Turkey: Quick tour of modern issues


Turkey, roughly the size of both France and Britain, is situated on the Bosporus Straits, a bridge between European and Asian cultures. Due to its close relations with the West, Turkey is a founding member of the United Nations, a significant troop contributor to NATO, and is currently negotiating membership in the European Union. Turkey maintains a predominantly Sunni Muslim population of nearly 70 million.


Immediately following the First World War, Turkish revolutionaries initiated the Turkish War of Independence (1918-1923) against the Allied forces occupying defeated Ottoman territory. This effort, lead by soldier-statesman Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, was successful and secured a nation for the Turkish people under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

Upon achieving independence, Ataturk quickly realized that to survive as a nation Turkey needed to shed its Ottoman past and adopt the Western path of social, political and legal modernization. While no doubt authoritarian, Ataturk’s reforms which centered on his “Six Arrows” concept (Nationalism, Populism, Republicanism, Revolutionism, Secularism, and Statism) transformed the nation into a modern state.

Due to Ataturk’s reforms, Turkey is known today as the Middle East’s only truly democratic and completely secular country. Nonetheless, struggles between religious and secular forces remain a fact of the Turkish political spectrum. In 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 when Islamic regimes gained strength, the military intervened to maintain the secular nature of the Turkish government. As recent as 2007, the Turkish military has made its deep commitment to secularism publicly known.

Invasion of Cyprus

Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus was a result of tensions between Turkish and Greek Cypriots on Cyprus. Upon becoming an independent republic in 1960, Cyprus was left with two clear ethnic groups; the majority (80%) Greek Cypriots in the southwest and Turkish Cypriots to the northeast. As time progressed two separate educational, governing and legal systems resulted in a self-segregated population. Due to complicated and uncertain power sharing agreements, these two groups found themselves more and more often in conflict.

As political tensions deepened into ethnic violence, each group rallied around their individual grassroots organizations seeking their own solution to the “Cyprus Issue”. The Greek Cypriots focused on a policy of Enosis, which demanded Cypriot unification with mainland Greece. The Turkish Cypriots, uniting under the concept of Takism, advocated a partitioning of the island into separate Turkish and Greek regions. At the center was the Cypriot faction which called for a united and independent Cyprus.

In April 1967, back in Greece, a military coup toppled the democraticly elected government. The new military junta in Athens grew impatient with the lack of progress with Enosis and deposed the Cypriot President in July of 1974. Turkey saw this as an unacceptable attempt by Greece to annex Cyprus, and launched Operation Attila; the amphibious invasion of Cyprus (called “the 1974 Peace Operation” in Turkey). The Greek Cypriots reacted to the Turkish occupation of large parts of Cypriot territory with increased violence and the world community attempted to broker a peaceful settlement.

Soon domestic support for the Greek-backed junta collapsed and as hostilities slowed, a stalemate emerged with the Turks occupying the northern third of the nation. In the meantime, The United Nations had intervened with the United Nations forces in Cyprus (UNICYP) and installed a buffer zone.

In 1983, the Turkish region declared independence and formed the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus which is recognized only by Turkey. Today, very little has changed, with few significant cases of hostilities the Greek and Turkish factions, separated by the UN buffer zone, have retreated to their respective enclaves. As of 2009, the Cypriot issue remains unresolved and tensions still exist between Greece and Turkey.

Conflict with the PKK

Another important issue in modern Turkey is its ongoing conflict with its Kurdish minority. The Kurds are a nation-less ethnic group numbering 30 million located in the shared border region of Turkey, Iran and Iraq. The Turkish government, like its Iranian and Iraqi counterparts, has rejected Kurdish calls for cultural and political freedoms. As a result, for nearly 20 years there has been an ongoing, low intensity conflict between Turkey and armed Kurdish fighters.

The Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), established by Abdullah Ocalan in 1975, is the militant wing of the Kurdish nationalism movement. Considered by the European Union, the United Nations and the US to be a terrorist organization, it is a leftist Marxist nationalist force struggling to establish an independent and autonomous Kurdish state. The Turkish government deems the PKK a terrorist-secessionist movement as well.

The PKK, which is often known for kidnapping, cheical attacks, assassination, sabotage and suicide bombings, funds itself through drug smuggling, extortion, human trafficking and donations. According to the Turkish government, the ongoing conflict has since taken the lives of at least 26,000 PKK fighters, 5,000 Turkish forces and an additional 5,000 civilians. By 1999 the PKK had entered into a quasi-cease fire with the Turkish government. However, in the wake of the US lead invasion of Iraq (2003), the PKK once again took the offensive conducting terror attacks, targeting Turkish forces, politicians and civilians.

More recently, the PKK rejected their ethnic-based approach replacing calls for an independent state with a desire for increased autonomy and cultural freedom. Today nearly 4,000 Kurdish fighters are still based in Iraq, leading to increased pressure as Turkey occasionally crosses the Iraqi border to confront the PKK there and the PKK doing the same. In the fall of 2007 tensions between Turkey and the PKK exploded into a new wave of violence with PKK attacks in Turkish cities.

Recently Turkish President Abdullah Gul visited Bagdad to meet with Iraqi and US representatives agreeing to cooperate in dealing with the PKK forces in Iraq.

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