The militarisation of Cyprus' new regional diplomacy
At the end of October, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited Athens to attend the 9th Greece-Cyprus-Egypt Trilateral Summit, where he met with his counterparts, the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and the President of Cyprus, Nikos Anastasiades.
One of the most important messages emerging from this tripartite summit was the condemnation of Turkey’s actions and activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, which mainly affect Cyprus’ territorial and maritime sovereignty but are also seen as a challenge to Greek and Egyptian regional interests.
The tripartite summit in Greece follows Nicosia’s expanded foreign policy in the region, engaging with new partners through diplomatic and military agreements.
Linked to Turkey’s increasing political and military footprint in both the Eastern Mediterranean and wider Middle East region, Cyprus has sealed new agreements with key regional partners such as Israel, Egypt, and the UAE.
But these new agreements include military provisions that could alter the security balance in the Eastern Mediterranean and affect the frozen and unresolved conflict on the island of Cyprus.
"Much of Cyprus' diplomatic engagement with Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East countries has been directly linked to Turkey's foreign policy in the region"
Cyprus' regional engagement
Much of Cyprus’ diplomatic engagement with Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East countries has been directly linked to Turkey’s foreign policy in the region. One such example is Israel’s relations with Nicosia.
The first agreement signed between these two countries happened in 2012, when Nicosia and Tel Aviv secured two defence agreements. These high-level agreements took place two years after the “Mavi Marmara” crisis, one of the main cracks in Turkish-Israeli diplomatic relations.
These agreements were also framed around the early 2010s natural gas underwater reserves discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean, which gave rise to further energy cooperation between Cyprus and Israel.
This approach in 2012 was followed in 2016 by a tripartite meeting in Nicosia between the Greek and Israeli Prime Ministers, hosted by the Cypriot President. The meeting further expanded the basis for energy and military cooperation between these partners, culminating in another tripartite summit in November 2020, specifically focused on enhanced military cooperation.
More recently, foreign ministers from Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, and France met in Athens on 19 November to discuss strengthening cooperation in energy, climate, migration, and the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as regional issues such as Sudan, Libya, and Syria
The increased militarisation of these diplomatic relationships matches a more interventionist and aggressive Turkish foreign policy in the region. Since 2016, Ankara has, directly and indirectly, intervened in different conflicts within its area of influence, starting in Syria, and followed by military interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Before this enhanced aggressiveness, Turkey had taken part in the organisation and funding of political groups, generally linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, in different Arab countries.
This Turkish foreign policy, which was described by some commentators as having a ‘neo-Ottoman’ dimension, triggered an aggressive reaction from several Gulf monarchies, who saw the developments as a direct threat to their interests.
Therefore, countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE initiated an aggressive counterbalancing policy in the Middle East, suppressing Muslim Brotherhood-linked parties in their areas of influence, and confronting Turkey’s presence in the region, directly clashing in arenas such as Syria and Libya.
Within this polarised regional scenario, and one in which Turkey had undertaken natural gas exploratory operations in Cypriot waters, the Republic of Cyprus increased its diplomatic and military activity with countries that have been at odds with Turkey’s foreign policy in the region.
For example, Cyprus, alongside Greece, has reinforced its diplomatic and military contacts with Egypt. It has also recently signed its first military cooperation agreement with the UAE, and as previously mentioned, has signed different defence cooperation agreements with Israel.
Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia has also triggered fierce reactions within the Western camp, especially from the United States, a situation that has ultimately benefitted Cypriot interests.
In 2019, the US Congress passed the “Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act”. This act partially lifted the arms embargo against the Republic of Cyprus, which had been in place since 1987 to facilitate a peace settlement on this island.
Furthermore, this act specifically acknowledges Israel, Greece, and Cyprus as strategic partners of the US in the Eastern Mediterranean, deemed as key actors for peace and stability in this region.
"The enhanced prominence of military deterrence at the expense of diplomatic and political measures could ultimately affect the still frozen conflict in Cyprus by further polarising and militarising positions"
More importantly, the act also condemned Turkey’s repeated violations of Cypriot national waters for natural gas exploratory drilling activities, as well as Turkey’s violation of Greece’s airspace. Furthermore, it condemned Turkey’s S-400 Russian missiles acquisition and made Turkey’s participation in the construction of F-35 fighter jets dependant on rejecting the delivery of Moscow’s missiles.
More explicitly than the US, France has also demonstrated its support to the Republic of Cyprus as well as to Greece, regarding their continuous clashes with Turkey. Cyprus and France signed a defence cooperation agreement in 2017 which came into force in August 2020. This agreement provides “cooperation in the fields of armaments and defence technology, and joint training of military personnel”.
Cyprus amid a newly militarised regional balance
“International circumstances have dictated Cyprus’ current regional policies, mainly affected by the energy race and increased regional tensions,” Dr Aristos Aristotelous, Director of the Cyprus Centre for Strategic Studies told The New Arab.
To understand this new Cypriot foreign policy in the region, Dr Aristotelous stresses that “Cyprus is a small country right under Turkey, one of the biggest armies in the region. What could be the position of Cyprus without these new regional alignments and especially without EU membership?”.
If it wasn’t for this new regional outreach, “Cyprus would be even more exposed to Turkey’s foreign policy and pressure,” he added.
Cyprus’ perceived isolation and Turkey’s increased assertiveness have pushed Nicosia for the first time in recent years to be part of a political and military alignment that has diminishing and counterbalancing Ankara’s political interests in the region as its main objectives.
More importantly, this informal regional partnership is acquiring a major military dimension, where military drills, exercises, and weapons and technology acquisition are becoming core elements of new diplomatic relations.
This military dimension is being portrayed as a deterrent against perceived Turkish threats in the region, but, as Dr Aristotelous states, “despite these agreements, the regional military balance is still in favour of Turkey”.
The Republic of Cyprus appears to be seeking greater military and political security from these new regional partners, a strategy that could also reinforce security for impending natural gas drills in Cypriot waters and deter Turkey from using its navy against private drilling vessels.
The enhanced prominence of military deterrence at the expense of diplomatic and political measures could ultimately affect the still frozen conflict in Cyprus by further polarising and militarising positions regarding a solution to the conflict.
"While Cyprus has increased its diplomatic activity with regional partners to secure its political and military goals vis-à-vis Turkey, the partial militarisation of these new partnerships can also play against its own interests"
Since the last Cyprus peace talks collapsed in 2017, there have been no serious attempts to revive negotiations, while political positions from both sides have further polarised, following a similar path to the one the region has taken.
In sum, while Cyprus has increased its diplomatic activity with regional partners to secure its political and military goals vis-à-vis Turkey, the partial militarisation of these new partnerships can also play against its own interests, affecting the core issue in Cyprus’ political future - a solution to its frozen conflict.
By adding a military dimension to these relations and exposing Cyprus to regional polarisation, the resolution of the conflict is now more exposed than before to regional political dynamics, which ultimately polarises the different positions involved in the Cyprus peace talks.
Through this approach, Cyprus can secure its immediate military and political interests while increasing Turkey’s regional isolation, but it ultimately places the resolution of its own conflict in a more fragile and polarised position.
Xavier Palacios is a freelance political risk analyst based in Nicosia, Cyprus. His work as a researcher and analyst focuses on South-East Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean, with a special interest in Turkish politics, history and culture.
Follow him on Twitter: @palaciosmengod