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Intensified U.S. interest in Balkans, Cyprus

By John Sitilides1 <>, Executive Director, The Western Policy Center

Contact: Maro Verrios 916-383-7000
Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, March 17, 1998

Crisis in the Balkans, economic and security developments in Greece, fresh beginnings in Cyprus, and hollow "overtures" from Turkey - these and related events of recent weeks demonstrate the continued vital importance of the region in U.S. foreign policy.

The Kosovo situation has generated considerable media attention in the United States. For days, the public viewed television images of violence and suffering among ethnic Albanians at the hands of Serb forces cracking down on the movement for autonomy. Of course, vigorous U.S. condemnation of Belgrade, which cited the need to combat terrorist elements within the Kosovo resistance in resorting to violence, reminded many of the silence of the State Department concerning Ankara's scorched-earth military campaign in the Kurdish region, under the guise of battling the PKK.

The Kosovo issue will remain urgent in policy planning circles, as Washington seeks to forge a more coherent and constructive Balkan policy that addresses the likelihood of renewed violence in Bosnia after U.S. forces eventually withdraw, the need to restrain Tirana's yearning for a greater Albania, encompassing Kosovo and western FYROM, the potential for massive migration movements, through FYROM and Albania, into Central Europe and Greece, which has already absorbed hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in recent years, and the threat that Turkey will not accept Greek actions to prevent such destabilizing migration, and will militarily intervene on behalf of the largely Muslim populations most likely to migrate.

Turkey has already expressed its interest in the well-being of ethnic Albanian Muslims in Kosovo and FYROM, warning its neighbors that further Serbian actions may necessitate a Turkish reaction. Athens would be hard-pressed to accept a Turkish military presence in the southern Balkans and is reported to be considering the establishment of a security zone along its border with FYROM to prevent further refugee inflows into Greece. The possibility that Serbian forces might be confronted by Turkish troops in Kosovo and northern Albania adds yet another dimension to Greek defense contingencies as regional tensions mount.

Direct conflict between the forces of NATO allies Greece and Turkey on a Balkan battleground could lead to the opening of a direct front between the two nations, as Turkey could conceivably extend its pro-Muslim adventures into Western Thrace, where over 120,000 Greek Muslims reside.

To date, Greece and Turkey have cooperated with Bulgaria, Romania, and FYROM in issuing a joint declaration expressing their strong support for political autonomy, respect for human rights, full respect for existing borders, and the rejection of force or violence to resolve disputes as the foundation for peace in Kosovo. However, Ankara's decision to sit out the European Conference of 26 current and prospective European Union (EU) members has kept it outside of official talks among European powers to discuss punishing Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for the violent crackdown in Kosovo.

For the second time in ten months, Ankara presented Athens with an offer to discuss the series of "disputes" over air, sea, and territorial issues between the two countries. Greece rejected the offer, citing Turkey's sustained political and military pressures, Turkish threats of war if Greece lawfully extends its territorial waters, deliberate provocations by Turkish fighter jets in the skies over the Aegean, and Ankara's insistence that over one hundred Greek islands and islets in the Aegean Sea may in fact be Turkish.

The U.S. needs to be especially attentive to these festering tensions. The global economy increasingly looks to the Caspian Sea basin as the next significant source of petroleum and natural gas. The Aegean Sea will become one of the most important waterways in the world, as will the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Turkish control over as great an area as possible within both seas is essential to Ankara's plans to emerge as the regional economic, political, and geostrategic power.

At an American-Turkish conference in Washington, D.C. in late February, where 1,800 businessmen gathered to expand political and commercial ties with Turkish military officials, government leaders and captains of industry, a Turkish vice admiral openly stated that whoever controls the Aegean Sea controls Turkish industry. One can fairly surmise that Ankara does not intend to allow its industrial base to depend on Greece, which has lawful territorial rights over a substantial portion of the Aegean Sea and has consistently adhered to freedom of navigation laws governing the world's waterways.

When pressed to explain what exactly was implied in his comments, the Turkish admiral emphasized his country's economic and military interests, and audience members stressed that "irresponsible" Greek actions - such as the defense of its sovereign rights - might result in undesirable consequences. Once again, rather than pursue a course of political cooperation and economic partnership with Greece, Turkey's representatives made clear that threats and antagonism would continue to dominate Ankara's relations with Athens.

Turkey looks to its southern borders along similar lines. The continued occupation and division of Cyprus by Turkish military forces is partly intended to project Turkish power more deeply into the eastern Mediterranean region, off the shores of Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The Turkish port area of Ceyhan, about 120 miles northeast of Cyprus, is the intended destination point for a proposed $3 billion pipeline from Azerbaijan, the source of the world's great untapped oil reserves.

The sea lanes from Ceyhan to the Suez Canal in Egypt en route to Asian markets, and to the western Mediterranean Sea en route to western European markets, must pass around Cyprus. The accelerated integration of the occupied zone with Turkey, under the guise of reaction to the European Union's membership invitation to Nicosia as the sole legitimate government of Cyprus, may be another ruse toward securing a permanent Turkish presence in Cyprus.

Last month, President Glafkos Clerides won re-election in Cyprus, providing continuity in efforts to achieve a peaceful, democratic settlement of the Cyprus tragedy. Nicosia stands ready to advance the process, welcoming the efforts of the State Department, the United Nations, the EU, and Great Britain, which is a guarantor power alongside Greece and Turkey in accordance with the 1960 treaty establishing the republic. Envoys from the five permanent powers of the U.N. Security Council - the United States, Russia, Great Britain, China, and France - met with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on March 10 to press for revived negotiations to end the occupation and division of Cyprus.

Turkish actions to stymie diplomatic efforts concerning Cyprus have expanded in the past several weeks. After Nicosia completed the air base near Paphos, part of Cyprus's defense program against potential Turkish air attacks, Ankara announced that Lefkoniko airport, built by Turkey 18 miles east of Nicosia in the occupied zone, would be upgraded to a full military base with permanently stationed Turkish Air Force planes and equipment. Ankara also indicated it may establish naval bases in the occupied area at the northern port of Karavostasi and the eastern port of Famagusta, which was completely abandoned after Turkish forces seized the city in the 1974 invasion.

The State Department has been silent in the wake of Turkey's threats to escalate military tensions in Cyprus, in marked contrast to the vociferous public criticism leveled by Washington against Nicosia in January 1997 for undertaking sovereign self-defense measures. Though Ankara has not announced any final decisions regarding the bases, observers believe the threats, coupled with rhetorical attacks against the EU, will complicate the various diplomatic efforts to achieve a lasting peace in the republic.

With Cyprus's own EU accession talks set to begin on March 31, Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash announced that the occupied zone would be further integrated with Turkey and that Turkish Cypriots would not be permitted to join Greek Cypriots in a unified accession process. Ankara's "monkey wrench" strategy has had occasional success, as when France launched its mid-March diplomatic initiative to attempt to prevent Cyprus from proceeding with accession talks - part of Paris' strategy of currying favor with Turkey and exploiting tensions between Ankara and other European capitals to secure lucrative contracts for French firms, especially its military contractors.

With so many interactive developments underway, all eyes are now focusing on the State Department's ability to establish sufficient trust and confidence to move the parties in Cyprus closer together. Recently, Presidential Envoy to Cyprus Richard Holbrooke and Special Coordinator for Cyprus Thomas Miller have been briefing Senators and Congressmen interested in the Cyprus question and the resolution of Greek-Turkish tensions. These sensitive, closed-door sessions will be stepped up in the weeks ahead, as Holbrooke readies a plan many believe cannot help but be controversial on various fronts, given decades-long tensions in and around Cyprus.

Twenty-four years of expectations over the Cyprus question may be coming to a head in the next several months. Complacency and acquiescence by the American public may open the door to misguided U.S. policy. Therefore, it is most essential that there be serious scrutiny and honest assessment of any plan, as well as constructive input to help improve the chances for a just and lasting settlement providing genuine peace, security and economic opportunity for Greek and Turkish Cypriots alike.

Americans have every obligation to help promote the right kind of solution in Cyprus, and to make their voices heard in Washington. U.S. foreign policy in Cyprus needs to stay focused on the right track - end the Turkish occupation, division, and militarization, and guide the parties together to allow the prospects for peace to bloom. This is the true starting point for resolving the issues bedeviling the region for far too long.

1[The Western Policy Center is a public policy corporation promoting U.S. geostrategic interests and Western institutions in southeastern Europe by strengthening the debate on American foreign policy toward NATO allies Greece and Turkey, and toward Cyprus. Based in California since 1994, the Center opened new offices in Washington, D.C. in February 1998.]