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Can President Biden reunite Cyprus amid tensions?

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Türkmen Terzi 

During his election campaign US President Joe Biden released a “Vision of Greece” in which he committed to tackling “Turkish aggression” on the strategic Mediterranean island.

In response to Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiadis’ congratulatory message in December of last year, President-elect Biden wrote a letter of appreciation in which he stated that he and Vice President Kamala Harris are taking over the US administration at a time when they will be confronted by a considerable number of global challenges and uncertainty that will require a greater degree of international cooperation.

Biden assured Anastasiadis and the internationally recognized Cypriot government of his willingness to support and cooperate with them.

Despite costly lobbying efforts, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has yet to receive any communication from the US president, while Istanbul-based Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was honored with a handwritten note from Biden wherein the US president expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of future work and dialogue with Bartholomew.

Biden has signaled discomfort with Turkey’s interference in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, referring to the Turkish leader as an “autocrat” during the Democratic Party presidential primary campaign in 2019.

Since the Turkish military takeover of northern Cyprus in 1974, the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus has controlled the southern two-thirds of the island, while the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC), recognized only by Turkey, has ruled the northern third.

The divided island’s Greek and Turkish residents have never come as close to a settlement as they reached under the guidance of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The negotiations were, however, eventually undone as a result of the island’s guarantor states’ Greece, Turkey and England’s power games and influence over the island’s residents.

The Annan Plan referendum went on to be rejected by 76 percent of Greek Cypriots and 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots on April 24, 2004.

The burning question is whether Biden can reunite the island in the wake of the recent gas exploration tensions arising in the eastern Mediterranean among the various neighbors.

Biden had on several occasions already expressed support for a bizonal, bicommunal federation on the island of Cyprus.

During his visit to the island in 2014, then-US Vice President Biden encouraged Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders to meet more often with the intent of finding solutions to the re-opening of Varosha — the southern tourist quarter of the city of Famagusta that was abandoned following the 1974 intervention by Turkish military forces — to civilians, the removal of land mines on both sides, joint energy investments and the opening of Ercan Airport in northern Cyprus to international flights.

Biden’s efforts toward unification in Cyprus may remain unsuccessful as long as Erdoğan remains in power.

Erdoğan backed Ersin Tatar, who won the presidential election in Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus in October of last year. Tatar supports a two-state solution, unlike former President Mustafa Akinci, who was in support of reunification with the south.

Turkish President Erdoğan and then-prime minister Tatar reopened the beachfront of Varosha just a few days before the northern Cypriot election, in a move regarded as interference by Turkey.

Erdoğan’s Varosha visit angered the Greek Cypriot administration as UN Security Council Resolution 550 (1984) clearly states that Varosha can only be occupied by its original residents.

President Erdoğan had called for a “two-state” solution in Cyprus during a high-profile visit to the north of the island on November 15, while the Turkish foreign minister called on the international community to respect the Turkish Cypriots’ will for a two-state solution on Cyprus on Jan. 9.

The discovery of huge gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean in 2011 meant that Cyprus suddenly became more important in international politics considering Europe’s need to reduce its energy dependence on Russia.

Although the European Union and United States responded to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass with economic and diplomatic sanctions in 2014, European states’ energy dependence on Russia prevent them from fully implementing the sanctions. Huge natural gas finds in the eastern Mediterranean could help the West take stronger action against Moscow.

The recent gas exploration in Israeli waters has led to an increase in US interest there as an American company is the biggest partner in the energy consortium in Israel.

Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Jordan established the Cairo-based East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) to compete with Turkey over the gas resources, but the transportation of gas without Turkish land means that costs have greatly increased.

The gas field around Cyprus is important to Greece, Turkey and Cyprus as they still depend almost entirely on gas imports, but gas exploration has lost a bit of its allure as the price of natural gas has recently dropped.

While the US government attempts to calm tensions between Turkey and Greece, the French-led European Union standoff against Turkey because of Ankara’s involvement in Libya has exacerbated the crises in the region.

Turkey has taken a strong stand in west Libya by supporting the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), while French President Emmanuel Macron is a supporter of Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east.

Macron deployed French aerial and naval assets to the eastern Mediterranean in mid-August of last year to stop Turkish ships’ gas exploration activities south of Cyprus.

The French and Turks nearly came to blows in June when three Turkish warships prevented a French ship from inspecting a Tanzanian-flagged vessel that was sailing to the Libyan coast.

The issue of Cyprus remains among the foremost obstacles for Turkey’s EU membership.

The Greek Cypriots’ EU accession further complicated the issue as northern Cyprus was left out of the EU.

Greek and Turkish Cypriots require international support to ensure that the decades-long efforts for a united Cyprus as a member of the United Nations and the EU will materialize.

While Turkey, England and Greece disrupt resolutions for the island, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wanted a military base in Cyprus.

Annan, unfortunately, failed at attempts for the formation of a united Cyprus, but now the time has come for Biden to make his mark in resolving the decades-long impasse on the historical, strategic island.


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