US approval.
Infuriated by Makarios’ insolence toward them, the junta’s Greek officers who staffed the Greek Cypriot National Guard began conspiring with far-right factions on the island who accused Makarios of betraying enosis. The hatred intensified as Makarios increasingly tapped the mass support of Cyprus’ communist party, AKEL (Progressive Party of Working People), while facing several unsuccessful assassination attempts.
By 1969, Kissinger was Nixon’s national security advisor. He thus inherited the standard line of thinking toward Cyprus prevalent within the US foreign policy establishment. In his book Years of Renewal, he explicitly described Makarios as “the proximate cause of most of Cyprus’ tensions.” But was he the one behind the efforts to topple Makarios, efforts that multiplied exponentially during that period? Was he as heavily involved in those plans as he was in the conspiracies against Salvador Allende? Most likely not. He didn’t have to be, as the junta’s hatred for Makarios had a dynamic of its own. But he certainly did not object, either.
As a regime with an extremely narrow base of support, the junta was heavily dependent on US political backing. Given extensive knowledge of the junta’s inner dealings, the United States would have no trouble in pulling the plug from any action deemed contradictory to their vital interests.
Apocalypse in July
The junta’s precarious position was revealed in November 1973. That month, students at Athens’ Polytechnic University barricaded themselves in the campus, setting up an amateur radio station that transmitted a message of defiance to the military regime. Widespread support for the students in the streets of Athens revealed the extent of the junta’s unpopularity. The junta’s strongman, Georgios Papadopoulos, was toppled and replaced by Dimitrios Ioannides, an even more uncompromising figure.
The new leadership commenced its plans to depose Makarios. Greek meddling in Cyprus forced Makarios to drop the veneer of “Greek brotherhood” and openly accuse the junta of intervening in internal politics. It was to no avail: on July 15, 1974, military units loyal to the junta staged a coup against him. The president narrowly escaped, making his way to the island’s Royal Air Force base. From there he flew to London and then to New York, where he denounced the junta’s intervention before the United Nations.
As Christopher Hitchens wrote in The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Kissinger had received explicit warning about the junta’s plans from an official at the State Department two months before the coup—but Kissinger had done nothing. (It is worth mentioning here that Hitchens’ first book, Hostage to History, was about Cyprus. He had spent some time there in the mid-1970s and was married to a Cypriot woman.) As the coup unfolded, the junta imposed a CIA asset, Nikos Sampson, as president.
As with the Honduran coup over three decades later, the United States alone in the world maintained a policy of ambivalence toward the new regime. Even after the junta collapsed in Athens following the outcry over its incompetence in the face of the Turkish invasion, the United States worked together with Glafcos Clerides, the conservative Speaker of Parliament, to prevent Makarios’ return as the island’s legitimate president.
A Greek coup was feared for some time. But it was common knowledge on the island and beyond that such a coup would provoke Turkish intervention, ostensibly to protect the Turkish minority. So when it did take place and Turkey invaded five days later, the common explanation on the island was that since both the junta and Turkey were US allies, and since Kissinger was calling the shots in Washington, the events could be nothing but a conspiracy engineered by the secretary of state.
The Turkish invasion that followed was accomplished in two phases. The first phase involved the creation of a beachhead north of Nicosia and a link with Turkish Cypriot enclaves. Soon after, the new regime in Athens collapsed.
The second phase took place on August 15, following the failure of peace talks in Geneva. During this time, the Turkish government was given a green light for its actions by Kissinger, while it ethnically cleansed around 200,000 Greek Cypriots from the island’s north. Meanwhile, the putschists massacred countless Turkish Cypriots in “retaliation.”
In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, the US-backed Clerides, acting as president while Makarios was still in exile, signed a population exchange agreement that saw thousands of Turks relocated to the north. The division of Cyprus was finalized.
Many questions emerged following the events. Why did the junta decide (or was allowed by the United States) to act now? Was the junta involved in a covert deal with the United States and Turkey to divide the island? Did Kissinger mastermind the coup and the Turkish invasion? Would another American administration have acted differently?
The Greek colonels, for their part, cried betrayal after their fall, claiming they were given US assurances that Turkey would not intervene. A very likely scenario is that the new version of the junta was conscious of its precarious position and tried to pull a public relations stunt to save its fortunes. It was well aware of Greece’s strategic significance for the United States and was hoping to present Turkey with a fait accompli.
Kissinger probably knew all of that, but he also knew that Turkey would intervene in accordance with the rights granted to it by Cyprus’ independence treaties. For him the configuration of events provided the United States with an opportunity to realize its objectives in Cyprus without having to actively pursue them.
Kissinger’s role in Cyprus must be seen in connection with his policies following the 1973 October War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Skillfully leaving Israel to bleed until a massive American airlift changed the tide of the war, he demonstrated to the Arabs Israel’s heavy reliance on the United States, thus signaling that any peace deal must be conditioned on US interests.
By allowing Greece and Turkey to intervene in Cyprus, he similarly engaged in a demonstration of US power that further pushed the Soviet Union away from the region. While the latter condemned the Turkish invasion, it was not going to intervene to save the far-right regime installed by Athens. In the spirit of détente, it passively accepted the Americans’ predominance in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Makarios returned to the island at the end of the year. He was not killed, but this was not an immediate objective of US foreign policy; unlike Allende, his government, for all the US paranoia about the “Castro of the Mediterranean,” did not threaten the interests of any Western multinationals. It was sufficient to show the Cypriot government the extent to which US allies would be let loose, in order to deter any independent moves in the international arena.
The events produced an anti-American backlash in Cyprus, since Kissinger was seen as the prime instigator of the events. Anti-American demonstrations gripped the island, while Makarios openly attacked his role. America’s image suffered, but its primary goals were fulfilled. In the United States, lobbying by the Greek community in Congress pushed through a US arms embargo on Turkey. Turkey reacted by closing down US installations and pursuing warmer relations with the Soviet Union. This was short-lived, however, as the fall of the shah in Iran brought both countries closer again.
In some ways, the fixation on Kissinger in Cyprus served political aims. By claiming the Turkish invasion was Kissinger’s own making, the right could claim that the new Carter administration, acting in accordance with the wishes of the Greek lobby, would be more supportive of Greek Cypriots. This was, of course, not true, as realpolitik usually takes precedence over ethnic lobbying. For the Cypriot left, the idea of a Kissinger conspiracy and a backroom deal between the “unpatriotic” junta and Turkey legitimized AKEL’s patriotic popular front line of unconditional support for Makarios, while it deflected attention from the Soviet Union’s acquiescence to Turkey’s invasion.
Would another US government have acted the same way? It is difficult to say. The main feature of Kissinger’s Cyprus policy was its unilateralism. He bypassed the British, who were much more sympathetic to Makarios. Kissinger simply grabbed the opportunity in the situation, as the public’s focus on the Watergate scandal probably allowed him to act with less accountability. But the outline of his actions was not his — he was simply following the textbook on the preservation of American global power.