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[OPINION] What is Erdoğan’s plan for northern Cyprus?

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Ahmet Yılmaz*

Step by step. It will also happen…” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in an oblique tweet on Nov. 11 announcing the observer status of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) in the Organization of Turkic States. But what else will happen? What is the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan planning for the KKTC? Before trying to answer these questions, a brief background might prove helpful.

The north of the island (and thus one-third of the territory of the Republic of Cyprus) was occupied by Turkish forces in the summer of 1974 after Greek coup plotters wanted to push through the annexation of Cyprus to Greece. In the Turkish-occupied north, the KKTC — which is recognized only by Turkey — was proclaimed in November 1983 and today constitutes a stabilized de facto regime.

Greece shares the status of guarantor state with Turkey and the United Kingdom and sides with the southern Greek Cypriot part of the island — the Republic of Cyprus (or Cyprus) — which is officially recognized by the international community as the only representative of the entire island. The guarantor status was something the north did not want to give up for fear of what happened 50 years ago. There were other disputes as well that have prevented the reunification of the two sides of the island.

The United Kingdom has two military bases on the southern part of the island, strategically important to the UK due to the island’s proximity to the Middle East. Cyprus became a member of the EU in 2004, but the UK left the union in 2020. Since then EU-member France has become more interested in problems involving Cyprus, but the UK recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Cyprus regarding the establishment of a strategic partnership.

Cyprus enjoyed relatively good relations with Russia until 2004. The United States imposed an arms embargo in 1987 in the hope that it would encourage the reunification of the island. But the embargo was counterproductive, simply pushing the Cypriot government to create alliances with other countries without making progress on reunification. Cyprus had turned to Russia to procure weapons; however, after joining the EU, relations with Russia started to deteriorate. Russias aggressive moves in the post-Soviet region strained not only its relations with the EU but also bilateral relations with new EU member Cyprus.

The strategic partnership vacuum was filled by the US. In 2019 the US agreed with Cyprus to lift some trade restrictions on the condition of reforms in anti-money laundering regulations and financial regulatory oversight as well as the denial of Russian military vessels’ port access for refueling and servicing. On Sept.16 the US announced that it would lift the 1987 arms embargo completely beginning in 2023. Turkey, however, interestingly took this move as aimed against the KKTC and Turkey, prompting the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to release a harsh statement of condemnation.

 On the other hand, the KKTC has been recognized only by Turkey since its declaration of independence in 1983. Although Pakistan and Bangladesh also briefly recognized it at the time, they subsequently had to back down as a result of international pressure.

 What is Erdoğan planning for the KKTC?

 In his Nov. 11 tweet Çavuşoglu was probably implying the recognition of the northern part of the island as a sovereign state by countries other than just Turkey. President Erdoğan talked about this issue in his address at UN General Assembly on Sept. 20. After strongly criticizing Greece in a particularly lengthy part of his speech, he urged the international community to officially recognize the KKTC. The current government of the KKTC enjoys great support from Erdoğan and does not favor the reunification of the two communities but rather a two-state solution,” in line with Erdoğan. 

 Erdoğan appeared to be pro-Western when he was first elected prime minister in 2002. But after the passage of some 10 years, he started to turn more and more toward authoritarianism. He was in the past in favor of reunification, but he now supports what the military establishment, which was the primary political power before him, promoted: the years-old, unsuccessful two-state solution.”

 The Turkish government is now expending great efforts for the KKTC to be recognized internationally. Erdoğan started the process by ordering the construction of a luxurious palace for the president of the KKTC, just as he did for himself in Turkey. A TV series was filmed to fan nationalist sentiment against Greek Cypriots and aired on state-broadcaster TRT-1: Once upon a time in Cyprus… Perhaps more important than that, however, is the fact that Erdoğan has recruited one of the leading players in the hardline secularist establishment, the old and unsuccessful Cyprus policies of which he inherited. On Oct. 31 Erdoğan appointed Metin Feyzioğlu as the Turkish ambassador to the KKTC in Lefkoşa (Nicosia). He is not a diplomat but rather a lawyer who served as president of the Turkish Bar Association between 2013 and 2021.

 “Mr. Feyzioğlu is a good jurist. In addition, he worked very well with us, especially in the field of international law and the Cyprus issue when he was president of the bar association,” Erdoğan said in commenting on his assignment. In 2020 the Turkish Bar Association under Feyzioğlu organized meetings in the fenced-off town of Maraş (Varosha to the Cypriots). Maraş, a famous holiday destination before 1974, is close to the KKTC city of Gazimağusa (Famagusta), a de jure territory of Cyprus but currently under KKTC control. Together with Ersin Tatar, the then-prime minister and current president of the KKTC, Feyzioğlu pioneered the reopening of Maraş for settlement. The UN Security Council (UNSC) condemned these actions, which are contrary to two of its resolutions from 1984 and 1992. Feyzioğlu commented at the time: “Turkish Cypriots showed their determination to shape their future. … Maraş will be the battering ram for the solution of the Cyprus problem.” As the new ambassador to the KKTC, he will probably do what is done after the castle gate is opened with a battering ram.

 In addition Erdoğan is trying to get the support of UNSC member UK for the KKTC’s recognition. During a Dec. 2 phone call with the new prime minister of the UK, Erdoğan reportedly pointed to the importance of taking new, concrete steps to resolve the Cyprus issue. But these moves do not seem to have been successful, at least for now.  

 Perhaps some countries that have close relations with Turkey, for example, Azerbaijan or Libya, could be possible candidates for recognition, but I don’t think this would bring the KKTC anything more than symbolic significance.

 After the US announced in September the lifting of the 35-year arms embargo on Cyprus, speaking in an interview with local broadcaster CNN Türk, Erdoğan said the lifting of the restrictions was “inexplicable in terms of content and timing. … This move by the United States, which overlooks and even encourages steps by the Cypriot-Greek duo that threaten peace and stability in the eastern Mediterranean, will lead to an arms race on the island.” Adding that Turkey already has 40,000 troops on the island and will reinforce them with land, naval and aerial weapons, ammunition and vehicles, Erdoğan said, “Everyone must know that this last step will not go without a response and that every precaution will be taken for the security of the Turkish Cypriots.”

 What could the implications of Erdoğan’s moves be?

 It is hard to guess whether Erdoğan’s statements are sincere or merely lip service. Many people argue that Erdoğan is trying to get more votes in the upcoming election with aggressive rhetoric and that he will not do anything irrational. However, Senator Bob Menendez, the chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, takes it seriously. He thinks that Erdoğan’s continuing willingness to flex his authoritarian muscles to Cyprus and around the world” should be stopped. He said also Turkey wants to annex the KKTC. Menendez is not really saying anything unexpected, considering that since Erdoğan began to consolidate his power, Turkey has abandoned its almost century-old foreign policy principle of “Peace at Home, Peace in the World”; cooperated with terrorist organizations and used them in proxy wars; started interfering in the internal affairs of other countries; improved its relations with traditional enemies Iran, China and Russia; and moved away from the Western countries and universal values.

 Let’s not forget that many people once said about Saddam Hussein, “Well, he questions the legitimacy of Kuwait, but I don’t think he thinks there will be no reaction if he invades Kuwait.” But Saddam did indeed invade Kuwait, hoping that there would be no reaction. However, a US-led coalition intervened and forced Iraqi forces out of the country.

 Furthermore, Turkey’s recent efforts to improve its poor relations with the UAE, Israel and Saudi Arabia have been seen as related to Turkey’s economic woes. But Erdoğan’s recent meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Qatar during the inauguration of the World Cup showed, I think, that these were strategic moves to isolate Greece as much as possible rather than purely economic since there’s not much sense for Turkey to improve ties with economically struggling Egypt.

 Consequently, if they were all part of a plan by the Turkish government and if the next move is radical intervention in the status quo in Cyprus, this could lead to a new confrontation between Greece and Turkey as guarantor states. This would not only jeopardize security in the Mediterranean and the Aegean, but the dispute between the two NATO countries would also impair the West’s focus on the Ukraine-Russia war.

*Ahmet Yılmaz has a master’s degree in international security strategies. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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