Home Community Only America Can Resolve the Cyprus Question

Only America Can Resolve the Cyprus Question

by Sinan Ciddi

In 2013, a political counselor at the Turkish embassy in Washington asked me out to lunch to discuss my plans and vision for the Institute of Turkish Studies, which I was then executive director of. After ordering a meal at Zorba’s, a Greek restaurant in Dupont Circle, we sat outside on a sunny day and began talking in Turkish. A few minutes later, our server brought over our dishes and asked where in Turkey we were from. After telling her, she said she was Cypriot and extolled a short tale of her childhood memories on the now-divided island with her Greek and Turkish Cypriot friends. After she left, we continued our discussion, only to see her come back one more time to offer us a complimentary dessert that was backed with her hope that one day, the island would be reunited. Today, I cannot envision a Turkish diplomat asking me out to lunch—and even if they did, it would not likely be at a Greek restaurant. Turkey’s stance in the Eastern Mediterranean since 2019 has increased tensions to the point that armed conflict is possible. That being said, a negotiated settlement in Cyprus may be the key to regional peace and stability. It’s a problem that the United States has the clout to resolve.

Put simply, the resolution of the Cyprus question, the last divided island in Europe, will be vital for stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and could also yield a long list of benefits that surpass the geographical interests of regional actors. To be clear, attempting to resolve the Cyprus question is no simple task: entire military, diplomatic and political careers have begun and ended in Cyprus since the 1974 Turkish invasion divided the island and embittered relations between Turkey and actors in the Eastern Mediterranean. Resolving it would require considerable diplomatic investment by the United States, comparable to the role it played in resolving the Northern Ireland conflict and the Balkan wars. That being said, the United States is already aware of the value of Cyprus, albeit to a very limited degree. For instance, by recently lifting an arms embargo that had been imposed on the island since the late 1980s, the United States freed the Republic of Cyprus (the internationally recognized government on the southern part of the island) to facilitate the shipment of its existing stockpiles of Soviet-era weaponry to Ukraine.

The Biden administration needs to go further and unlock the full potential that a negotiated settlement of the Cyprus question can offer. Failing to resolve the Cyprus question continues to bring the region and the rest of the world closer to war. This has never been more important than in the new epoch of great power competition we have entered. Indeed, without a viable solution to the Cyprus question that is acceptable to the involved parties, Western security will remain in a perpetual state of fragility.
A negotiated settlement over Cyprus came close to success in 2004 under the auspices of United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Dubbed the “Annan Plan”, the settlement would have reunified the island by integrating the Turkish-occupied northern part of the former British-Ottoman colony into a single unified country made up of two constituent states. The negotiations were long and painful, with each side having to make hard concessions. Turkey, for its part, would have agreed to remove the bulk of its military presence from the island, which hovers around 30,000 troops. Ankara also agreed to relinquish territories it seized during the invasion. The Greek Cypriots would have had to come to terms with sharing power with their Turkish counterparts in governing the island. Moreover, had the deal succeeded, Turkish would have become an official European Union (EU) language, advancing Turkey’s efforts to become a full member of the EU.

Even though the details were agreed upon by all sides, the deal ultimately collapsed due to a “no” vote by Greek Cypriots in a public referendum. The referendum failed for one simple reason: the Republic of Cyprus was going to be allowed to enter the EU regardless of whether a settlement was reached with the Turks. In other words, the leadership had little incentive to let the plan succeed. Following the plan’s demise, the ensuing years have resulted in all sides reverting to blaming one another for the lack of a new settlement. Furthermore, the Republic of Cyprus’ entry into the EU as a divided island has worsened relations between Ankara and Brussels. At this point, neither Turkey, Greece, nor the two sides in Cyprus are close to a settlement. Turkey insists on the unrealistic position of a two-state solution, while Cyprus and Greece feel relatively vindicated in doing the bare minimum to return to the negotiating table.

One could shrug their shoulders and say this is just a European problem, or even merely the problem of the disputing sides. They would be wrong.

While the Republic of Cyprus is a member of the EU, it is not a member of NATO. And while Turkey is a member of NATO, it is not a member of the EU. Both Cyprus and Turkey prevent the other from joining the entity of which they are a member because of their political differences over the future status of Cyprus. Collaboration to secure a common European and transatlantic security framework that is part and parcel of both NATO and the EU is arguably the most important strategic security consideration since the end of the Cold War. Russia’s ability to invade Ukraine without batting an eye is arguably linked to the lack of comprehensive security architecture uniting NATO and the EU. If one doubts this, one only needs to consider Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine knowing full well that the EU would not pose a military obstacle to his ambitions. While Putin may have (thus far) miscalculated Europe’s economic resolve to punish Russia, this has not impacted his determination to press on with his “special military operation.” Future attempts to prevent Russian irredentist actions lie in developing an integrated and reimagined Western security architecture that brings NATO and the EU together. The only way to accomplish this is to resolve the Cyprus question, which will finally allow Cyprus to join NATO and Turkey to once again re-engage in its EU membership bid or at least be included in any emerging European security framework.

Related to this is Europe’s now urgent need to end its dependence on Russian natural gas. Since the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian War, Europe has witnessed a dramatic cut in its gas supplies from Russia. An alternative and viable source of natural gas to serve Europe’s demand lies within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Cyprus. Through cooperation with the countries that now comprise the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), the extraction of gas sources to Europe via Greece stands a good chance of being commercially viable. However, Turkey is not part of the EMGF, primarily because it does not recognize Cyprus. As a result, Ankara contests Cyprus’ right to award drilling contracts to Western oil companies, mainly by deploying its own exploration and drilling vessels into Cypriot (and Greek) waters, often escorted by elements of the Turkish Navy. While the Republic of Cyprus has the diplomatic upper hand in being the internationally recognized government of the island, this does not resolve the risk that conflict may arise due to some miscalculation by either the Turkish, Greek, or Cypriot militaries. This would be a catastrophic development that would engulf Europe into a state of war; at least two of the warring parties would be NATO members and two would be EU states. The future of a stable Mediterranean gas supply to Europe must come at the tail end of a political solution to Cyprus. This would result in the reunification of the island, with Turkey establishing full diplomatic ties with Cyprus. In doing so, the question of contested waters, EEZs, and bilateral tensions would be addressed through diplomacy, paving the way for conflict-free gas supplies to reach Europe and further reducing Russia’s importance as a gas supplier.

Finally, and possibly tangentially, a U.S.-brokered Cyprus deal could ignite the spark to rekindle American and Turkish ties, which began sharply deteriorating over significant differences over Syria and the fight to eliminate the Islamic State. Since then, the bilateral relationship between the supposed “strategic partners” has worsened substantially, to the point that the Trump administration was forced to sanction Turkey due to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s insistence on purchasing Russian missile defense technology in 2019 instead of Western alternatives. Driven by a fundamental loss of trust on both sides, the toxicity in the relationship has reached unprecedented levels. President Joe Biden did not speak with Erdogan in the first eighteen months of his term, while Turkey continues to block Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO. An American diplomatic investment in the Cyprus problem may be just what is required to rekindle the partnership.

While establishing trust between the American and Turkish governments will be hard in the short term, U.S. diplomatic efforts to settle the Cyprus dispute could be seen as sincere by the Turks and could go a long way to re-establishing meaningful dialogue between the Cold War allies. The benefit to the United States and West could be huge: a reset between Washington and Ankara over the Cyprus issue could incentivize Turkey to distance itself from Moscow, which it has been reluctant to do since the mid-2010s. A dialogue focused on resolving the issue could pave the way to rebuilding trust, offer Ankara alternatives down the road to offload its Russian S-400 missiles, and help the Turkish military acquire its much-needed F-16 fighters.

This brings us to the question of why Washington should broker a negotiated settlement in Cyprus and how it could actually succeed. Put simply, the United States is the only actor with enough diplomatic clout to be considered credible by all sides in the dispute. The Obama administration missed an opportunity to take on this issue, mainly because it considered it relatively unimportant. This mistake should not be repeated. This is a festering issue that carries with it the potential to embroil the whole of the Western hemisphere in a catastrophic military conflict that would destabilize NATO’s eastern flank. But through a settlement, NATO and European security could be enhanced by resolving the Turkish and Cypriot objections that prevent defense integration.

Unfortunately, the EU is not a credible entity in the eyes of Turkey, as Cyprus and Greece are already members. This is a non-starter. The UN is often thought to be the next logical choice. After all, it was the main force behind the 2004 negotiations. However, in this climate, the UN does not have the ability to arm-twist and offer incentives like the United States. A special envoy tasked by the White House to oversee negotiations is the only viable option to resolve the Cyprus quagmire.

The United States has several cards up its sleeve that could prove decisive in moving the needle toward an equitable solution. First, Washington is a relative novice with the issue and is looked upon less suspiciously by all parties. Second, the United States has a proven ability to get conflicting sides to the table. For instance, Washington brought together Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, Sinn Fein and the British government, and Israel and the signatories to the Abraham Accords.

As far as convincing Turkey to come to the table and abandon its insistence on a two-state solution, Washington could entice Ankara with conditional commitments on F-16 sales, provided that Turkey moves decisively to divest itself of its S-400 inventories (and generally become a more amicable member of NATO). Of greater interest to Ankara would be for the United States to pitch a free trade agreement. This would be an important gain, as it would provide an economic dimension to anchor the U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership, which has always been missing since the beginning of the Cold War. With increased economic ties, Turkey and America’s likelihood of falling out with one another would be reduced.

Arm-twisting the Greek Cypriots may be a little harder. That being said, they are interested in acquiring U.S.-manufactured weapons systems, which could be made contingent on their willingness to negotiate in good faith. America could also convince the United Kingdom to transform its sovereign bases on the island into NATO bases—something the Greek Cypriots would very much welcome. Obviously, these are initial suggestions that only demonstrate the bargaining power that the United States may possess. Reaching a negotiated settlement is likely to be challenging due to long-standing issues such as the status of Turkish troops on the island, property/land disputes, and the future of settled Turks on the island.

It’s understandable that Washington is focused on the war in Ukraine and the pacing threat of China. However, a price is attached to being the leader of the liberal international order. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the absence of American leadership in major theaters is being preyed upon by China and Russia. Cyprus is one such theater. Peacefully resolving this intractable problem will yield much more than merely mending relations between Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus. It will be a fundamental component of efforts to limit Russian influence over allies such as Turkey, secure energy sources independent of Moscow, and integrate the European and transatlantic security framework.

This is easier said than done. Prioritizing Cyprus will require vision and leadership. Sadly, this is largely absent in Washington—a problem not confined to the United States. The Western hemisphere is bereft of effective leaders. Reuniting Cyprus through a negotiated settlement—and reaping the array of rewards it would bring—will require not just a vision but a fundamental rethinking. Western leaders must focus on the costs of not taking action rather than the costs of taking action. This approach helped create a robust and attractive world order after World War II. Without such leadership and strategic foresight, turbulence and decay in the Eastern Mediterranean may lead to armed conflict.

Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s  Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). He is also an Associate Professor of Security Studies at the Command and Staff College-Marine Corps University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.