Once upon a time, the US sought to mediate and unite a divided island. Now, by ending the arms embargo, it wants to sell weapons to the Greek Cypriot administration.
The move by the Trump administration to lift a three-decade-old arms embargo for the Greek Cypriot administration for one year, has been condemned by Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) for increasing tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.
From October 1, the US will remove hurdles for one year on the sale or transfer of "non-lethal defence articles and defence services."
Why was there an embargo in the first place?
It all started in 1974 when the military junta in Greece backed a coup by Greek nationalists in Cyprus. It was hoped that the move would lead to an ‘enosis’, or union with Greece - a longstanding dream amongst hardcore nationalists.
Just five days later, however, Turkey launched an operation to protect the ethnic Turkish community on the island which feared a nationalist takeover.
Turkey had legal grounds to act under the Treaty of Guarantee signed in 1960 signed between Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and the United Kingdom.
The treaty ensured that the guarantor countries could act to preserve peace on the islands.
The Turkish community fearing the two dictatorial governments uniting appealed to Ankara which ensured that communal violence did not result in the ethnic cleansing of the Turkish population.
The failed ‘enosis’ bid led to a regime change in Athens, however, the conflict the old regime sparked paralysed Cyprus.
Fast forward to 1987, the US sought to encourage both sides on the island to return to the negotiating table and stop any possible militarisation of the Island. They imposed an arms embargo on the Greek Cypriot administration.
Back then, the US sought to mediate between the two sides.
Now, the US has seemingly foregone the diplomatic route and decided to take the first step in further militarising the island.
The Republic of Cyprus is a key partner in the Eastern Mediterranean. I am pleased to announce that we are deepening our security cooperation. We will waive restrictions on the sale of non-lethal defense articles and services to the Republic of Cyprus for the coming fiscal year.— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) September 1, 2020
The arms embargo was initially lifted by the US Congress in December 2019 and now the Trump administration has taken the first step towards further encouraging the Greek Cypriot administration to forgo diplomacy.
Although Pompeo has urged all sides to lower tensions in the region, the latest move by the Trump administrations to lift the embargo seems to suggest a contradictory approach to peace in the region.
The significance of the step and Ankara’s reaction to the move will likely have wide-ranging implications for the eastern Mediterranean.
In 1997, for instance, when the Greek Cypriot administration sought to buy S300 missiles from Russia, it only raised tensions in the eastern Meditteranean.
After a strong Turkish reaction to the move, Cyprus sent the S300 missiles to Greece in exchange for other weapons.
But it displayed how the Cyprus issue and any potential militarisation by external powers was, and remains, a critical issue for Turkey.
Turkey’s foreign ministry said the decision “disregards the equality and balance” on the island and that Ankara expects its NATO ally to “review” it.
“Otherwise, Turkey, as a guarantor country, will take the necessary reciprocal steps in line with its legal and historical responsibility to guarantee the security of the Turkish Cypriot people,” it said in a statement.
Once upon a time, the European Union even cautioned the Greek Cypriot administration against a military build-up on the island which it argued would hurt peace efforts and the country’s entrance into the political and economic union.
Why does the US want to end the embargo now?
The answer to that is in the Congressional bill named “End the Cyprus Arms Embargo Act”.
In it, one of the reasons for ending the embargo is stated as “The inability of the United States to provide defense articles and services to the Republic of Cyprus has forced Cyprus to obtain these items from countries which pose challenges to United States interests around the world.”
While the Greek Cypriot administration is not part of the NATO military alliance, the US is now eager to sell weapons to a country it sees as potentially being a significant purchaser.
Washington-based newspaper, The Hill, which reflects the inner workings of Congress, ran an op-ed from a neo-conservative thinker which argued that ending the arms embargo is an “opportunity to thwart the designs of Russia, China, and Turkey in the Middle East.”
Neo-conservatives, or neocons, who have been influential in the US political scene over the last 30 years, and seek to project US influence abroad through military means, have been a powerful driving force in the Trump administration.
Even though the ideology has been described as “discredited”, several of its lieutenants have made it to the inner sanctum of the Trump administration, including the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Senator Lindsey Graham.
The partial lifting of the sanctions by the US is a signal that Washington is looking to contain Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean even if it means working with a non-NATO member against a longstanding NATO ally.