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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.
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 pipeline between them, which would link newly discovered Israeli offshore gas fields to Turkey, a country with a growing demand for energy but without much in the way of hydrocarbons itself.
A quick look at the map, however, demonstrates the problem with such an idea—and why Cyprus may be key to its solution. South of the island, at the extremity of its 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ), lies Cyprus’ undeveloped Aphrodite natural gas field. Just adjacent to this lies the undeveloped Israeli Leviathan field, and farther to the southwest, Egyptian gas fields stretch along that country’s North African coast.
Any undersea link between Israel and Turkey would have to either pass through Lebanese and Syrian waters or cross the Cypriot EEZ. The first alternative is obviously fraught with difficulties. Aside from the ongoing conflict in Syria, Israel and Lebanon have still not agreed to final maritime boundaries. A delimitation treaty between Cyprus, Israel, and Lebanon remains unratified by the Lebanese parliament.
Yet the alternative has major problems, too. Specifically, the Republic of Cyprus and Turkey remain hostile, and the development of a pipeline through the region would also touch on Cyprus’ own plans for exploiting the Aphrodite field.
Ankara does not recognize the government of the Republic of Cyprus, which has been composed almost entirely of Greek Cypriots since intercommunal violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots broke out on the island in 1964. Instead, Turkey, which invaded Cyprus in 1974, is the only country in the world that recognizes a breakaway state in the northern third of the island—the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC)—which is composed almost entirely of Turkish Cypriots and covers the territory conquered by the invading Turkish troops. Turkey still maintains some 30,000 soldiers in the north, which is separated from the territory controlled by the Republic of Cyprus by a UN-patrolled buffer zone. Likewise, the Republic of Cyprus refuses to recognize either the TRNC or open relations with Turkey.
One outcome of the dispute has been the lack of any agreement between Cyprus and Turkey on maritime boundaries, with the TRNC also recently claiming offshore rights and a share of Aphrodite and of any other future discoveries. The bickering has hampered oil and gas exploration in much of the eastern Mediterranean, instantly heightening tensions whenever a survey ship leaves port.
In other words, it is highly unlikely that Cyprus, which enjoys international recognition and EU membership, will allow a pipeline to Turkey across its EEZ. At the same time, the country faces a problem in developing its gas resources without Turkey’s apparent partner, Israel.
Cyprus is just too small a market, and too far away from the modest-sized Aphrodite field, to warrant an expensive pipeline. Experts have suggested that a more economically viable alternative would be to combine Aphrodite with the nearby Leviathan field and then send gas from both down a shorter pipeline to Egypt, where it could be converted into liquefied natural gas at two currently unused terminals and then exported.
Cyprus has thus been keen on closer ties with Israel—especially after Israel’s relations with Turkey took a nosedive back in 2010—hence the Israeli jets flying over Limassol.
Despite the apparent alignment of interests, however, the two countries have made little progress sealing a gas deal. Long-running negotiations on an all-important deal that would pool the two gas fields’ resources have dragged on without result. The endless talks had long puzzled Cypriots, yet perhaps the recent announcement of an Israeli-Turkish rapprochement offers a clue to Israeli reluctance to sign on to anything: Tel Aviv has been all too conscious of the effect that dealing with the Greek Cypriots might have on its future relations with Turkey, which has historically been a far more important strategic partner.
The lack of diplomatic relations between Cyprus and Turkey is also a major spanner in the works when it comes to Turkish-EU relations, which were recently revitalized by the EU’s panicky reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Since Turkey began EU accession negotiations back in 2005, it has gotten almost nowhere. Croatia, which began the process at the same time, joined in 2013. Although there are many factors, one of the principal holdups is that Cyprus has blocked the process.
And so, when EU officials declared that under a new arrangement with Turkey, Ankara would undertake to halt Syrian refugees entering the EU in return for financial aid, a liberalized visa regime, and a reinvigoration of the accession process, it raised Greek Cypriot eyebrows. There have been no indications so far, either, that the Republic of Cyprus, which can still effectively block various parts of the accession process, will allow a new opening to happen. Meanwhile, Ankara has declared that whatever new arrangements are made with Brussels, none of them will apply to its relations with Cyprus, despite its EU membership.
It could be argued that the Turkish accession process is, in any case, something of a pantomime, given fundamental French and German objections to Turkish membership. At any rate, it remains to be seen how the continued Cypriot block will impact the implementation of the Syrian refugee deal.
Hostile nonrecognition between Turkey and Cyprus also figures into a further dispute—that between Greece and Turkey over maritime boundaries in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. The borders have never been formalized, which causes considerable tensions as well as mock dogfights between the two countries’ fighter jets and, more recently, complications for Greek and Turkish coast guards seeking to control the flow of refugees and migrants.
Settlement of the boundary between Greece and Turkey involves determining the western limits of Cyprus’ maritime area, as this intersects with those of the other two countries. Currently, whereas Greece recognizes Cyprus’ boundaries, Turkey does not—a reason behind the recent shadowing of the Limassol-based research ship.
Many of the region’s problems, however, could go away if the current UN-sponsored talks on reunifying Cyprus succeed. A settlement, which would have to be agreed upon via an islandwide referendum, would see Turkey recognizing the new, bicommunal Cypriot government, and vice versa—a key to unlocking the closed doors. And so, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, French President François Hollande, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi all visited the island in December to give their official support to a deal.
Prospects for an agreement are widely seen as being better now than at any time in the last ten years. This is largely because this time, both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders—Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci—are known to be committed to finding a solution, a rarity in Cypriot negotiations. There is even some talk of a referendum in the spring of 2016, although this is likely overly optimistic.
Key to such a referendum succeeding, though, may be Russia, whose foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, also visited the area in December, back-to-back with Kerry. Russia enjoys both a Christian Orthodox connection to the Greek Cypriots and a historic link to the large, pro-Moscow Greek Cypriot former communist party, AKEL, whose approval of any settlement would be vital.
Further, although Greek Cypriots are in myriad ways anchored to the West and are themselves EU citizens, many also have a highly favorable view of Moscow. Scores of Russians have invested in or settled in the republic, remaining there despite losing out in the 2013 financial crisis. Indeed, a recent poll showed that a majority of Greek Cypriots favor granting Russia some military facilities on the island, with around a third supporting granting Moscow similar bases to those the British warplanes have been using to bomb Syria.
At the same time, of course, Russia’s relations with Turkey have seldom been worse. And the back-to-back visits from Kerry and Lavrov raised another aspect of the current knot of problems: the continuing rivalry between Moscow and the West for regional influence, heightened by recent Russian intervention in Syria.
For its part, the United States has given greater priority to the current talks than on many previous occasions (Vice President Joe Biden has also been a recent visitor to the island). Yet for all the heavy diplomatic guns being lined up behind an agreement, ultimately, it will come down to a referendum of the Turkish and Greek Cypriots.
And there, considerable obstacles remain, with key issues over security and property still to be resolved. Meanwhile, the issue of reunification remains extremely emotional in both communities. The last time the UN held a similar referendum, in 2004, Turkish Cypriots voted for the deal and Greek Cypriots against—by a large margin. This time around, the stakes are even higher, with the future of gas wells to refugees hanging on which box the Cypriots end up ticking.