As the Arab geographer Al-Muqaddasi noted in 985, “The island of Qubrus is in the power of whichever nation is overlord in these seas,” and a thousand years later this still holds true.
In the twelfth century, Cyprus was occupied by the Crusaders to guard their route to the Holy Land and in the fifteenth century, it was taken over by the Venetians to protect their Mediterranean trade. A century later it was conquered by the Ottomans, who in 1878 leased it to the British in return for protection against Russia. In the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which established the borders of modern Turkey, Turkey accepted Britain’s annexation of Cyprus and that Turkish nationals resident in Cyprus would become British citizens.
In 1956 British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden once again underlined Cyprus’ strategic importance: “No Cyprus, no certain facilities to protect our supply of oil. No oil, unemployment, and hunger in Britain. It’s as simple as that.” When the Greek Cypriot majority demanded independence and enosis – union with Greece, the British government convened a conference on the Eastern Mediterranean to include both Greece and Turkey, so that the latter would block Greek Cypriot demands.
Under American pressure, a deal was brokered between Greece and Turkey, which provided for the island’s independence in 1960, which was guaranteed by Greece, Turkey and the UK. However, the Greek Cypriots had not abandoned their plans for enosis, and already in 1956 the Turkish Cypriot minority had together with Turkey made plans for taksim (partition). Consequently, in 1963 Cyprus’ power-sharing constitution collapsed, which led to intercommunal fighting. The following year the UN Security Council intervened with the establishment of UNFICYP, the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, to separate the two parts, and once again in January UNFICYP’s mandate was renewed for a further six months.
The finishing touch was a coup in 1974 by Greek Cypriot extremists, who declared enosis, which resulted in Turkey’s invasion in accordance with the Treaty of Guarantee, which gave Turkey the right to take action as the UK refused to intervene. In the ensuing conference in Geneva, Turkey proposed the establishment of a federal state but this was rejected by the Greek Cypriots. In 1979, an agreement was reached on a bizonal and bicommunal federation but the next forty years have seen countless attempts to resolve the issue in what the present UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called “a horizon of endless process without result.” The latest attempt was the Crans-Montana conference in Switzerland, which collapsed in July 2017.
The Levant Basin
With the discovery of vast reserves of gas and oil in the Levant Basin in 2010 a new dimension was added to the conflict. Turkey’s occupation of northern Cyprus led to the declaration of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in 1983, which is only recognized by Turkey and declared to be a subordinate local administration by the European Court of Human Rights. When Cyprus was admitted to the EU in 2004, the TRNC was considered to be “those areas of the Republic of Cyprus in which the Government of the Republic of Cyprus does not exercise effective control.” Furthermore, Turkey’s refusal to recognize the Greek Cypriot administration as the ROC’s legitimate government has led to a standoff in Turkey’s accession talks.
In 2004 Cyprus delimited its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) according to the median line principle and in 2003, 2007 and 2010 concluded agreements with Egypt, Lebanon, and Israel on the same basis. Although Turkey is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it is still bound by the same principle according to customary international law, yet insists that the extent of its continental shelf and shoreline overrides this principle.
Consequently, Turkey has interfered with Cyprus’ sovereign right to explore and exploit its natural resources, in this case hydrocarbons, and in February last year a drillship chartered by Italy’s ENI en route to Cyprus’ EEZ was blocked by Turkish warships. However, no attempts were made to block a survey ship from ExxonMobil escorted by a U.S. destroyer.
Since 2014 Turkish seismic research vessel Barbaros has conducted surveys inside Cyprus’ EEZ and in May tensions increased when the Turkish drillship Fatih (‘Conqueror’) together with three support vessels and a Turkish frigate anchored off southwest Cyprus and inside the EEZ. This was met by protests from the U.S., the EU, Greece, France, and Egypt, which were rejected by Turkey, which instead announced a second drillship would be sent to the area.
The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated: “Likewise, unless the Greek Cypriots include the Turkish Cypriots, as the equal partners of the island, into the decision-making mechanisms regarding hydrocarbon resources or cease their unilateral hydrocarbon activities, Turkey will continue to protect the continental shelf rights of the Turkish Cypriots as well.”
In January President Erdogan made it clear, “If you don’t have enough military, political and economic might, you should know that nobody will take you seriously.” A month later, Turkey’s maritime power was demonstrated by a massive naval exercise, Blue Homeland, in the Black Sea, the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean with the participation of 103 ships. This was followed by Turkey’s largest military exercise, Sea Wolf, in May with 131 ships, 57 warplanes, and 33 helicopters. Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar also emphasized that Turkey would take all necessary measures to protect its rights in the Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean, and Cyprus.
The discovery of huge natural gas resources in Israel’s Leviathan field in 2010 has the potential not only to cover Israel’s domestic needs but also for export. The potential in Cyprus’ adjacent field, Aphrodite, is not as great, but the discovery of natural gas in Egypt’s Zohr field is the largest in the Mediterranean. These together with other promising finds have increased the need for energy cooperation, which led to the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in Cairo in January. The Forum, which includes Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinians, excludes Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon.
Israel, Cyprus, Greece, and Italy have agreed on the construction of an EastMed pipeline via Crete to supply natural gas to Europe, but both the technical challenges as well as the cost, estimated at upwards of $7 billion, are prohibitive. On the strategic level, there is increased cooperation between Cyprus, Greece, and Israel.
At the sixth trilateral summit in Jerusalem in March the three governments together with that of the U.S., represented by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, agreed to support energy independence and security and defend against “external malign influences” in the Eastern Mediterranean and broader Middle East.
At the same time, in April a bipartisan Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership bill was introduced in the Senate to counter European energy dependence on Russia, where Greece was considered a valuable member of NATO, Israel a steadfast ally and Cyprus a key strategic partner. Among the measures proposed is a repeal of the embargo on arms sales to Cyprus. A similar bipartisan bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in May.
The Senate’s bill takes into account Turkey’s intended purchase of the S-400 system, which would endanger the NATO alliance and trigger mandatory sanctions in accordance with the U.S. Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). In addition, four million dollars is to be allocated to Greece and Cyprus for military education and training. The bill also contains the contours of a fallback position in the event of a breakdown in the U.S.-Turkey alliance with a reference to deeper security cooperation with Greece to include Larissa Air Force Base.
Cyprus has long enjoyed close ties with Russia since Archbishop Makarios, the island’s first president, attended the founding meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. In 1964 the threat of Soviet intervention in the event of a Turkish invasion brought the world to a brink of a new Cuba crisis, and Cyprus even imported Soviet arms and S-300 missiles. In 2011 Russia helped Cyprus with a 2.5 billion euro loan and Cyprus was once Russia’s favourite destination for offshore banking. However, this influx has been reduced with the U.S. crackdown on money laundering.
The growing conflict in the Middle East has only increased Cyprus’ strategic importance because of its intelligence monitoring facilities and Akrotiri airbase, which has provided a jumping-off point for air strikes in Syria. Despite Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia, Russia has nevertheless confirmed the sovereign rights of the Republic of Cyprus to its EEZ.
The sticking point in reunification talks always reverts to Turkey’s refusal to let go of Cyprus in one form or another. As the architect of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman foreign of policy, Ahmet Davutoğlu, famously stated in “Strategic Depth” from 2001: “Even if there was not one single Muslim Turk over there, Turkey would have to maintain a Cyprus question. No country could possibly be indifferent to an island like this, placed in the heart of its vital space.”
One of the reasons Greek Cypriots voted against the Annan Plan in 2004 was Turkey’s insistence on maintaining a permanent military presence, even though this would mean a considerable reduction in the 40,000 Turkish troops stationed on the island. According to a Turkish daily, Ankara has now approved a proposal for the establishment of a naval base in the occupied north.
By 1968 President Makarios recognized that the pursuit of the desirable – enosis, was no longer possible and that Cyprus should come to terms with the feasible. Former Cypriot Foreign Minister Nicos Rolandis has also been critical of the Greek Cypriots’ failure to come to terms with their Turkish Cypriot neighbours and under the aegis of the UN to reach a settlement.
“We, Greek Cypriots, live in a world of our own. We wait for Robin Hood to vindicate us, whilst the ground under our feet incessantly subsides. We are still chasing our dreams. In the past we used to reject what was ’good,’ aiming at what might be ‘better.’ Today there is no ’good’ anymore, we have to opt between the ‘mediocre’ and the ‘tolerable.’”
In the light of current developments, it looks as though the Greek Cypriots have found their Robin Hood in the U.S., but there is the risk that their Robin Hood might turn out to be the Sheriff of Nottingham.