New crisis brewing on Cyprus after US lifts arms embargo

Turkish-Cypriot authorities could be preparing to evict United Nations peacekeepers from their bases in northern Cyprus, triggering a new political and security crisis on the divided island, officials have told Al Jazeera.

“[The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP)] needs to enter into a mutually agreeable formal agreement with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in order to continue its presence and operations in the TRNC,” Tahsin Ertugruloglu, who holds the Northern Cyprus foreign affairs portfolio, told Al Jazeera.

“We submitted a Status of Forces Agreement proposal to the United Nations in September. We will decide on the steps to be taken once the UN evaluates and responds to our proposal,” he said.

The UNFICYP was created in 1964 following intercommunal clashes between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. It monitors a buffer zone, known as the Green Line, that segregated Greek Cypriots, who now live in the south of the island, and Turkish Cypriots, who live in the north.

Military helicopters of Cypriot air forces fly over a military parade in Nicosia, as the giant paintings of the Turkish and the Turkish Cypriot breakaway flags are seen on Pentadaktylos mountain [File: Petros Karadjias/AP]

The UN Security Council renews UNFICYP’s mandate every six months following the consent of the internationally recognised government of Cyprus, which is in the south.

That renewal is due again in January, but this time, Turkish Cypriots say it needs to happen with their consent as well.

This presents the Security Council with a legal problem because the UN does not recognise the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, self-proclaimed in 1983. It is not a UN member and is recognised only by Turkey.

What it lacks in legal status, Northern Cyprus makes up for in military power. An estimated 35,000 Turkish troops are stationed there, vastly outnumbering Greek-Cypriot forces.

They are the remnant of an invasion Turkey launched in 1974, after Greece attempted to reunite the island in a coup.

All about Famagusta

“This is a very serious problem. I’m very much afraid that [the Turkish Cypriots] will use every excuse to oust the UN military from its base of Karolou Stefani north of Famagusta,” said Andreas Mavroyiannis, who is running for president in Cyprus’s February elections.

“I’m not sure the peacekeepers can resist an attempt by the Turkish army to evict them, and doing so would allow the Turkish side to settle and develop that area north of Famagusta … Using this real estate is part of the Turkish-Cypriot plan to develop Famagusta,” he said.

Famagusta is a ghost town on Cyprus’s east coast. The Turkish army has occupied it since 1974, but the UN Security Council has ordered Turkey to return it to the Greek Cypriots.

Turkey has agreed to do so as part of any plan to reunify the island as a bicommunal federation, a discussion that has been happening under UN auspices since 1979, but those talks were suspended two years ago when Turkish Cypriots elected an administration that favours permanent partition of the island into two sovereign states.

Since then, Northern Cyprus and Turkey have said they will annex Famagusta, removing a significant sweetener for reunification.

“I don’t expect that the UN peacekeeping force is going to get engaged with an army … they’re not going to resist,” said Ahmet Sözen, who chairs the political science department at East Mediterranean University in Northern Cyprus.

“If that happens, the UN will be limited to the buffer zone without freedom to cross to the north and dealing only with Greek-Cypriot authorities to the south. But in terms of doing an efficient and effective job of controlling the buffer zone you need cooperation with both sides,” Sözen said.

Cypriot army armoured vehicles participate in a military parade marking Cyprus' Independence Day in Nicosia, Cyprus
Cypriot army armoured vehicles participate in a military parade in Nicosia [File: Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters]

Mavroyiannis, who has spent the last nine years as Cyprus’s chief negotiator with the Turkish Cypriots, said any such move needed to be preempted if Greek and Turkish Cypriots were to have any hope of being one country.

“Our reaction must be to insist the UN Security Council extends the dead zone of Famagusta to include the military base of Karolou Stefani,” he said.

Extending that dead zone would put the base off-limits to development, and include it in the land that would one day be returned to the Greek Cypriots.

What triggered the latest crisis?

The Turkish-Cypriot ultimatum to the UN came after September 16, when the United States removed an embargo on arms sales to Cyprus, enforced since 1987 to prevent further violence.

Two weeks later, Cyprus was included in the US National Guard’s State Partnership Program, which will allow Cypriot national guardsmen to train with the New Jersey Army National Guard.

Turkey “strongly condemned” that deal.

“With this move, going beyond disrupting the balance between the two sides on the island, the US has evidently become partial,” the Turkish foreign ministry said.

These developments came amid a US-Turkish relationship that has been deteriorating since Turkey bought S-400 surface-to-air missiles in 2016, a sub-strategic Russian weapon the US says could be used to spy on its fighter jets’ capabilities.

Turkey refused to divest itself of the weapon, and was barred from buying fifth-generation F-35 fighter bombers. The US Congress has so far banned it from upgrading the F-16s it already possesses as well.

“Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974 was a shocking attempt to redraw borders in Europe in the wake of World War II. And to this day, Turkey’s invasion of the north of Cyprus must be seen for what it is – an illegal occupation that must end,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez said in November 2019.

Improving defences

Cyprus has used this rupture in US-Turkish relations to improve its defences.

Since 2020, it has conducted annual air and naval military exercises with Italy, France and Greece, and its defence minister Haralambos Petridis has said it plans to buy air defence systems. But Cyprus insists its intentions are defensive.

“We have never dreamed of capabilities that would allow anyone to say we have an aggressive military posture,” Mavroyiannis told Al Jazeera. “At the most, we want to have enough of a deterrent ability to incur a cost and to buy time for the international community to react – so we’re talking about a short time period.”

Northern Cyprus’s Ertugruloglu told Al Jazeera that “Greek-Cypriots are wasting their time, they’re wasting their money … They can be sure that their moves will be responded to by us.

“Hopefully, they will be mature enough not to overstep their boundaries and not do something crazy,” he added.

If the Northern Cyprus leader Ersin Tatar does remove the UN from its base and begins to develop Famagusta, it will be as part of the broader US-Turkey standoff, said Sözen.

“[Tatar] is a willing servant of Turkey,” said Sözen. “He says: ‘I am fully supporting Turkish interests, and without Turkey, I cannot take any action’. Those actions, if he ever takes them, won’t be his own autonomous actions but probably tactics developed in Ankara that he is just implementing.”

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