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The Washington Monitor

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

Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, August 12, 1998

Missiles in Cyprus: Sovereign Rights vs. National Interests

The annual summer routine of tensions and threats in the Aegean and Cyprus is so firmly established by now that it would deliver its many observers into deep sleep if only, this time around, the consequences were not so alarmingly real and potentially devastating to the region.

Fears, dangers, miscalculations – these are the ingredients for warnings about a “hot episode” that may explode in the region in the months ahead, when delivery is scheduled for the now-infamous S-300 surface-to-air missiles Cyprus is purchasing from Russia to strengthen its defensive posture and deter future Turkish air attacks. Ironically, in a classic chicken-or-egg game, the missiles may now become the catalyst for precisely the manner of attack they have been purchased to deter.

Either way, Ankara was given the green light to highlight its concerns over Nicosia’s January 1997 purchase of the missile system the State Department publicly criticized. In the past, Washington has not challenged, and in fact supported, Cyprus’ right as a sovereign country to maintain adequate defenses. In this case, the wisdom of acquiring an advanced system from America’s geopolitical arch-rival in the region, coupled with its far-reaching radar capability, has consistently been the focus of U.S. opposition to the purchase.

Washington remains as concerned as ever about the inherent unpredictability of the Turkish government regarding Cyprus. Since the General Staff sets the parameters within which Turkish political leaders, including the prime minister and the foreign minister, can act, Turkey’s western allies tend to overly emphasize military-to-military relations and the avoidance of any step that might provoke the generals.

Therefore, the burden of rationality for international conduct falls on Greece, whom the United States has increasingly looked to as a force for stability and progress over the past ten years. Washington perceives Athens, and Nicosia as well, as irrationally stubborn in refusing to let go of a missile system that, in the end, will not only provide marginal military utility to Cyprus, but may also trigger a war between Greece and Turkey that will not be easily contained or controlled.

Compounding these difficulties, Turkey has successfully redefined the Cyprus issue in the United States as one of eastern Mediterranean destabilization by Greece and Cyprus, in concert with Russia, rather than one of occupation and de facto partition of a sovereign republic.

Several times each week, another major newspaper in Washington, New York, California or elsewhere will feature an editorial, analysis or report about instability and the danger of war because of the S-300 system. Buried deep in the article, the reader will learn that, incidentally, Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 and has occupied the country ever since.

Among leading think tank specialists and regional analysts, the Turkish occupation is part of the situation, not of the problem. The utter audacity of a quarter century of illegal occupation seems to be of little concern to many American strategists. Instead, they intone seriously about the prospect voiced by Ankara that Greece could launch S-300s into Turkish airspace over the mainland to shoot Turkish fighter jets out of the sky.

The newest argument against the missiles had been expected to surface for months, and was publicly announced in late-July. Turkish Foreign Minister Ismael Cem warned publicly about Russian radar systems illuminating the skies throughout the eastern Mediterranean, exposing sensitive Turkish, Israeli and American intelligence and endangering Western interests in the region. The Russia card has been played in behind-the-scenes meetings for many months but is now coming to the forefront of the larger Cyprus debate, which is, again, not about occupation and division but about S-300s.

This dangerous game borders on the comical when one considers that Ankara will be welcoming Moscow’s contract bids to sell Turkey hundreds of attack helicopters or tanks, worth billions of dollars, in the years ahead. Russia and Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding in May to expand cooperation in the military sector and defense industry. Israel, which lobbied Washington to punish Russia for transferring missile technology to Iran, will provide sophisticated avionics systems to a Russian company to improve its defense contract bids. It is apparent, therefore, that the Russia card is highly selective and, in this instance, extremely effective in painting the S-300 deal with Cyprus in the most unflattering light possible.

The gradual trivialization of the Turkish occupation of Cyprus has widespread ramifications, especially in Kosovo, where efforts to redraw borders using military force find a successful precedent in the 1974 invasion and current international nonchalance toward it – at least until Nicosia dropped the S-300 bombshell 18 months ago.

The Cyprus question itself is not of great consequence to the United States. Washington is deeply concerned about regional stability, about backing its allies in Jerusalem, Cairo, Ankara and Athens, and about projecting American and Western power into the Balkans, Central Asia, the Middle East and northern Africa. Yet Cyprus is critical to Washington’s strategic planning, both because of its geographic location and because events in the country may explode into war between two heavily-armed NATO allies. As long as Cyprus is ticking, Greek-Turkish tensions will remain high, and the potential for war and destructive regional spillover will loom in the shadows.

How can the Cyprus issue be defused? Ankara and Nicosia, along with Athens, should work together to achieve a solution reaffirming the sovereignty of Cyprus, affording minority rights protections for Turkish Cypriots, providing ironclad security for Greek Cypriots against future invasions, establishing political rights for both communities to ensure the fullest electoral participation, and protecting full freedom of movement throughout the republic under restricted freedom of establishment, to assuage fears that the prosperous Greek Cypriot community would buy out – then drive out – the Turkish Cypriot community.

Greek and Turkish Cypriots would find their essential demands fulfilled, Cyprus would feel that S-300s were no longer necessary, Greece could step back from the brink of war compelled by the joint defense doctrine, and Turkey would benefit tremendously in the international arena. But the European Union, especially after Luxembourg, cannot accomplish this. NATO cannot accomplish this. Germany cannot, France cannot, and Russia cannot.

And so, Athens and Nicosia, where the yearning for a Cyprus solution is passionate and deep, must look to Washington for support. When Washington looks to Ankara, it sees a cauldron of domestic strife, military dominance, civil war and rampant corruption in a vast country cleaved into two societies by enormous wealth disparities, religious fervor, and the inherent divide between East and West. That same Turkish republic, it must be remembered, borders Iran, Iraq and Syria, helps the United States penetrate the Caspian Sea and Central Asian regions, keeps Russian influence checked, and breaks Israel’s regional isolation. Turkey’s great importance for the United States will influence each single decision Washington makes concerning Cyprus, the Aegean, and every other regional issue of consequence.

One day, perhaps, summer will be less about tensions and threats, and more about the magnificence of the season that draws so many from every corner of the world to this most beautiful region. But the events of the past decades which brought us the S-300s, and the attendant dangers and fears, are still with us, and that day will not be here soon.

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.]