Putting the Turkey Coup in Historical Perspective

Turkey Coup

© MiroNovak

Had the Turkey coup been successful, it would have spelled disaster for the country.

When a military coup shook Greece in 1967, it exposed the country to a brutal military dictatorship that brought numerous internal and external losses for the Greek people. Recalling this part of Greek history, and taking lessons from the coup d’état of 1974 in Cyprus, can enlighten us on what Turkey could have faced if the coup attempt on July 15, 2016, had been successful.

After long negotiations and the signing of international treaties between the United Kingdom, Turkey and Greece, a joint state between the Greeks and Turks was formed in Cyprus in 1960. However, as neither Greeks nor Turks gave up their national aspirations, the Republic of Cyprus did not last long.

In 1963, inter-communal violence (from a Greek point of view) or Greek oppression (from a Turkish one) had started. In 1964, the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus was stationed on the island but did not succeed in ending the bloodshed. Turkey had decided to intervene in 1964 and 1967 in order to stop the killings, but was prevented from doing so by the United States.

Prometheus: From Greece to Cyprus

On the morning of April 21, 1967, Greeks woke up to learn that a group of a middle-ranking military intelligence officers led by anti-communist Colonel George Papadopoulos had seized power in the country. Coup leaders had not issued any prior warning, and they did not encounter any serious resistance. The coup was based on a modified North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) contingency plan called Prometheus, which was originally created for the possibility of a communist takeover. The main aim of the coup was to prevent George Papandreu, and his son Andreas as heralded successor, from winning the May 1967 election.

Andreas Papandreu was a leftist who criticized the massive presence of American military and intelligence in Greece, and aimed at following a more independent path from the US. This had been enough to be labeled a communist by the military, conservatives, NATO and the Americans. In fact, he was incarcerated later by the Greek junta, while his father was put under house arrest. The 14th article of the Greek constitution, which protects freedom of thought and expression, was suspended.

On November 25, 1973, Papadopoulos himself was overthrown by a coup within a coup, led by Greek Military Police Commander Brigadier Dimitrios Ioannides, after a bloody anti-junta student revolt at Athens Technical University. Papadopoulos’ administration, which lasted about six-and-a-half years, was now replaced by an even more tough and uncompromising regime. As expected, the US saw this as an internal matter and quickly recognized the new government. During the dark and dirty seven-year period of junta rule—although relative stability and economic development was ensured—thousands of opponents were detained, unfairly tried, dismissed or tortured.

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In order to ensure public support, Ioannides decided to play on one of the most important national causes, namely enosis: the unification of Greece and Cyprus. In fact, many in the Greek junta had served in Cyprus and had emotional ties with the Mediterranean island.

However, even though the president of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios III, had desired enosis, he opposed it—stating that it was not feasible or clever to make such a unilateral declaration under military rule.

Nevertheless, Ioannides was not willing to wait and decided to use Colonel Georgios Grivas (a former Greek war hero originally from Cyprus) and the National Organization of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA-B)—a Cypriot paramilitary organization founded by Grivas and aimed at achieving enosis—in order to get rid of Makarios, having attempted to assassinate him several times. On January 3, 1974, he claimed publicly that the junta was trying to overthrow him.

On June 5, 1974, Makarios sent a public letter to Greek President Phaedon Gizikis and demanded that Greek soldiers be called back to Greece. The letter brought about his end. He had once said: “I have survived 13 Greek Governments; I can survive the 14th.” But on July 15, he lost his presidency through a military coup.

International Crisis

The US had warned Greece several times that a coup attempt in Cyprus would cause an international crisis that would include Turkey as well. However, Ioannides seemed not able to think rationally about this issue. During a meeting with US representatives, he seemed to have suffered a breakdown. Jumping, shouting and hitting the table, he had told American diplomats the stories of the historic wars between Byzantium, Hellenes and the Ottomans, including the conquest of Istanbul in 1453.

On the morning of July 15, 1974, Makarios’ presidential palace was attacked with tanks, armored vehicles and commandos. The Cypriot president was welcoming a group of children as guests at the time but was able to escape through the back door. His supporters and police were not able to resist for long. While Turkish Cypriots organized under Turkish Resistance Organization (TMT) were waiting to find out the result with great anxiety, tourists were trapped in their hotels as the airports and seaports were seized.

Not only militarily, but also politically, the coup was organized with great awkwardness. Perhaps the greatest mistake of the coup leaders was to make Nikos Sampson, who was an EOKA-B member, a famous killer and widely known as “Turk Eater,” the new president. Makarios was able to make a speech at the United Nations Security Council, where he explicitly accused the Greek junta of organizing the coup. He also said Greece was a greater threat than Turkey. His demand for international intervention by the United Nations (UN) was, in fact, only met by Turkey.


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Junta members had dismissed many qualified officers and instead promoted the incapable but loyal ones. Loyalty to the regime had replaced competence. However, an unexpected consequence of these mistakes for Greeks and Greek Cypriots was the loss of one-third of their beloved island. Turkey saw the coup by the Greek junta as a serious threat to Turkish Cypriots and Turkey’s security and as a violation of international treaties and decided to intervene.

Turkish Intervention in Cyprus

The intervention in Cyprus started on the morning of July 20, 1974. However, since Greeks were too exhausted from fighting each other in these three consecutive coups, and since many of the qualified officers were dismissed by the junta and polarized, they were incapable of mounting a strong resistance, nor were they organized well enough to repel Turkey’s military operation. Fortunately, Ioannides’ order to start a war against Turkey was not obeyed by his generals, who believed this was an impossible mission.

Once the cradle of European civilization, Greece had become a pariah of Europe after these coups and lost its international standing. Turkey’s intervention came when Greece was excluded from the international community and under a partial arms embargo. This was one of the reasons why world powers did not put forward a strong response to Turkey’s initial intervention.

The embarrassment caused by the defeat in Cyprus and the inability of Greece to fight against Turkey led to senior Greek military officers withdrawing their support for Ioannides. Instead, Constantine Karamanlis, a well-known politician who had lived in Paris, was invited on July 23 to assume the role of prime minister. The tide turned against Turkey immediately after Greece returned to democracy.

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One can evaluate Turkey’s military intervention in Cyprus as an invasion and a pretext for partitioning the island, or as a legal and just humanitarian intervention to save Turkish Cypriots. But in the aftermath, because of these coups and the internal turmoil they produced, the Greeks lost a third of the island, and Turkey found a chance to create a comparatively large safe zone for Turkish Cypriots. No doubt, the Turkish army could have won the war in any case, even without these coups. However, it would have caused considerably more casualties for Turkey and resulted in even greater international pressure.

Turkey Coup of 2016

If the coup of July 15, 2016, in Turkey had been successful, an important part of the military and civilians would have challenged and continued to fight against the junta for a long period. It was officially declared by Turkish armed forces that only the 1.5of the military joined the coup attempt with inadequate military vehicles. However, an important number of generals, especially with one or two stars (157 of 358 generals), were on their side. Had they been successful in controlling governmental institutions, the main military command buildings and perhaps killing or detaining key political figures, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it was almost certain that the remaining army staff would have fought back after recovering from the initial shock.

It is also well known that the Kemalist section of the military has no sympathy for Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Muslim cleric who has been accused of instigating the coup attempt. Instead, there has been a serious struggle between Kemalists and Gulenists since 1980s, which came to a highpoint during the Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer) court cases organized unlawfully by Gulenists against the Kemalist officers. In addition to that, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Erdogan have the support of at least 50% of the Turkish population.

The day of the Turkey coup clearly showed how a large section of the public was ready to fight against the tanks and die in order to defend the country’s democratic choices. The decisive resistance of the Kemalist commanders, but especially the comparatively ill-equipped policemen, should also be taken into account.

Therefore, considering all these dimensions, the aftershock of the coup would not have subsided quickly. Instead, a confrontation between army officers, the police and civilians could have lasted for months.

Besides other terrorist organizations, the involvement of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the confrontations was also a strong possibility, since it has been fighting against Turkey for years and could have seen the weakened position of the army and police as a good opportunity to realize its aims. The tensions between the secular and the religious factions should also be kept in mind.

Escaping Blood

Considering all of these factors, Turkey would have fallen into turmoil or even a bloody civil war, and would have paid very high price both internally and externally.


Now, the most important aim for the Turkish government should be to accurately identify the criminals from the innocents, and not to turn the investigations into a witch hunt.


It is well known that this type of infighting can cause major violations of human rights and may end up with foreign humanitarian military interventions—sometimes with right intentions but sometimes as a pretext for an invasion. A long-standing internal conflict in Turkey would have threatened all of Europe, which could have entailed an elimination of the Turkish barrier to Syrian refugees seeking to reach Europe. It would have also resulted in new Turkish and Kurdish refugees, an easy transit for terrorist groups to Europe, smuggling and illegal trafficking, instability, xenophobia, and more nationalist policies and rhetoric.

Therefore, if Turkey had not been able to end the crisis in a short period of time, NATO could have decided to intervene in a member state one way or another, for the first time in history. It is not impossible to bypass the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and international law, or reinterpret it—as was the case in the Kosovo intervention that was executed without a valid UN Security Council resolution—when vital interests are at stake and all members agree. However, past experiences have proved that foreign military interventions can cause even greater crisis and instability, as seen in Libya and Iraq. 

If the coup attempt had reached its initial aims, it could have produced unexpected outcomes for Cyprus as well.

Turkey has more than 40,000 army personnel on the island. Even though it would not have been rational, had the coup organizers been successful in toppling the Turkish government, the Turkish army in northern Cyprus could have been ordered to do the same there. Indeed, just after the coup attempt, the commander of the Turkish army in Cyprus resigned and other top generals were retired by the supreme military council.

Turkey had used the military coup of 1974 in Cyprus and the humanitarian crisis as justifying factors for its military intervention. This time, the same arguments could have been used by the Greek and Greek Cypriot armies in order to take back Cyprus, as the Turkish army would have been in disorder. In fact, former Greek Member of Parliament Christos Rotsas proved that this was not just a conspiracy theory by absurdly stating that the Greeks missed a perfect opportunity by not attacking the Turkish army in Cyprus and capturing the north.

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Another common practice of powerful countries in this kind of situation is to intervene militarily in order to—or at least using the excuse—protect their own citizens. In fact, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “Everything must be done to protect human lives.” The Kremlin, which has never hesitated from intervening militarily in neighboring crises—as was the case in Crimea, Ukraine and South Ossetia—declared that Russia’s priority was to secure the safety of Russian institutions and citizens in Turkey.

Even though President Erdogan had chosen to mend Turkish relations with Russia just before the coup attempt, the tension between the countries had reached a concerning level after a Russian fighter jet was shot down by Turkey in 2015.

Turkey is a NATO member. However, past experiences show that Russia could choose to step up to NATO as it did in Kosovo—but it clearly would not do so when a vital neighboring country is in question: Syria. The historical Russian dream of accessing warm seas over Turkey and Syria should also be considered.

The Greek people lost so much both internally and externally due to three consecutive coups. But considering all the dangerous possibilities mentioned above, Turkey could have lost even more if the coup attempt of July 15 had succeeded. Therefore, the anti-coup and Kemalist part of the Turkish military personnel, police and civilians who resisted and prevented the coup have actually saved Turkey from a real catastrophe—and even the world from serious regional instability.

Now, the most important aim for the Turkish government should be to accurately identify the criminals from the innocents, and not to turn the investigations into a witch hunt. Instead, this regrettable incident should be used as a chance for a new beginning and reconciliation between the polarized segments of Turkish society.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: MiroNovak 


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