Turkish muscle flexing in Mediterranean rekindles Cyprus peace efforts

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Article Summary
Turkey's aggressive behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean over drilling for gas has focused the minds of Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders on getting back to the negotiating table.

NICOSIA — Turkish saber-rattling in the Eastern Mediterranean continues to heighten fears of a looming confrontation between Turkey and its longtime foe Cyprus. Its most immediate effect, however, appears to have been to spook Greek Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, who have agreed to meet for informal discussions on Aug. 9, rekindling hopes of a fresh round of UN-brokered peace talks to reunite the divided island.

The talks will be held at the UN representative’s office in Nicosia. The two leaders have since been invited by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to meet with him in September in New York for trilateral talks. 

Greek Cypriot Foreign Minister Nicos Christodoulides confirmed that the main goal of the Aug. 9 encounter is to establish conditions to allow the restart of negotiations on the Cyprus problem. He added, however, that this means that Turkey will need to create the “right climate for them” and, therefore, cease drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

The row over the Eastern Mediterranean pitting Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots against Greece and the Greek Cypriots is notionally over who gets to drill for the basin’s real and imagined gas riches and where and when under international law. Turkey’s bellicosity has clearly concentrated minds, especially the Greek Cypriots’. 

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The imposition of largely symbolic sanctions by the European Union, mainly to assuage member state Cyprus, has done little to deter Turkey and has served as a wake up call for the Republic of Cyprus that Brussels is unwilling to cross Ankara for its sake.

Even as Brussels harrumphed that high-level meetings between Turkish and EU representatives were off the table as a result of its illegal actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and that some financial assistance would be withheld, Ankara dispatched a third drilling vessel, the Yavuz, to explore off the tip of the Karpas Peninsula, in the Turkish-run northern part of the island. Energy Minister Fatih Donmez said a fourth ship would follow.

The EU is fearful of wrecking the 2016 deal with Turkey under which Ankara agreed to keep millions of Syrian refugees out of Europe in exchange for large dollops of euros. By punishing Turkey, albeit symbolically, the EU has shed even more leverage over Ankara, whose candidacy for full membership in the union is effectively on ice.

“The sanctions, timid as they are, have had a boomerang effect and will likely entrench Turkey even further in its position,” said Mehmet Ogutcu, a former Turkish diplomat and president of the London Energy Club.

“Turkey’s gunboat diplomacy is forcing the Greek Cypriots to rethink their strategy,” Ogutcu told Al-Monitor in an interview. “Both sides are to blame, but Turkey, the largest power in the Eastern Mediterranean economically, militarily and energy consumption-wise, cannot be pushed around or isolated. A Turkey estranged will be even more assertive, and domestic dynamics in Turkey will not allow [President] Recep Tayyip Erdogan to be softer.”

Ahmet Sozen, a Turkish Cypriot academic who heads the international relations department of Eastern Mediterranean University, agrees with Ogutcu that as a shield against Turkey’s claims, the Greek Cypriots had been relying on EU backing and a series of agreements struck with Israel, Greece and Egypt for producing and sharing Eastern Mediterranean gas.

Sozen remarked to Al-Monitor, “But they saw that Turkish muscle flexing didn’t elicit much of a response. Israel and Egypt have not really said much. The coming weeks and months offer a serious opportunity for mediators to step in and bring the sides to the table again.” He believes that a way forward is to add energy to the bucket list of issues normally discussed during the Cypriot peace talks.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric emanating from Ankara grows more hawkish by the day. Sozen attributes this to the rising influence of the so-called Eurasianists, who advocate closer ties to Russia and China and the annexation of Northern Cyprus by Turkey.

On July 20, the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Ankara, celebrated the 45th anniversary of Turkey's invasion with due pomp. Erdogan seized on the occasion to warn, “No one should doubt that the heroic Turkish army … will not hesitate to take the same step it took 45 years ago if needed for the lives and security of the Turkish Cypriots.”

Cyprus has remained divided since 1974, when Turkish troops intervened in response to Greek Cypriot ultra-nationalists’ bid to join the island to Greece. Decades of UN-sponsored talks came tantalizing close to success in June 2017, when Anastasiades and Akinci met in the Swiss resort of Crans Montana with guarantor powers Greece, Turkey and Britain in tow. 

Several sources familiar with the substance of the talks told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity that Turkey had appeared for the first time to seriously consider reducing the number of Turkish troops on the island — from 30,000 to 600 or so — as part of a comprehensive package, the implementation of which would be supervised by the United Nations. 

The presence of Turkish forces on Cyprus, whose commander in chief is viewed by some Turkish Cypriots as akin to a colonial governor, has long been a sticking point. The Greek Cypriots have reportedly insisted that there be no Turkish troops at all after 15 years. Turkey balked, arguing that sunset clauses could be deferred until after a deal has been signed.

The consensus among Western diplomats is that Anastasiades walked away fearing that he would not be able to sell the deal back at home. The talks' collapse left UN chief Guterres so frustrated that he essentially told the sides not to show up on his doorstep again until they had agreed on some basic principles.

When the Greek Cypriots began drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean in early 2018, Turkey retaliated by dispatching its own ships to the area. James Ker-Lindsay, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics who specializes in southeastern Europe and the Balkans, told Al-Monitor, “[Turkey's message was] get back to the table and if you don’t you will have to figure out revenue sharing with us and the Turkish Cypriots before.”

While many blame Anastasiades for the most recent failed talks, others believe that Turkey and Erdogan, in particular, cannot be trusted. They point to the Swiss-brokered deal that Turkey signed with its historical enemy Armenia in 2009 establishing diplomatic relations and opening their sealed borders. Caving to pressure from Azerbaijan and its nationalist allies inside Turkey, Erdogan shelved the protocols before the ink on them had even dried.

Regardless of whose fault it was, the Crans Montana debacle came as a bitter blow to secular-minded Turkish Cypriots, who fear their distinct identity is fading under Ankara’s grip. Sozen noted that even before Erdogan’s overtly pious Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power in 2002, Ankara had a “let’s Turkify the Turkish Cypriots” policy. The AKP just slapped religion on it, financing the construction of a giant mosque complex north of Nicosia, the island’s divided capital, and promoting religious education in newly established Islamic theology schools. 

As for the net effect, Mete Hatay, a Turkish Cypriot researcher for the Peace Research Institute Oslo, remarked, “[Turkish Cypriots], who are increasingly worried about the radical transformation within Turkey itself, are that much more willing to engage with the Greek Cypriots.”

Since 2003, thanks in no small measure to Erdogan’s then-dovish stance, Greek and Turkish Cypriots have been allowed to cross into each other’s slice of the island. Turkish Cypriot daytrippers are a common sight in Nicosia’s Old Town, where they indulge in pork salami and cheap drinks far from the disapproving gaze of conservative mainland Turks who have settled in the north.

Hatay told Al-Monitor, “The traffic has helped extinguish negative stereotypes where each side believed the other was like some kind of devil, with horns and all.” He thinks that it's time for the sides to abandon their “until everything is agreed, nothing is agreed type of maximalism.” Instead, he suggests, they should embark on a series of mutual goodwill gestures with no set agenda.

In this regard, the Turkish Cypriots could, for example, return thousands of Greek Orthodox icons that have been rotting in Kyrenia Castle since 1974. They could also open Christian Maronite villages for resettlement by their original inhabitants, who took refuge in the Greek south. In turn, the Greek Cypriots could ease the ban on citizenship for Turkish Cypriots who marry mainland Turks and recognize degrees earned in Turkish Cypriot universities.

There are unremitting rumors, however, that Anastasiades, whose term expires in 2023, may well be resigned to the idea of permanent separation, if not actually warming to it. This sense intensified when Anastasiades met privately over dinner on June 4 with the tough-talking Northern Cypriot “foreign minister” Kudret Ozersoy, whom Ankara is said to be grooming as Akinci's possible successor. A bruised Akinci said he had learned of the assignation after the fact. Ozersay claimed it was a “purely social affair.” The Aug. 9 meeting between Anastasiades and Akinci may help clear the air.

Ker-Lindsay noted, “Most Greek Cypriots are very skeptical about reunification because it would inject Ankara into Cyprus, that the Turkish Cypriots would be referring everything back to Ankara.” He added, “The Turkish Cypriots have never been good at allaying those fears.”

By the same token, Ker-Lindsay remarked, “[The Greek Cypriots] have no clue about Turkey or how its been going in its own direction.” Anastasiades may well be among those Greek Cypriots.

“Turkey has learned not to make idle threats because it comes back to bite them,” Ker-Lindsay asserted, commenting on Ankara's general approach to matters. “They know they may be taking a hit, but they are saying to the outside world, ‘You know what, we will walk away with our heads held up high.’”

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Found in: Oil and gas

Amberin Zaman is a senior correspondent reporting from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe exclusively for Al-Monitor. Zaman has been a columnist for Al-Monitor for the past five years, examining the politics of Turkey, Iraq and Syria and writing the daily Briefly Turkey newsletter.  Prior to Al-Monitor, Zaman covered Turkey, the Kurds and conflicts in the region for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016, and has worked as a columnist for several Turkish language outlets. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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