Sunday, 14 February 2021

Britain’s role in Cyprus, 1963-64: who to believe, James Ker-Lindsay or Martin Packard?

James Ker-Lindsay’s Britain and the Cyprus Crisis, 1963-1964 purports to shed light on the role of Britain during the breakdown of the Cyprus constitution, the burgeoning intercommunal tensions on the island, tensions that developed into violent clashes at the end of 1963 and threats from Turkey to invade Cyprus and impose partition. Britain was, of course, Cyprus’ former colonial master, leaving the island in 1960 but retaining not only a small portion of the island for the purposes of sovereign military bases, but also a role as a Guarantor, with Greece and Turkey, of the island’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Ker-Lindsay describes the creation of the Joint Truce Force in December 1963, a British detachment under the leadership of Major General Peter Young, which acted as a putative peacekeeping force on the island; the convening of the so-called London Conference, which sought to find a long-term political solution to the island’s conflict; and, when this failed, the Cyprus government’s recourse to the UN Security Council in February 1964.

Throughout this period, Ker-Lindsay asserts that Britain’s approach was essentially benign, non-hostile and impartial. While Ker-Lindsay admits that Britain was sometimes influenced by a desire to preserve the status of the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs), he doesn’t see this as a neo-colonialist approach towards Cyprus and argues, instead, that Britain was genuine in wanting tranquility and normality to be established in Cyprus so that the island could flourish as the independent country it had bequeathed.

These conclusions are absurd. Not only do they fly in the face of the overwhelming evidence presented by other commentators on the period in question, but they also contradict the evidence Ker-Lindsay presents in his own book.

The immediate post-independence period in Cyprus was characterised by Turkish manoeuvrings in favour of partition.

Partition had first been floated as a solution to the Cyprus issue in 1956 by UK Colonial Secretary Mark Lennox-Boyd, primarily to intimidate Greek Cypriots to stop their campaign for Enosis, union with Greece. The message was clear: accept British colonial rule or face the prospect of partition, with half the island being handed over to Turkey.

Partition was a solution Turkey picked up with relish, even if it disappointed many Turkish Cypriots, such as the ultra-nationalist leader, Rauf Denktash, whose post-British colonial rule vision involved the entire island being ceded to Turkey and the wholesale deportation of the island’s Greek Cypriot population.

Nevertheless, even as the second-best option, Denktash and the nominal leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, Fazil Kuchuk, guided by Turkey, pursued a policy in the first years of the Republic of Cyprus’ existence of ‘strategic tension’, taking every opportunity to create dispute and discord between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

Physical, social, political and economic separation of Greek and Turkish Cypriots was encouraged and typified by the corralling of the Turkish Cypriots into enclaves as a prelude to formal partition, which it was anticipated would come about by a Turkish military intervention.

The question James Ker-Lindsay needs to answer, therefore, is given it was Britain that had first mooted partition as a solution to the Cyprus question in 1956, did it change its stance and seek to protect Cyprus’ independence, as its Guarantor status mandated it to do, or did London maintain its colonial policy of partition and so plot to destroy the very Republic it had created?

The evidence tells us it was the latter; that, in the period 1963-64, Britain colluded with Turkey, its Turkish Cypriot nationalist proxies on the island and, then with America, to partition Cyprus.

Thus, at the London Conference, which met in January 1964, the British government presented a document to the parties that proposed ‘the movement of the Turkish Cypriots into one or two large areas that would then be administered on the basis of a territorially divided Cyprus’. A second, more ‘moderate’ proposal was also put forward. This was for a ‘limited voluntary population movement and the formation of local Greek and Turkish administrative arrangements.’

Both proposals outraged the Cyprus government but perfectly fitted with Turkey’s designs on the island.

Away from the diplomatic field, on the ground Britain was also acting to fulfil its not-so hidden agenda of partition.

In Getting it Wrong: Fragments from a Cyprus Diary, 1964, Lt Commander Martin Packard, who had been seconded to the Joint Truce Force from the Royal Navy to lead mediation and reconciliation efforts following the December 1963 violence, describes the painstaking work of going from village to village in the north of the island, from Kokkina to Rizokarpaso, de-escalating tensions, solving disputes, releasing hostages and so on.

Despite the anarchy he confronted in January 1964, with central government having lost control of all the various confrontations that had broken out across the island, Packard insists, with dialogue and mediation, the conflicts and tensions between the communities were not insuperable and could be – and were – overcome.

Packard says his efforts were ardently encouraged not only by General Young but also by President Makarios and the leader of the Turkish Cypriots, Fazil Kuchuk. The latter, Packard says, was under pressure from ordinary Turkish Cypriots who resented the corralling policy and had come to realise that partition was predicated not only on Greek Cypriots being forced from their homes, but also on Turkish Cypriots having to abandon theirs.

By February, however, Packard says, the picture began to change. Units – particularly from the Turkish army based in Cyprus – trained by NATO in Operation Gladio tactics of assassination, sabotage and false flag operations were fanning the flames of intercommunal tension; arms supplied by British and Turkish secret services were finding their way into the hands of the Turkish Cypriot terror group, TMT; and General Young was replaced as head of the British peacekeeping force by the more obdurate and obtuse Field Marshall Lord Michael Carver, who saw it as his mission on the island not to restore tranquility but to advance what he understood to be British interests, the preservation of the status of the SBAs.

The removal of Young, Packard says, represented a decisive shift in British policy, the prevailing of the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and the secret services over the Commonwealth Relations Office.

These first three institutions harboured deep resentment towards President Makarios personally and the Greek Cypriots generally for the violent anti-colonial struggle waged against Britain, hammering another nail in the coffin of the British empire. Moreover, during the EOKA emergency, Britain’s foreign, defence and security establishment felt it had developed a special relationship with Turkey, with both countries sharing a mutual antipathy to the aspirations of the island’s Greek majority. It was a relationship in the post-independence period that Britain and Turkey wanted to continue, this time with the aim of thwarting a truly independent, sovereign entity emerging on the island.

While Turkey claimed that Cyprus posed a geo-strategic threat to its underbelly and cried crocodile tears over the fate of the Turkish Cypriots, Britain was concerned that a genuinely independent Cyprus would inevitably question the future of the SBAs and finally eject it not only from the island but also from the wider Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East region.

The problem for Britain was that at the same time as wanting to retain remnants of British global influence, it lacked the wherewithal to do so, suffering on the domestic front from economic malaise and post-imperial fatigue, not having the political will or public support to commit men and money to back up its neo-colonial pretensions. This prompted London, fatally for Cyprus, to induce America to become involved in the island’s politics.

Very soon, Packard says, the Americans determined that turning the island into a NATO protectorate was the way forward and that partitioning the island between Greece and Turkey was the best way to achieve this.

Packard recalls the visit on 12 February 1964 of US assistant secretary of state George Ball to the island. Ball’s response to Packard’s presentation of his team’s mediation work was: ‘Very impressive; but you’ve got it all wrong, son. Hasn’t anyone told you that our objective here is partition, not reintegration?’

Whether the British had imposed their preference for partition on the Americans or the Americans on the British is not clear, but what is clear is that by February 1964 – when the Americans and the British, not wishing the Cyprus problem to take on international dimensions in which the USSR and the non-aligned movement would have a say, were dragged kicking and screaming to the UN Security Council – there was a meeting of minds between the two countries in relation to Cyprus: partition was the solution.

Whereas the Greek Cypriots saw the recourse to the UN, which resulted in the internationalisation of the Cyprus problem and the despatch of a UN peacekeeping force to the island as a great success, staving off, in the immediate term, a Turkish invasion and the threat of partition; in fact, the resentment and hostility at being outmanoeuvred by the Cyprus government only made the British and Americans more convinced that an independent Cyprus was a dangerous innovation they needed to suppress before it caused any more damage to their interests.

In May 1964 Packard was told by superiors that his mediation and reconciliation efforts were over and he was ignominiously shipped off back to Britain. This marked the end of any pretence by Britain that its role in Cyprus was to reconcile Greek and Turkish Cypriots and make independence work. From now on, the optimal goal would be to encourage separation, undermine the island’s government and, through the division of its territory (partition), dissolve the Republic of Cyprus.

It is impossible, therefore, to describe Britain’s policy in Cyprus in the crucial years of 1963-64, as Ker-Lindsay does, as neutral, honest and benign. Rather, Britain’s policy was cynical, malicious and destructive, the cadaveric spasms of an imperial corpse. It used its residual diplomatic clout and military presence in Cyprus to advance partition of the island, an outcome it had been advocating since 1956 but was too squeamish to implement when it had the chance, knowing full well the human cost it would involve, but only too happy, in 1974, to give Turkey a nod and a wink when it finally found the opportunity to invade, bringing catastrophe to the island and cutting it in two.