Cyprus in the Middle

Nicosia Holds the Keys to Syria, the Migrant Crisis, and Gas in the Eastern Mediterranean

A security agent keeps watch from the roof and a police helicopter flies a patrol overhead as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's motorcade prepares for his departure from his hotel to the airport in Nicosia, Cyprus December 4, 2015. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

On a recent December day, people strolling the seaside boardwalk in the Cypriot city of Limassol had their peaceful afternoon suddenly interrupted. Overhead, a brace of British warplanes roared from their base at nearby RAF Akrotiri, flew low over the eastern Mediterranean, and headed for Syria, just 100 miles away.

This was the second time the boardwalk was shaken by warplanes that day. Earlier, onlookers had also witnessed Israeli warplanes flying overhead during exercises. In the harbor beneath them, Russian warships lay at anchor, refueling on their way east. Later, too, a Limassol-based seismic research vessel, chartered by a U.S. company, sent frantic radio messages to say it had been intercepted and then shadowed by a Turkish frigate.

All the (now apparently routine) military activity is a visible reminder that Cyprus, the European Union’s far-flung Levantine outpost, is once again at the heart of a Gordian knot of regional conflicts and conundrums. These range from the Syrian refugee crisis to Israeli oil and gas development; from Turkey’s accession to the European Union to Russia’s growing role in the Middle East. Lebanon and Egypt feature in the mix, too, as do maritime boundary disputes between Greece and Turkey.

All these issues run through Nicosia, Cyprus’ divided capital, where UN-sponsored talks aimed at reuniting Greek and Turkish Cypriots are now entering year 52. It is, perhaps surprisingly, the success or failure of these seemingly endless talks that is increasingly vital for the resolution of the host of other overlapping and interlinked regional dilemmas.

An RAF A400M military transport plane taxis on the runway after landing at RAF Akrotiri in southern Cyprus, December 3, 2015.
A UK Royal Air Force A400M military transport plane taxis on the runway after landing at RAF Akrotiri in southern Cyprus, December 3, 2015. Darren Staples / Reuters


The interconnection between the dispute over Cyprus and the region’s other dilemmas was most recently highlighted in late December by reports of a new rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. Under the reported terms of renewed relations (on hold since 2010), the two countries may start looking again at running a natural gas

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