US Lifts Arms Embargo on Cyprus, But Only Selling Smoke

If anything, the lifting of the arms embargo is no more than a symbolic gesture of solidarity to the Greek Cypriots, as well as a test of their loyalty to U.S. foreign policy. More importantly, however, the bill serves as a message to Turkey, which faces being expelled from participation in the F-35 program by July 31.

US Lifts Arms Embargo on Cyprus But Only Selling Smoke
U.S President Donald Trump attends the family photo session on the first day of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan on June 28, 2019. AA

Late last month, the U.S. Senate voted to lift a 32-year arms embargo against the Greek Cypriot administration after months of campaigning spearheaded by Senators Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Bob Menendez, a Democrat. The bill, dubbed the “Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act,” aims to deepen U.S. security ties with the internationally-recognized “Republic of Cyprus,” and, in the words of Sen. Menendez, “usher a new era for an eastern Mediterranean architecture rooted in shared security and prosperity.”

Calls to lift the embargo were first brought up in December 2018 in a letter sent to the State Department penned by Republican Congressman and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Issues, Gus Bilirakis. He was supported by fellow members of congress, including Democratic representatives Ted Deutch, who serves as the co-chair of the Congressional Hellenic-Israel Alliance and chairman of the U.S. House Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee. In addition to the lifting of the Cyprus arms embargo, the bill also envisions greater energy cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean with Greece, Israel and the Greek Cypriot administration through the establishment of a United States-Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center, and the authorization of millions of dollars of financial and logistical assistance to the Greek and Greek Cypriot militaries. Most significantly, however, the bill further aims to halt the delivery of American F-35 fighter jets to Turkey in a bid to dissuade Ankara from going ahead with the purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system.

Turkey struck the deal with Russia to purchase the S-400s in July 2017 after Washington refused to share technology from its Patriot system with Ankara.

Turkey struck the deal with Russia to purchase the S-400s in July 2017 after Washington refused to share technology from its Patriot system with Ankara. Some critics in the U.S., such as Representative Eliot Engel, have argued the Russian system is not compatible with NATO systems. But the dispute between Turkey and the U.S. over the Russian missiles is just one of a number of ongoing issues that continue to plague relations between Ankara and Washington. The two NATO allies have had a number of differences in recent years, particularly over the U.S.-led alliance’s arming of PKK-linked militants in Syria, as well as Washington’s failure to extradite Fetullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based criminal cult leader accused of orchestrating a coup attempt in Turkey in 2016.

Last year, U.S. President Donald Trump declared sanctions against two ministers in the Turkish cabinet over the jailing of an American pastor in Turkey who expressed support for the PKK. The sanctions caused the U.S. dollar to spike to record highs against the Turkish lira. Even though Turkey later released the pastor, Trump’s words opened the door wide for further anti-Turkish sentiment in the U.S., with some critics even calling for Turkey to be expelled from NATO. At the same time, amid talk of distancing Turkey from the military bloc, conversations about opening the doors of NATO membership to the “Republic of Cyprus” were sparked.

The lifting of the arms embargo could be seen as the start of a process designed to gradually integrate the Greek Cypriots into a greater alliance with the West. It is therefore no surprise that the bill passed by the U.S. Senate also comes with some anti-Russian strings attached. Two last-minute amendments to the bill requires the U.S. administration to submit reports to Congress at least once a year to certify that the Greek Cypriot administration “has made and is continuing to take the steps necessary to deny Russian military vessels access to ports for refuelling and servicing” and is “continuing to cooperate with the United States government in efforts to implement reforms on anti-money laundering regulations and financial regulatory oversight.”

The Russian foreign ministry warned the U.S. against “anti-Russian plans” in Cyprus.

Back in December, the Russian foreign ministry warned the U.S. against “anti-Russian plans” in Cyprus. Greek Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides reassured the Russians that closer Greek Cypriot-American ties were not “prejudicial” to Nicosia’s other diplomatic relations with Moscow and that its foreign policy doesn’t engage in a “zero-sum game.” In early June, before the bill was passed, Stefanos Stefanou, spokesman of the Greek Cypriot opposition left-wing party AKEL, argued the lifting of the arms embargo served as “part of the promotion of US foreign policy in the region … to prevail in a competition with other countries like Russia, China and Iran in the wider region”. Stefanou said this strategy would prove dangerous to Cyprus and put at risk Nicosia’s diplomatic relations with other countries “which Cyprus needs at least as much as the US”. Even Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades described the amendments as “unfortunate” and an attempt to interfere with his country’s sovereignty. Indeed, Greek Cypriot compliance with the amendments would undermine a 2015 agreement between Anastasiades and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to allow Russian military ships access to the island’s ports. Nonetheless, Greek Cypriot Defense Minister Savvas Angelides brushed off the amendments after the bill passed, telling state radio: "No country can impose on Cyprus an obligation to stop providing facilities to Russian or other ships".

It could be argued that Greek Cypriot closeness to Russia during the Cold War was the reason why the U.S. arms embargo was implemented in the first place, although in more diplomatic terms it was just seen as a measure to prevent an escalation of tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Only four years prior to the ban, Turkish Cypriots in the north of the island had declared the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey. That was following nine years of failed peace negotiations between the island’s two largest communities after a Turkish military intervention in response to a Greek-inspired coup in 1974 saw Cyprus split in two.

Although the “Republic of Cyprus” has long been an ally of the West, going on to gain EU membership in 2004, as a non-NATO state it has also been seen as susceptible to falling into Russia’s sphere of influence. Turkey, on the other hand, boasts of having the second largest army in NATO and is a committed Western ally with a proven track-record of loyalty. That being said, the international community considers Turkey’s continued presence in northern Cyprus to be an “occupation,” rejecting Turkey’s legal argument for the intervention.

And while Turkey was also on the receiving end of a U.S. arms embargo following its 1974 intervention, the arms trade between Washington and Ankara returned to normal just four years later when the embargo was lifted. Today, despite their differences, Turkey and the U.S. continue to cooperate in the field of security. Even President Trump at the G20 summit in Japan in late June showed understanding towards Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saying that Turkey was treated unfairly by the previous Obama administration when Ankara sought to acquire the American-made Patriots.

When it comes to the “Republic of Cyprus,” however, Washington still approaches the Greek Cypriot administration with a degree of mistrust due to Nicosia’s ongoing warm ties with Moscow. Despite a gradual decline since 2012, Russian investments still account for a huge proportion of economic activity in Cyprus. Furthermore, the EU has expressed concern over the Greek Cypriot administration abusing its EU membership by allowing Russian oligarchs with strong ties to the Kremlin a backdoor entrance to the bloc and its market through passport sales, as well as the corruption and money laundering.

The Greek Cypriot administration has also notoriously defied EU sanctions by allowing Russian ships destined for Syria to dock at its harbors, and has additionally granted Russian navy vessels in the region access to the port in Limassol. It is precisely this behavior that the US seeks to curb with the amendments of the aforementioned bill. Yet despite receiving no firm guarantees from the Greek Cypriot administration that it will fulfil its part of the deal to lift the arms embargo, the U.S. continues to support the Greek Cypriots in its moves against Turkish and Turkish Cypriot interests in the region.

Despite receiving no firm guarantees from the Greek Cypriot administration, the U.S. continues to support the Greek Cypriots in its moves against Turkish and Turkish Cypriot interests.

Notably, the international community continues to ignore the repeated cries of Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots over unilateral Greek Cypriot efforts to exploit hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey and the TRNC have both insisted that attempts to exploit the reserves before a peace deal between Turkish and Greek Cypriots is agreed is a violation of Turkish Cypriot rights to those reserves. To add, Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots have also warned that Greek Cypriot unilateralism on this issue threatens peace and stability in Cyprus. Nonetheless, the Greek Cypriot administration has started offering licenses to investors, including firms from the U.S., France and Italy. This has already led to a few incidents involving Turkish vessels that have been deployed block developments surrounding the hydrocarbons off the Cypriot coast.

Turkey has also recently started taking unilateral steps of its own to search for hydrocarbons around Cyprus in response, irking condemnations from the West. And instead of working to de-escalate tensions, bills like the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Partnership Act have been seen as an endorsement of Greek Cypriot provocations. Kudret Ozersay, the foreign minister of the TRNC, argued the bill would prove to be counter-productive to U.S. interests, saying: “A peaceful and prosperous Cyprus, with both sides working together in good faith to resolve their problems, would be a good model in a region where peace is hard to preserve. Promoting dialogue is in the interest of the United States. The Eastern Mediterranean Security and Partnership Act is not.”

But in early July, Rep. Bilirakis, who initiated the process of lifting the embargo, in an article he wrote with the President of the American Hellenic Institute, Nick Larigakis, insists that the 1987 embargo on Cyprus “appears to have been imposed in the erroneous belief that it would somehow encourage Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots to resolve the nearly 45-year division of the territory,” and is “as anachronistic as Turkey’s perspective on the Cyprus issue,” while claiming Turkey’s “occupation” of the island’s north was the main obstacle to peace. “It is in the best interests of the United States for Cyprus to look to the United States, and not any other nation, to procure its defense articles,” the article said.

The main objective behind the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act is to sideline Turkey in the region and to oust all rivals to US foreign policy from Cyprus.

In May, Bilirakis also said the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act will enable the U.S. to support the trilateral relationship between Greece, Cyprus and Israel, which he hailed as a “new example of cooperation in an increasingly turbulent Eastern Mediterranean region.” Based on the congressman’s words, it is clear that the main objective behind the bill is to sideline Turkey in the region and to oust all rivals to US foreign policy from Cyprus. The bill is designed to assert U.S. control over the developing partnership between Athens, Nicosia and Tel Aviv to stop the emerging alliance falling prey to Russian agendas. However, Russia, which in recent years has been expanding its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean through its bases in Syria, is not taking such plans lightly. A statement released by the Russian foreign ministry said the bill “contains the provisions which are directly aimed at undermining Russian-Cypriot cooperation” and, in the event of the bill being adopted, would “seriously take into account its consequences” on Moscow’s foreign policy. “We consider any attempts to set an independent and sovereign country before an artificial choice with whom to cooperate, with Russia or Washington, as the most blatant violation of any possible rules and norms,” the statement added.

The probability is, however, that Russia would not have to take any real action to secure its interests in Cyprus, as the Greek Cypriot administration is not likely to shut the door on Moscow any time soon, especially as Nicosia is still heavily reliant on Russian money. Russian sympathies also run deep within Greek Cypriot society, with allied proxies ever-ready to stand their ground against further Western integration. Even the incentive of an end to the U.S. arms embargo is unlikely to persuade the Greek Cypriots to disown Russia, as Nicosia has never had a problem securing arms from other countries in the past, including an order of Russian-made S-300 missiles in 1997. And while the head of the governing Greek Cypriot center-right party DISY, Averof Neophytou, exclaimed “we will go tomorrow (to Washington) to order weapons” in a retort against AKEL’s scepticism toward the U.S. bill, the actual demand in Cyprus for U.S.-produced weapons is negligible.

Sanctions would only push Turkey further into Russia’s arms. Until then, Turkey is likely to stockpile American-made weapons to avoid the problems it faced during the last embargo in 1974.

As a small island-state surrounded by powerful nations, the “Republic of Cyprus” cannot rely on fire-power alone to ward off military threats. Frankly put, the Greek Cypriot army does not have the capacity to take on the responsibility that comes with owning a large amount of heavy weapons. Even with such weapons, the Greek Cypriots would still stand little to no chance against countries that have more enlisted soldiers than the entire population of Cyprus. Of course, the U.S. would be foolish to sell heavy weapons to an ally that may not be able to prevent them falling into the hands of elements hostile to U.S. interests. Therefore, the Greek Cypriot administration is unlikely to swerve from its current strategy of lobbying to politically isolate its enemies by forming alliances with neighboring countries - namely Egypt, Israel and Greece - who if need be would do the fighting for them.

If anything, the lifting of the arms embargo is no more than a symbolic gesture of solidarity to the Greek Cypriots, as well as a test of their loyalty to U.S. foreign policy. More importantly, however, the bill serves as a message to Turkey, which faces being expelled from participation in the F-35 program by July 31, as well as other sanctions due to the S-400s deal. A separate resolution submitted to the House of Representatives on June 10 proposed sanctions that could hamper Turkish bids to acquire CH-47F Chinook heavy lift helicopters, UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters, F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft, and funnily enough, the Patriot missile defense system. Naturally, such sanctions would only push Turkey further into Russia’s arms. Until then, Turkey is likely to stockpile American-made weapons to avoid the problems it faced during the last embargo in 1974. In the meantime, the U.S. needs to consider whether the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Partnership Act will actually work for its interests in the region, or strengthen its rivals even more.