Crisis in the Mediterranean

Written by Richard Ellis


Cypriot President Christofias (R) met the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in September 2009. Christofias assured Assad that the cargo of 98 containers with Iranian armaments would remain in Cyprus until it could be returned to either Syria or Iran. The containers exploded on 11 July.

The island of Cyprus has always played an important strategic role, not least today. 

This was made clear a thousand years ago by the Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi, who stated: “The island of Qubrus is in the power of whichever nation is overlord in these seas”.

Cyprus_FlagIt was for this reason that the Crusaders occupied the island in 1191, followed by the Venetians in 1489 and the Ottomans less than a hundred years later. The British took over in 1878, and shortly before the Suez crisis in 1956 the British prime minister Sir Anthony Eden declared: “No Cyprus, no certain facilites to protect our supply of oil. No oil, unemployment and hunger in Britain. It is as simple as that.”

Once again, the strategic importance of Cyprus was underlined during the Cold War, not only because of the two British bases but also because of monitoring facilities to gather intelligence on Soviet missile launches. When Cyprus became independent in 1960, the pursuit of enosis (union with Greece) by its president, Archbishop Makarios, led to a breakdown of the power-sharing constitution and conflict between the Greek Cypriot majority and the Turkish Cypriot minority.

As part of the struggle for unfettered independence, Cyprus joined the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961 and sought support from the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. Consequently, in a memorandum to US president Lyndon Johnson in June 1964 Greek prime minister George Papandreou warned: “If Natification [NATO membership] of Cyprus does not occur, the island will inevitably be transformed into another Cuba”.

It was for this reason the Greek junta in July 1974 – with the connivance of US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – launched a coup against President Makarios and Turkey took advantage of the situation to invade and occupy northern Cyprus.History has a habit of repeating itself, also in Cyprus. In 1964 escalating hostilities between the two communities led to the threat of war between Greece and Turkey.

Both the US and the Soviet Union were aware that they faced the most dangerous confrontation since the Cuban missile crisis the year before.  President Johnson made it clear in a letter to Turkish prime minister Inönü that Turkey could not count on NATO support in the event of Soviet involvement and the crisis was averted.  Now Cyprus faces a new confrontation with Turkey, but this time with American, Russian, Greek and Israeli support. In 2007 the Republic of Cyprus concluded agreements with Egypt and Lebanon delineating their respective maritime boundaries and exclusive economic zones, and last year a similar agreement was concluded with Israel.

The bone of contention between Turkey and Cyprus concerns Cyprus’ sovereign right, based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to carry out exploration and drill for hydrocarbons in its exclusive economic zone. Turkey, which is not among the 162 states which have signed the convention, claims that it has rights in an area which runs from its southern coast to the northern coast of Egypt.

In November 2008 Norwegian exploration vessels were harassed by Turkish warships off the southern coast of Cyprus, which caused Cyprus to block the opening of the energy chapter in Turkey’s accession talks. Foreign Minister Kyprianou accused Turkey of behaving “like the neighbourhood bully”, and Turkey’s chief negotiator Egemen Bağış in turn said that “a small sunshine member state” obstructed Europe’s energy needs.

Three years ago a US company, Noble Energy, received a concession to explore for hydrocarbons in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone, and accordingly plans to begin drilling for natural gas on 1 October. Last month Turkish foreign minister DavutoÄŸlu stated that Turkey would show “the appropriate reaction” if any further step is taken and an appeal to the United States to take action has been rebuffed.

Cyprus has received support both from Russia and Israel and according to a recent report Russia will send two nuclear-powered submarines to protect the island’s right to exploration in its maritime zone. It is also reported that the Turkish navy and air force are planning exercises in the area beginning 15 September.

The Republic of Cyprus now has its back to the wall. With regard to the ongoing reunification talks the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has told the two leaders, Demitris Christofias and DerviÅŸ EroÄŸlu, to reach convergence on all core issues by October. The Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan has also made it clear that if a settlement is not reached by 2012, Turkey will consider “different alternatives”.

On 11 July another bombshell was dropped, almost literally. 98 containers of Iranian munitions, confiscated from a Cypriot-flagged Russian freighter on its way to Syria at the end of January 2009 and since stored in an open field, exploded. The explosion not only destroyed the nearby Vassiliko power station, which provided more than half Greek Cyprus’ energy, but also the Greek Cypriots’ confidence in their president.

A classified report leaked to the Greek Cypriot daily Simerini reveals that the Cypriot government had received offers of help to dispose of the cargo from the US, Britain,  France and Germany but refused. Instead, at a meeting between President Christofias and the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in September 2009, Christofias had assured Assad the cargo would remain in Cyprus until it could be returned to either Syria or Iran.

According to a cable from the US ambassador in Cyprus, since the election of Christofias in 2008 “we have witnessed an ideologically-motivated attempt to turn back the clock to the heydays of the Non-Aligned Movement.  He has publicly praised Fidel Castro, welcomed a new Venezuelan Embassy in Nicosia, lauded Iran, and vilified NATO and the Partnership for Peace ”.

Next July the Republic of Cyprus will take over the EU term presidency and therefore it would be unfortunate if the island once again becomes the scene of a Cold War-style confrontation.

Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs and advisor to the EFD’s Turkey Assessment Group in the European Parliament

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