The Cyprus issue is described as a “frozen conflict” due to no casualties since 1996. Several UN-mediated talks have ended in failure to settle this issue on the basis of federalism. The Greek Cypriots at least twice rejected a federal solution for Cyprus overtly: first in the referendum for the Annan Plan in 2004 and then by abandoning negotiations on the first day of the Crans-Montana Summit in 2017. The Turkish government, which sees fading prospects of the Cyprus issue on the basis of federalism on the island due to ongoing Greek Cypriot rejection of any kind of federal solutions, changed its stance towards the issue and offered a two-state solution for the island. Although the US played no role in resolving the issue, it now states that it takes the side of the Greek Cypriot administration and opposes the two-state solution proposed by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and Türkiye.
Changing US policy
Actually, the major change in the US foreign policy regarding the Cyprus issue commenced with the US Congress’s approval of the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act in 2019. The Act lifts the US arms embargo on the Greek Cypriot administration and provides military assistance. Recently, the American administration announced that the US lifted defense trade restrictions on the Greek Cypriot administration for the 2023 fiscal year by ending its 30-year arms embargo.
"The US decision to lift the arms embargo on the Greek Cypriot administration will embolden them and hence lead to an escalation in the region" as the president of the TRNC, Ersin Tatar, said. Indeed, this act of the US might further accelerate the Greek Cypriot armament efforts and provocative position on the island. More importantly, this does not serve efforts for a Cyprus peace deal and harms regional stability due to its potential to turn this frozen conflict into a real one. It might cause further intensification of tension between Ankara and Athens.
Türkiye and Greece have disagreements ranging from the delimitation of territorial waters, continental shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone, airspace, the status of rocks and islets, demilitarized status of some islands to the Cyprus issue. In an effort to shape the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean in line with its own theses, Greece has signed bilateral and multilateral agreements with several countries including the US. The main motive behind Greece's signing these bilateral defense and energy agreements is the problems it has raised concerning Türkiye in recent years. Türkiye’s deteriorated relations with some of the Eastern Mediterranean countries in the past before the recent normalization process, and alienation between the US and Türkiye created an environment for Greece and the Greek Cypriot side to develop their relationship with the countries that have disagreements with Türkiye.
Reason behind US decision to lift arms embargo
In order to understand the reason behind the US decision to lift the arms embargo on the Greek Cypriot administration, it is better to evaluate the changing US foreign policy approach to Greece and Greek Cyprus since 2018. During the agreement process that will clear the name tension between Greece and Macedonia in order to pave the way for Macedonia’s NATO membership, the tension experienced in 2018 due to the allegation that some Russian diplomats tried to bribe Greek bureaucrats to break this agreement, played an accelerating role in the development of US-Greek relations since then. Greece was positioned as an important and “reliable ally” of the US policy developed against the increasing Russian influence in Syria, Libya, the Balkans, and Ukraine, and both in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
The US policy in the Eastern Mediterranean has been revealed by the US Congress's approval of the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act in 2019. This Act, which supports the alliance between the US, Greece, Israel, and the Greek Cypriot administration, excludes Türkiye by ignoring her rights on hydrocarbon resources in the region as a country that has the longest coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean. The former US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, the former US ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, and the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez, played significant roles in developing Greek-US relations and supporting Greece’s claims over the Eastern Mediterranean that has raised concerns in Ankara.
The renewal of the Defense Cooperation Agreement signed between the US and Greece in 1990 for another five years and the expansion of its scope that allows the US to deploy more troops in its Greek bases, including Alexandroupoli Base and Suda Base on Crete, 45 km from the Turkish border, along with the US access to Greek military bases and expanded areas for the US forces to exercise, have raised questions in Türkiye against whom this defense cooperation is. Tensions between Greece and Türkiye have escalated further following Greek military deployments and military drills in Greek islands near Türkiye’s coastline. Another irritant factor for Ankara that Greece uses to provoke Türkiye is the increasing US military presence in the region and the armament of the Greek islands that should remain demilitarized in line with the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and the 1947 Paris Treaty.
US needs to return to its balanced policy between two sides
It is not a secret that the US historically had sympathy for and also ideological influence on the Greek Revolution for independence from the Ottoman Empire. The US administration never signed the Laussane Peace Treaty of 1923 that superseded the Treaty of Sévres which stipulated that Greece would receive the remaining portion of the Ottoman Empire under the occupation of Entente Powers -- Izmir and Western Anatolia. Greece has never abandoned its dream of Enosis and Megali Idea. The recent rapprochement and cooperation between Greece and the US, and the changing US foreign policy approach to Greece and Türkiye raise questions about what is the plan of the US for the region. Most importantly, it is not possible to make any sense of the US' alienation from Türkiye and even take the risk of weakening NATO’s southern flank by contributing to a potential conflict between two NATO allies of the region. Türkiye’s geopolitical importance and its facilitator role in global issues such as food security necessitate the US to return to pursuing a balanced policy towards the two sides on the island instead of causing a new battleground.
AA/Aylin Unver Noi