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October 11, 2011 9:30 am

Cyprus on the World Stage

avatar by Daniel Pipes

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Cyprus, satellite image.

Cyprus, an island of roughly 1.3 million inhabitants near Turkey and Syria, finds itself on the cusp of momentous change, with great opportunities and dangers. It belatedly makes a grand debut on the world stage after domestic Greek-Turkish communal issues have consumed its first 51 years of independence.

That communal problem originated in 1570, when the Ottoman Empire conquered the island and its almost entirely Greek-speaking Orthodox Christian population. Over the next three centuries, immigration from Anatolia created a Turkish-speaking Muslim minority. British rule between 1878 and 1960 left this situation basically unchanged. At the time of Cypriot independence in 1960, Turks constituted one-sixth of the population.

Cyprus was hardly the only territory rife with ethnic tensions that London eventually abandoned in frustration (think of India, Iraq, Palestine, and Sudan), but it was the only one where it retained a permanent role for itself and brought in patron states, namely Turkey and Greece, as guarantors of the newly-independent state.

This mischievous arrangement heightened tensions between both the two island’s two communities and their patron states. Those tensions boiled over in 1974 when Athens attempted to annex the whole of Cyprus and Ankara responded by invading the island, seizing the northern 37 percent of the island’s territory. Greek annexation fizzled but the invasion led to the establishment of a nominal “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC), which is maintained today by some 40,000 troops from the Republic of Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of settlers have since emigrated from Turkey, fundamentally altering the island’s demography.

Cyprus remained thus for 35 years, divided, deadlocked, and largely ignored by the outside world, until two recent developments upended the island’s obscure if unhappy status quo.

First, the AK Party came to power in Turkey in 2002 with an aggressive program of regional domination. It initially kept this ambition in check but with a heady electoral success in June 2011, followed immediately by its seizure of political control over the Turkish military, this intent emerged in full blossom. The drive to regional domination takes many forms – from escalating tensions with Israel to the prime minister’s triumphal tour of North Africa – but with a specific focus on increasing Turkish power in the eastern Mediterranean. AKP ambitions have thus transformed the Turkish occupation of Cyprus from a sui generis problem into one aspect of a larger issue.

Second, the June 2010 discovery of gas and oil reserves (“Leviathan”) in Israel’s Mediterranean Sea exclusive economic zone, right near the Cypriot EEZ, suddenly made Cyprus a player in the world energy market. Cypriots talk of 300 trillion cubic feet worth US$4 trillion. Such numbers attract covetous gazes, especially from Ankara, which demands (via the TRNC) its share of future gas income. Further, the AKP’s escalating anti-Zionism combined with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s strategic ambitions suggest Turkish claims extending to Israeli-controlled waters.

In conjunction, these two developments – growing Turkish ambitions and possible gas deposits in the trillions – link Cyprus and Israel in self-defense. Leading Greek Cypriot figures in the government, the media, and business told me during a just-concluded trip to the island about their urgent wish to build economic and security relations with Israel.

In the economic realm, a ranking government official proposes five projects: a joint pipeline from the gas fields to Cyprus, followed by a liquidification plant, a methanol plant, a 1,000 megawatt electricity plan, and a strategic reserve, all located in Cyprus. A media tycoon suggests selling the gas reserves to Israel and letting its companies bear responsibility.

In the security realm, several interlocutors proposed a full-on alliance with Israel. Cyprus would gain from Israel’s much greater military, economic, and diplomatic prowess. Israel, which has already made protective efforts on behalf of Cyprus, would benefit from access to an airbase at Paphos, 185 miles (300 kilometers) from its shore, belonging to a European Union member.

Such an alliance would terminate the Cypriot legacy of non-alignment and low-key diplomacy designed to convince governments not to recognize the TRNC, though that strategy, arguably, has not brought it much benefit.

In the face of an over-confident and possibly messianic Turkish leadership that increasingly betrays rogue attributes, Washington, Brussels, Athens, and Moscow have important roles to play in encouraging Cypriot-Israeli relations and thereby diminishing the likelihood of AKP-led Turkish aggression.

Mr. Pipes is the president of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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  • Good article. Great comment! Nondas, I sure would love to write a couple of articles for me.

  • E. NOndas

    We don’t know where you get the figures for Cyprus’s population to 1.3 million inhabitants. To begin with Cyprus is known to be the Greek Island of Aphrodite the Greek Goddess of love and beauty . Greeks discovered and inhabited the Island since the early years of Greek Civilization Thousands of Years ago. The Ottoman Turks invaded and Cyprus in 1570 AD and finally conquered it with the fall of the City of Famagusta in 1571, The British took over Cyprus in 1878 from Ottoman Turks and during the first world war Turkey was an ally with Germany so the British annexed the Island in order to punish Turkey for being an ally to Germany. In 1923 Turkey relinquished all rights over Cyprus, and the British declared it in 1925 a British Crown colony. In 1960 Cyprus became an independent , sovereign nation,after a five year struggle against the colonial British rullers.The British wanted to divide Cyprus,but instead they imposed the 1959 Zurich and London “agreements”and gave Cyprus a divisive and dysfunctional constitution with three Guarantors Britain, Greece and Turkey divide and rulle was the British policy.The Troublesome constitution was not allowing Cyprus to grow or function properly as a democracy. THe British gave to the 18% Turkish Cypriots minority disproportionate rights up to 40% with a Vice president Turkish Cypriot who had VETO power but its actual percentage was only 18%. When Makarios made some Constitutional proposals in the late fall of 1963 for amendments the Turkish Cypriots resorted to insurrection and withdrew from government posts and Turkish Cypriot insurgents,begun the inter-communal fighting in Nicosia when Turks secessionists started shooting in the streets of the capital innocent Greek Cypriot civilians. In the hot summer of 1964 Turkey partly invaded Cyprus in the North westpart knownn as Tylliria, killing innocent civilians and bombing schools and UN vehicles with Napalm bombs .on July 20 1974 after the July 15/ 1974 the Greek Junta (which was supported by US) treacherous coup against Makarios, Turkey invaded divided, looted and destroyed Cyprus and the Greek Cypriot cultural ,religious and ancient Greek heritage of Cyprus with the pretext of protecting Turkish Cypriot rights In November of 1983 Denktas announce the creation of “TRNC” pseudo state which the UN security council resolution #541 declared it NUL and VOID and Illegal. In 1984 UN security council resolution #550 called upon all states not to recognize it ,and not to assist or facilitate it, in any shape or form. Thirty seven years after the illegal invasion and occupation of 37% of Cyprus, where Turkey committed countless crimes against Humanity ,against 1959 constitution and UNcharter ,Turkey today falsely claims constitutional OIL AND GAS rights, with the pretext for helping the Turkish Cypriots .In our View and Under any Law,illegal Turkey’s invaders,occupiers ,secessionists ,looters, and murderers,and executioners of innocent people DO NOT HAVE ANY RIGHTS with atrocious actions ,secession against Cyprus ,Turkish Cypriots can reunite with EU REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS any time after they denouce insurection against Cyprus.
    Sincerely Nondas