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  • James Preston

Tensions spike in historic Cyprus split


As of September 16, 2022, the US Department of State commenced a further lifting of the arms embargo on the Republic of Cyprus. Unsurprisingly, this revelation was not met with support from both sides of the long-lasting divide present on the Mediterranean island. The Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, spoke on behalf of what is effectively the puppet state of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, when he strongly condemned US actions, saying it will “lead to an arms race on the island, harming peace and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean.” That confirmed fears that the move by the Americans would provoke action from Turkey. But where did this conflict originate?

Liberated from the Ottoman Empire in the 1800’s Cyprus fell under British Control, firstly as a protectorate, before being fully annexed as of the First World War. It later transitioned to an independent Republic in 1960, despite many hoping for Greek unification, like the Greek Cypriot EOKA paramilitary movement. After early clashes between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, the United Nations deployed a peacekeeping force in 1964 (UNFICYP), one which has remained both on the island and proved relatively ineffective in finding a peaceful solution. By 1974, the fire of conflict could be controlled no longer, and a coup by the Greek-Cypriot EOKA-B, aided by the Greek junta, tried to replace the compromise government put in place after independence. Soon after, in a move to protect the Turkish Cypriots, Turkey invaded and took control of 38% of the island. This invasion provoked the mass movement of Greek Cypriots to the south, which is controlled by the internationally recognised government of Cyprus, and Turkish Cypriots to the north, controlled by the Turkish troops until 1983. The establishment of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1983, which is only recognised by Turkey itself, solidified the split which remains today.

The conflict has continued as a de facto cold war since then. The creation of a physical “Green Line” manned by the armed UN peacekeeping force kept a period of relative non-violence from 1974 to 1996. Yet the drive for long-term peace has since remained rather unsuccessful, with the island rejecting the UN-proposed “Annan Plan” in 2004, which would have brought the island close to unification.

This lasting divide is having effects outside of the island itself. Disagreements persist over natural gas supplies, with Turkey wanting a hand in the profits and the gas to flow through its territory. Yet the Greek Cypriot south is pushing for the gas to flow through Greece into Europe. Despite the potential for cooperation with the breakout of the Ukraine conflict, talks soon broke down with President Recep Erdoğan cutting ties with the Greek authorities, who have placed their forces on high alert. Turkey responded to the US arms deal by increasing the military backing of the 40,000 Turkish troops already on the island. Greece then deployed a fleet to the Aegean Sea claiming a Turkish threat to invade Greek islands.

And it is not just Greece and Turkey with a stake in this dispute. As of 2022, France has launched joint military exercises with the National Guard of Cyprus. More importantly, Russia sees Cyprus as a geopolitical chess piece to sidle up to Turkey. The Kremlin has opened direct flights to Northern Cyprus - becoming the only country to do so except Turkey itself - which is similar to its decision to open direct flights to Tehran, a move that is clearly a cynical attempt to bring the two authoritarian states away from the West and closer to Russia’s zone of influence. Germany, a state reluctant in its aid for Ukraine, seems just as unwilling to pick a side in the Cyprus issue, stating instead its support for the UN bi-communal propositions. But what is the UN actually doing?

As per usual, the realm of international conflict seems out of the grasp for the UN to control. Although the active presence of UN troops through the UNFICYP has done a good job so far of stopping intercommunal violence, it does little to stem the wider political battle. Paralysed by the involvement of both the USA and Russia as permanent members of the UN Security Council, any real action seems difficult. As of November 2022, the UN has invited the two leaders of the Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot states to meet in December for a social event to mark the end of 2022. But with the weight of Turkey, Greece, Russia, and the USA firmly on the backs of this new European proxy conflict, it seems unlikely that a cross-community conversation will bring a real change.

Image: Flickr/ British Embassy



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