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The Washington Monitor

Failed Cyprus talks offer renewed lessons

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

Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, May 7, 1998

"The reason we could not make progress this time is because the Turkish side has changed its position," said U.S. Presidential Envoy for Cyprus Richard Holbrooke after his efforts to jumpstart reunification negotiations collapsed for a second time in five weeks.

Unfortunately for Ambassador Holbrooke and the State Department, expectations of success at bringing together Greek and Turkish Cypriots to resolve the decades-old Cyprus question were raised to unrealistic heights. Many blamed Holbrooke, who announced at the beginning of 1996, 1997, and 1998 that each year would be the "Year of Cyprus." Certainly, his personal involvement in the most recent rounds of talks brought a more substantive dimension to the reunification effort, and he warrants due credit for highlighting the Cyprus issue among U.S. policy planners.

However, the diplomatic failure was predictable during the months leading up to the rapid shuttling between Cyprus and the occupied zone by Holbrooke and Special Coordinator for Cyprus Thomas Miller, primarily because results could only come from Ankara, which remained beyond Holbrooke's crosshairs.

Washington's desire to have the Cyprus government negotiate with Turkish Cypriot leaders, rather than with representatives of the Turkish government who genuinely decide the fate of such talks, dooms any such effort from the start. Though Ankara positions itself as aloof from the talks, the region's history dictates that Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash coordinate his statements, positions, and tactics with military and political officials in Turkey. After all, it is the Turkish General Staff that maintains 35,000 heavily mechanized troops as an occupation army in northern Cyprus.

This military presence is at the root of every crisis facing Cyprus today, and neither Denktash nor any other Turkish Cypriot controls this force. It makes little sense for Washington to pressure Nicosia to meet with Turkish Cypriots or expend enormous amounts of energy establishing intercommunal talks when only direct Nicosia-Ankara talks can provide for transparent, substantive, and encouraging negotiations. This is in fact well known in Washington. And it would come as no surprise if Holbrooke were engaged in shadow discussions with Ankara and Bonn, especially since Germany remains the most influential foreign power, after Washington, in shaping the progress of Greek-Turkish relations bilaterally and in the context of the Cyprus question. The State Department has been adamant in its attempts to persuade Cyprus not to deploy the S-300 anti-aircraft missiles due from Russia within three months, ostensibly to assuage Turkey's concerns about maintaining air superiority over Cyprus. But Nicosia intends to utilize the missiles only as a deterrent against a potential air attack. If that possibility were to disappear, so would the need for the missiles.

What is actually unfolding is a clumsy diplomatic ballet in which the S-300's are the ruse through which Ankara attempts to derail Cyprus' accession to the European Union.

Turkey's repeated threats to use military force if necessary to prevent the S-300 deployment are designed to scare European Union countries away from proceeding with Cyprus' accession as long as Turkey's chances seem negligible. To date, most EU countries have insisted that non-members, such as Turkey, be denied any veto power over an aspirant's membership process.

Turkey is unable to join the EU because of human rights problems, the festering Kurdish issue, tensions with Greece, the occupation of Cyprus, and systemic economic woes. Though Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz and other Turkish officials have publicly complained of an anti-Muslim undercurrent in Europe, EU nations are fundamentally concerned that Turkey's lackluster economy and huge population would require impossible assistance levels funded by European countries whose domestic problems are burdensome enough.

Ankara has repeatedly blamed Athens in public as the main obstructionist preventing Turkey's accession to the EU, in part due to domestic political demands. Privately, Ankara officials acknowledge that Bonn is the key. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Ambassador Holbrooke, and the State Department apparatus involved in Southern European affairs have urged Germany and the other European Union countries to embrace Turkey.

However, apparent Turkish obstinance, in the form of the last-minute, unacceptable demand by Denktash that Nicosia completely withdraw its EU accession application, doomed U.S. efforts. In a surprisingly public swipe at Holbrooke and his State Department colleagues, Ankara ensured that the EU powers saw no incentive to alter their Turkey policy. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, campaigning for re-election to a fifth term in September elections, is especially sensitive to domestic concerns about Turkish immigration and is hesitant to open the door to Turkey, at least for the next four months.

With the Cyprus talks still stalled, and Holbrooke's EU strategy thwarted, the U.S. focus on the S-300's is sure to intensify. The strategic arguments put forth by the administration against their deployment remain essentially hollow. Whether the surface-to-air-missiles Nicosia hopes to deploy are built in Russia, Israel, Germany or the United States is far less important than assurances that they cannot be used offensively.

Nicosia deems them essential because 10,000 Cypriot National Guardsmen would otherwise be quickly overrun by 35,000 mechanized Turkish soldiers stationed in the north. The Turkish forces are backed by dozens of F-4 and F-5 fighter jets stationed at mainland Turkish bases a few minutes flying time from the small, geographically isolated, and relatively defenseless Cyprus republic, whose total population of 630,000 is matched by the size of the Turkish army alone.

Which brings the entire situation back to a basic question -- how can Washington get the ball rolling again?

  • First, go to the center of power and decision-making in Ankara. Turkish Cypriots are not in a position to decide their own fate. The Turkish General Staff (TGS), leading the National Security Council, will ultimately decide what is permissible in talks with Greek Cypriots. The TGS decided to invade Cyprus in 1974, it decided to maintain the occupation army, and it will decide when to withdraw that army. The State Department can better utilize its resources and manpower by dealing directly with Ankara, Nicosia, and, to the extent necessary, Athens.

  • Second, urge the foreign powers to remove their forces from Cyprus. The withdrawal of Turkish and Greek forces will allow the negotiation process to focus on domestic political concerns, such as the final status of a "bizonal, bicommunal federation" and the need to ensure a single Cypriot international identity and sovereignty - positions which the State Department has repeatedly supported.

  • Third, encourage the accession of both Cyprus and Turkey to the European Union under appropriate, objective guidelines. Cyprus' economic and political conditions meet, and in many instances surpass, those of current EU members. Therefore, its accession should proceed without obstruction.

    Turkey's accession should also be encouraged, in that a firm anchor in Europe will help stabilize Turkey's domestic situation and produce cordial working relations with its neighbors, including Greece. Ankara should therefore understand that substantial progress is required on the economic and political fronts, and on abiding by the European rules of international relations, before Washington can effectively lobby Bonn and other European capitals to support its EU aspirations in the future.

  • Fourth, extend the NATO hand towards Cyprus. This can occur in two phases: deployment of a NATO peacekeeping force to replace the withdrawn Turkish and Greek forces, with eventual membership for Cyprus in the Western alliance. Turkish and Greek security concerns would be extensively addressed by bringing Cyprus under the NATO umbrella, which has helped keep the peace between Athens and Ankara over the decades. The alliance would be more successful at defending its interests in the eastern Mediterranean and would more effectively project Western power in defense of Israel and more deeply into the Near East and northern Africa.

The negotiation process is extremely delicate. Ambassador Holbrooke and his team deserve praise for returning Cyprus to its rightful place among Washington's major foreign policy concerns. The next phase of diplomacy can start on more secure ground if these four principles - Ankara, not Denktash; withdrawal of all foreign forces; European Union accession; and NATO association - become the basis for talks. They may also want to review U.S. diplomatic history of the region going back to 1964, when President Johnson conveyed his clear and forceful message to Turkey with great success.

At the end of the 1990's, Washington's efforts will still be the major determinant of success in Cyprus - but time may be running short.

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.]