Thanks to Hermes for pointing out the latest report on Turkey from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a prominent Washington think tank with close ties to US government. The report, Turkey’s Evolving Dynamics, in its entirety can be read here and reflects the current thinking in the US administration regarding the need for America and Turkey to strengthen relations and promote mutual interests in the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Caucuses, Pakistan, Afghanistan and so on. The report recognises that Turkey will be best able to serve American interests if it is anchored to the EU and realises that one of the major stumbling blocks to Turkey’s ambition to join the EU is Cyprus. In the report chapter that deals with Cyprus – Cyprus: Can the Stalemate Be Overcome – which I’ve reprinted below, the author, Ian Lessing, adopts wholesale Turkish positions and attitudes on Cyprus and identifies ‘the Annan plan by another name’ as the most likely outcome of the current Christofias-Talat negotiations. Lessing also argues that to encourage Greek Cypriots to agree to an Annan VI , America should upgrade the status of the Turkish occupation regime in northern Cyprus.
Cyprus: Can the Stalemate Be Overcome, by Ian Lesser
Cyprus is arguably far less central to the strategic environment facing Turkey, Europe, and the United States than it was even a decade ago, but the situation on the island and the uncertain prospects for a settlement may still affect Turkish policy and Turkey’s strategic position, with significant implications for U.S. and European policy. Today, Cyprus is a political rather than a security issue for the key stakeholders, and dynamics on the island are now the leading variable shaping negotiations. The United States is unlikely to be the focal point for future Cyprus diplomacy, but there will still be scope for some useful policy initiatives.
Turkey’s Long-Term Interests
Ankara’s strategic stake in Cyprus has evolved considerably over time. In the decades before the 1974 intervention, and for some time afterward, the protection of the Turkish community on Cyprus was seen as integral to the defense of Turkey’s wider interests and inextricably linked to the conflict-prone relationship with Greece. Cyprus was at the core of Turkey’s own security and sovereignty-conscious outlook – an orientation shared by diverse actors within the Turkish system, from the nationalist Left (Bülent Ecevit, for example), to the Turkish military and security establishment, and, of course, the nationalist Right. Since the 1980s, the centrality of Cyprus in the Turkish strategic calculus has waxed and waned, driven by changing dynamics in relations with Greece, Europe, and even Russia.
Over the longer term, Turkey will have several critical interests in relation to Cyprus and its future status. First, there will be a continued interest in the fate of the Turkish community, many of whom are now settlers from Turkey proper with strong ties to the mainland. As the security situation on the island has become more benign, this aspect of Turkish interest has lost some of its force. In the future, this may be more about affinity and the defense of political rights rather than physical protection. But resurgent nationalism in Turkey and elsewhere is likely to make this a durable concern.
Second, Cyprus will count as part of the equation with Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States. Ankara faces a near-term deadline to implement the agreed protocol governing access of ships and aircraft from the Republic of Cyprus to Turkish ports. In the absence of this, Turkey will almost certainly face new frozen chapters in the accession negotiations, even a suspension of the country’s candidacy to the European Union, all against the backdrop of an already troubled relationship with Europe. Under current political conditions, these obstacles are difficult to overcome. More fundamentally, Turks understand that full recognition of the Republic of Cyprus is a precondition for EU membership, even as a 10- or
Cyprus is no longer central to U.S.-Turkish relations, but the unresolved dispute still holds the potential to complicate relations, especially in Congress. Détente with Athens has taken much of the steam out of congressional and executive attention to Cyprus and the Aegean. Nonetheless, Ankara will have certain expectations regarding U.S. policy toward the island. Policymakers should anticipate growing Turkish pressure on the United States to take steps toward reducing the economic isolation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Turkey will continue to seek similar measures from Europe as there is a widespread perception in Turkey that Europe has not lived up to its commitments in this area.
Third, Turkey will continue to be sensitive to developments on Cyprus as part of the wider strategic scene in the eastern Mediterranean. To be sure, Turks and Cypriots tend to overstate the strategic importance of the island, often using images of sea control and interdiction derived from the Cold War era of naval competition with the Soviet Union. To the extent that oil exports from Iraq to the Mediterranean and the terminus of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline at Ceyhan are important to global supply, Cyprus will have some significance in energy security terms for regional actors, including Turkey. The eastern Mediterranean is indeed set to occupy a more important position as an energy entrepôt, but in the absence of any serious maritime threats to the security of shipment, the role of Cyprus is likely to be limited to surveillance of terrorist and environmental risks – important factors to be sure, but unlikely to make Cyprus a geopolitical focal point.
If Turkey’s prevailing détente with Greece erodes, there is some potential for Cyprus to reemerge as an element in the regional military balance with Athens, as an asset for Turkish power projection in the Aegean, or as a liability in future conflict. Under current conditions, this must be regarded as a declining factor in the Turkish calculus. Turkish planners have also been concerned about the growing Russian presence on Cyprus during the past decade. Tens of thousands of Russians visit or reside on Cyprus for business or tourism. Russian arms sales, especially surface-to-air missiles and related radars, have been a special source of concern since the S-300 dispute of the 1990s. This is likely to remain a concern, particularly as part of a wider Russian return as a security actor in the eastern Mediterranean through new basing and defense industrial ties to Syria and Libya.
To the extent that Turkish policy toward Cyprus has redlines, these are more likely to apply to Turkey’s own politics and civil-military relations. Turkey’s military was not easily persuaded to support the Annan Plan in 2004. If the Turkish government is again asked to back a similar settlement, the Turkish general staff (TGS) and nationalist circles on the Right and the Left could offer strong resistance unless there are clear benefits for Turkey in other spheres. Expulsion of Anatolian settlers from the island or serious threats to the security of the Turkish community would surely bring a strong response from Ankara. In the foreign policy sphere, Turks would oppose any significant enhancement of Cypriot military capabilities and would resist Cypriot moves to join NATO in the absence of a settlement and a resolution of the ongoing NATO–European Security and Defense Policy dispute – all unlikely scenarios.
Relations with the TRNC
Cyprus has moved to the periphery of regional affairs, and the issue is much less central to the worldview of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi [AKP]) government than to its predecessors. But for many Turks, Cyprus remains a nationalist issue par excellence, if somewhat recessed in recent years. As Turkish nationalism has become more prominent across the political spectrum, this has reinforced the standing potential for Cyprus to become a test of legitimacy for government and opposition in Ankara. Prominent Turks with cultural and business links to Cyprus form a lobby that any Turkish government will find difficult to ignore. That said, the relationship between Ankara and the TRNC is not necessarily an easy one. Turkish economic subsidies to the TRNC are costly and an ongoing source of resentment. Those who would like to see more rapid movement on Turkey’s EU-inspired reforms tend to see Cyprus as a drag on Turkish interests. In a narrower political sense, the TRNC government of President Mehmet Ali Talat is culturally and ideologically at odds with the AKP movement (and actually closer to the Dimitris Christofias government of the Republic of Cyprus in some respects).
The decoupling of Turkish and TRNC interests and policies has not gone as far as it has on the Greek side, perhaps, but the notion of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot futures as inextricably linked is probably a thing of the past. If the parties on the island arrive at a settlement, any Turkish government will probably feel bound to accept the terms. If the next elections in the TRNC bring a more overtly nationalist leadership to power, this would tend to reinforce the relationship with Ankara.
After decades of presence, the Turkish military has institutionalized its mission on the island and continues to see itself as a major stakeholder in the future of Cyprus. The TGS would likely oppose a precipitous withdrawal, but Turkish planners might also welcome the opportunity to shift some resources and attention to more pressing security challenges elsewhere.
Cyprus and Turkish-Greek Dynamics
The rise of Greek-Turkish détente over the past decade has been a transforming development for the strategic environment in the eastern Mediterranean and for Cyprus. Both Athens and Ankara continue to champion the interests of their respective communities on the island, but Cyprus is no longer a significant flash point in bilateral relations. For Athens, in particular, Cypriot membership in the EU has led to an implicit decoupling in policy terms. Cypriot and Greek interests may overlap, but they are no longer synonymous. The strategic logic behind Aegean détente and Greek support for Turkey’s EU ambitions also argues for stabilization and eventual settlement on Cyprus in order to complete the anchoring of Turkey in Europe and to encourage the resolution of outstanding disputes in the Aegean.
Greek leaders and observers recognize that the prospects for a settlement now depend critically on social and political dynamics on the island rather than the actions of third parties. Cyprus is unlikely to regain its position as a political and security flash point in Greek-Turkish relations unless a progressive resurgence of nationalism in both countries is accompanied by a deterioration of intercommunal relations on the island. Athens supported the Annan Plan and was disappointed when the referendum failed on the Greek side of the island in 2004. Whether under New Democracy or a PASOK government, Athens is likely to accept whatever arrangements Cypriots negotiate for themselves.
Prospects for a Settlement and Regional Concerns
Observers on both sides of the island tend to agree that the advent of the Christofias government, with Talat in power in the TRNC, offers the best prospect for a settlement since the failure of the Annan Plan. Both Christofias and Talat hail from the political Left, and both appear willing to take risks for a negotiated solution.
These positive political dynamics accompany a substantial improvement in mood at the popular level after years of essentially incident-free interaction and cross-border visits. The issue of the Anatolian settlers is less controversial than in the past. Stakes in property and land return may now trump security and demographic anxieties for an increasingly prosperous and confident Greek community.
For Turkish Cypriots, the attraction of a Cypriot solution and membership in the EU is strong, and both sides believe, probably correctly, that the financial costs of an eventual settlement would be borne by Europe.
In essence, the bizonal-bicommunal vision is now shared by both leaderships, which are heavily invested in the negotiating process under way and realize that, this time around, the failure to reach a settlement – probably a version of the Annan Plan by another name – will be blamed on the two Cypriot leaders rather than the postures of third parties. These are some positive indicators for the near term, but after several months of talks since September 2008, significant differences over power sharing and other issues persist. The current favorable climate is unlikely to persist indefinitely. The renationalization of perspectives, changes in political leadership, or the deterioration of the wider security environment in the region (reinforcing anxieties and discouraging risk taking for reunification) could mean a return to stagnation and a slide toward permanent division – with all that this might mean for Turkey’s own EU prospects.
Policy Implications for the United States and International Partners
This analysis underscores the primacy of developments on the island for the future of Cyprus. The relative weight of Athens and Ankara in the Cyprus equation has declined, although the EU factor remains critical, both as an incentive for settlement and as an actor on the island and in the region. The United States and Europe will have a shared stake in achieving a settlement in order to consolidate Greek-Turkish détente, to facilitate Turkey’s EU project, and to remove a longstanding dispute from the international agenda.
Transatlantic interests should also extend to the potential role of Cyprus as a contributor to maritime and environmental security and crisis management in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant. Europe and the United Nations will have a structural stake and role in Cyprus diplomacy. Outside the UN frame, the United States may well have a less prominent role under current conditions. There are a couple of reasons for this, including continued Turkish suspicion of U.S. policy and the likely low priority of Cyprus in relation to other more serious and immediate foreign policy challenges. Despite these constraints, it is still possible for the United States to enhance prospects for a settlement for Cyprus if the United States:
Takes some steps, even if largely symbolic, to reduce the economic isolation of the TRNC; the United States can do so as a commitment to change, to encourage EU movement on the issue, and as a contribution to improved relations with Turkey;
Supports efforts toward a Cypriot solution before conditions change, and reinforces the very useful intercommunal programs already in place under U.S. and other auspices;
Encourages Cypriot participation in wider transatlantic projects aimed at security and development in the Mediterranean and the Levant, beyond the confines of the Cyprus problem; and
Considers appointing a special U.S. envoy to work with Turkish, Cypriot, UN, and EU diplomats; this could bolster UN efforts and send a clear signal that Washington recognizes the importance of the issue for the future stability of the broader region and expects results.