Ending the Cyprus arms embargo will increase tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean

Ending the Cyprus arms embargo will increase tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean
© Getty Images

U.S. Sens. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate to vote on blocking Trump's Saudi arms deal as soon as this week There is a severe physician shortage and it will only worsen Democrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties MORE (D-N.J.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments MORE (R-Fla.) have introduced the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Partnership Act, a bill that would, among other things, seek to lift the current arms ban on the Greek part of Cyprus. If passed, the measure would threaten the peace and stability on the island of Cyprus.

ADVERTISEMENT

Today, the Greek Cypriot side is lobbying the U.S. government to lift an embargo that has been in place since 1987, thereby enabling them to buy U.S. arms. This is simply the worst move for the region. South Cyprus, the Greek part of the island, is already known to be acquiring heavy weapons and all sorts of defense articles. Lifting the U.S. arms embargo won’t necessarily stop these purchases, but would give the impression that the U.S. is backing an arms-race on the island. Such a move would also do nothing to encourage both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots to seek resolution of the Cyprus issue, which has long been the stated goal of both the U.S. and the United Nations. The recent UN report confirmed the fact that the current state of play on the island is quite tenuous. This effort to lift the arms embargo could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Make no mistake about it, the current political atmosphere on the island of Cyprus is not promising, but a decision by the U.S. government to lift the arms ban on the Greek Cypriot side would contradict its stated policy of supporting a just and lasting settlement and make it significantly harder for both sides, who have discussed the future of the island for more than 50 years, to achieve a compromise.

Some context is required. The island of Cyprus is located at the crossroads of three continents, Europe, Asia and Africa. Though small in size, its strategic and political significance in the region has always been large. It stands at the center of major energy and trade routes.

Cyprus is the common home of Turkish Cypriots to the north and Greek Cypriots to the south. The conflict in the island began in 1963 after a series of violent acts against the Turkish Cypriots and their subsequent ejection from all government organs of the partnership that formed the 1960 Republic of Cyprus. Turkish Cypriots were subjected to brutal treatment before the timely and legitimate intervention of the Republic of Turkey in 1974. Since that time, Greek and Turkish Cypriots have existed under a separate peace on the island.

ADVERTISEMENT

Despite numerous rounds of negotiations over five decades, efforts to unite the island under a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation based on political equality have failed. Despite good-faith efforts by Turkish Cypriot leaders, many rounds of negotiations have ended without a conclusion. Many in the international community share the view that the Greek Cypriot leaders appear unwilling to agree to any settlement that would include even the slightest hint of power-sharing. The status quo serves them well.

The Cyprus problem has turned into a frozen conflict. It is time to turn a new leaf by establishing good neighborly relations between the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot sides through direct cooperation and communication as also envisaged in a recent report of the UN Secretary-General and resolution by the UN Security Council. Undoubtedly, as the interactions between the two sides increase, this will help build confidence and create interdependences, which would inevitably reflect positively on the prospects of reaching a negotiated settlement.

To this end, the Turkish Cypriot side has repeatedly called on their counterparts for an equal say, as co-owners of hydrocarbon resources in all ongoing energy exploration initiatives in the region and put forth proposals with an aim to turn this potential cause of tension into an opportunity for cooperation. However, South Cyprus has continued to ignore these proposals and opted to continue taking advantage of the unacceptable status quo on the island, persisting with its unilateral actions and ignoring the equal rights of the Turkish Cypriot people as co-owners of the island and thus the hydrocarbon resources.

It’s simply unfair to suggest that Turkish Cypriots will benefit from the natural reserves after a settlement. The two sides should be jointly involved in every decision-making process regarding this issue, spanning from the initial exploratory phases, to holding discussions on how these resources will be monetized, shared, and transferred to world markets in the future.

The U.S. has long been supportive of the concept of a negotiated settlement on the Cyprus issue and promoted confidence-building measures between the two sides that would help achieve this goal. Rather than advancing provocative legislation, the U.S. should be taking clear and unambiguous steps aimed to alleviate tensions.

The U.S. should also insist that ongoing oil exploration be a process in which both sides are involved, as the resources clearly belong to the two peoples of the island.  A peaceful and prosperous Cyprus, with both sides working together in good faith to resolve their problems, would be a good model in a region where peace is hard to preserve. Promoting dialogue is in the interest of the United States. The Eastern Mediterranean Security and Partnership Act is not.

Prof. Kudret Özersay is Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus; a scholar of international politics who once worked at the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe, he served in the negotiations to solve the Cyprus dispute between 2002 and 2012 and in 2014. He is Chairman of the People’s Party, which he founded in 2016.