Turkish Cypriot authorities may be preparing to expel United Nations peacekeepers from their bases in northern Cyprus, triggering a new political and security crisis on the divided island, officials told Al Jazeera.
“[The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP)] must enter into a mutually acceptable formal agreement with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to continue its presence and operations in the TRNC,” Tahsin Ertugruloglu, who holds the Northern Cyprus foreign affairs portfolio, told Al Jazeera.
“We submitted a proposed status of forces agreement to the United Nations in September. We will decide what action to take once the UN assesses and responds to our proposal,” he said.
UNFICYP was created in 1964 following intercommunal clashes between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. It monitors a buffer zone, known as the Green Line, which separates Greek Cypriots, who now live in the south of the island, and Turkish Cypriots, who live in the north.
The UN Security Council renews UNFICYP’s mandate every six months after the agreement of the internationally recognized government of Cyprus, which is in the south.
This renewal is again scheduled for January, but this time Turkish Cypriots say it must also be done with their consent.
This poses a legal problem for the Security Council because the UN does not recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, self-proclaimed in 1983. It is not a member of the UN and is only recognized by Turkey.
What it lacks in legal status, Northern Cyprus makes up for in military power. An estimated 35,000 Turkish troops are stationed there, vastly outnumbering the Greek Cypriot forces.
They are the remnant of an invasion launched by Turkey in 1974, after Greece attempted to reunite the island in a coup.
All about Famagusta
“This is a very serious problem. I’m afraid that [the Turkish Cypriots] will use every excuse to oust the UN army from its base at Karolou Stefani north of Famagusta,” said Andreas Mavroyiannis, presidential candidate in the February elections in Cyprus.
“I’m not sure that the blue helmets can resist an attempt by the Turkish army to expel them, and that would allow the Turkish side to settle and develop this area north of Famagusta… The use of this real estate is part of the Turkish-Cypriot plan to develop Famagusta,” he said.
Famagusta is a ghost town on the east coast of Cyprus. The Turkish army has occupied it since 1974, but the UN Security Council ordered Turkey to return it to the Greek Cypriots.
Turkey has agreed to do so as part of any plan to reunite the island as a bicommunal federation, a discussion that has been taking place under UN auspices since 1979, but those talks were suspended two years ago. years when the Turkish Cypriots elected an administration that favors permanent partition. of the island into two sovereign states.
Since then, northern Cyprus and Turkey have said they will annex Famagusta, cutting out an important sweetener for reunification.
“I don’t expect the UN peacekeeping force to engage with an army…they’re not going to resist,” said Ahmet Sözen, who chairs the department of political science at the Eastern Mediterranean University in Northern Cyprus.
“If this happens, the UN will be limited to the buffer zone without freedom to cross in the north and will only deal with the Greek Cypriot authorities in the south. But to do an efficient and effective job of controlling the buffer zone, you need cooperation with both sides,” Sözen said.
Mavroyiannis, who has spent the past nine years as Cyprus’s chief negotiator with the Turkish Cypriots, said such a move had to be anticipated if Greek and Turkish Cypriots were to have any hope of being one country.
“Our reaction must be to insist that the UN Security Council expand the Famagusta dead zone to include the Karolou Stefani military base,” he said.
Extending this dead zone would put the base out of reach of development and include it in the territory that would one day be returned to the Greek Cypriots.
What triggered the last crisis?
The Turkish Cypriot ultimatum to the UN came after September 16, when the United States lifted an embargo on arms sales to Cyprus, which had been in place since 1987 to prevent further violence.
Two weeks later, Cyprus was included in the US National Guard’s State Partnership Program, which will allow Cypriot National Guardsmen to train with the New Jersey Army National Guard.
Turkey has “strongly condemned” this agreement.
“With this decision, going beyond disturbing the balance between the two parties on the island, the United States has clearly become biased,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said.
The developments came amid a souring US-Turkey relationship since Turkey bought S-400 surface-to-air missiles in 2016, a Russian sub-strategic weapon that the US says could be used to spy on the capabilities of its fighter jets.
Turkey refused to part with the weapon and was banned from buying fifth-generation F-35 fighter-bombers. The US Congress has so far prohibited it from upgrading the F-16s it already owns.
“Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974 was a shocking attempt to redraw borders in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. And to this day, Turkey’s invasion of northern Cyprus must be seen for what it is: an illegal occupation that must end,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez said in November. 2019.
Cyprus took advantage of this breakdown in US-Turkish relations to improve its defenses.
Since 2020, it has held annual military air and naval exercises with Italy, France and Greece, and its defense minister, Haralambos Petridis, has announced plans to buy air defense systems. But Cyprus insists its intentions are defensive.
“We never dreamed of capabilities that would allow anyone to say we have an aggressive military posture,” Mavroyiannis told Al Jazeera. “At most, we want to have sufficient deterrent capability to incur cost and buy time for the international community to react – so we’re talking about a short period.”
Ertugruloglu, from Northern Cyprus, told Al Jazeera that “Greek Cypriots are wasting their time, they are wasting their money… They can be sure that we will respond to their actions.
“Hopefully they will be mature enough not to overstep their bounds and not do something crazy,” he added.
If Northern Cyprus leader Ersin Tatar withdraws the UN from its base and begins to develop Famagusta, it will be as part of the larger clash between the United States and Turkey, Sözen said.
“[Tatar] is a willing servant of Turkey,” Sözen said. “He says, ‘I fully support Turkish interests, and without Turkey I can’t do anything.’ These actions, if he ever takes them, will not be his own autonomous actions but probably tactics developed in Ankara that he is implementing.