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A new crisis is looming in Cyprus after the lifting of the arms embargo by the United States

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

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

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

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

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Cypriot Air Force military helicopters fly over a military parade marking the 62nd anniversary of Cyprus's independence from British colonial rule, as giant paintings of dissident Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags are seen in the background on Pentadahtilos Mountain in the area occupied by Turkey, in Nicosia, Cyprus
Cypriot Air Force military helicopters fly over a military parade in Nicosia, as giant paintings of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot separatist flags are seen on Pentadaktylos mountain [File: Petros Karadjias/AP]

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

That renewal is due again in January, but this time, Turkish Cypriots say it must also happen with their consent.

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

What it lacks in legal status, Northern Cyprus makes up for in military might. Approximately 35,000 Turkish soldiers are stationed there, vastly outnumbering Greek Cypriot forces.

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

All about Famagusta

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

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“I am not sure that the peacekeepers can resist an attempt by the Turkish army to dislodge them, and doing so would allow the Turkish side to settle and develop that area north of Famagusta… The use of this property is part of the Turkish Cypriot plan. to develop Famagusta,” he said.

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

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

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

“I don’t expect the UN peacekeeping force to face an army…they are not going to resist,” said Ahmet Sözen, chair of the political science department at the University of the Eastern Mediterranean in northern Cyprus.

“If that happens, the UN will limit itself to the buffer zone with no freedom to cross to the north and deal only with the Greek Cypriot authorities in the south. But in terms of doing an efficient and effective job of controlling the buffer zone, cooperation from both sides is needed,” Sözen said.

Cypriot Army armored vehicles take part in a military parade marking Cyprus Independence Day in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Armored vehicles of the Cypriot army take part in a military parade in Nicosia [File: Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters]

Mavroyiannis, who spent the last nine years as Cyprus’s top negotiator with the Turkish Cypriots, said any such move must be anticipated if the Greeks and Turkish Cypriots are to have any hope of being one country.

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

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

What triggered the last crisis?

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

Two weeks later, Cyprus was included in the US National Guard 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, which goes beyond breaking the balance between the two sides of the island, the United States has evidently become biased,” Turkey’s 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 Russian sub-strategic weapon that the US says could be used to spy on the capabilities of their fighter planes.

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Turkey refused to divest itself of the weapon and was barred from buying fifth-generation F-35 fighter-bombers. Until now, the US Congress has prohibited him from upgrading the F-16s he already owns.

“Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974 was a shocking attempt to redraw the borders in Europe after World War II. And to this day, Turkey’s invasion of Northern 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.

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Improving the defenses

Cyprus has used this break in US-Turkish relations to improve its defenses.

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

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

Ertugruloglu from Northern Cyprus told Al Jazeera that “Greek Cypriots are wasting their time, they are wasting their money… You can be sure that we will respond to your moves.

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

If Northern Cyprus leader Ersin Tatar drives the UN out of its base and starts developing Famagusta, it will be as part of a broader US-Turkish standoff, Sözen said.

“[Tatar] he is a volunteer server from Turkey,” Sözen said. “He says: ‘I fully support Turkish interests, and without Turkey, I cannot take any action.’ Those actions, if he ever takes them, will not be his own autonomous actions, but probably tactics developed in Ankara that he is just implementing.”

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