Time to end the Cyprus arms embargo

On November 19, 1987, the U.S. Senate amended the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act to declare “defence articles of United States origin may not be transferred to or used on Cyprus by Turkey or Greece.” The arms embargo passed without notice in either the Washington Post or New York Times, and neither president Ronald Reagan’s papers nor secretary of state George Shultz’s autobiography mention the ban. The senators behind the amendment believed it would jumpstart diplomacy by convincing both Greeks and Turks there was no military solution. In reality, it did the opposite: Because Turkey has more men under arms than France and Germany combined, the United States kept weaponry flowing to Turkey, much of which successive Turkish governments diverted to Cyprus. As Turkey built its own indigenous military industry, Ankara increased its military transfers to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus even further.

Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has grown increasingly aggressive. Whereas Turkey once occupied only Cyprus, the Turkish dictator has dispatched Turkish forces to both Syria and Iraq where they occupy and ethnically cleanse districts, threatened Greek islands, participated in the Nagorno-Karabakh war and even claimed portions of Bulgaria. While Erdoğan has publicly repudiated the Lausanne Treaty for several years, he has recently taken his rejection of international norms even further. Speaking at the presidential palace library on May 19, to an assembled crowd of young Turks, Erdoğan declared, “Turkey is not 780 thousand square kilometres for us; Turkey is everywhere for us.” He continued to announce that, on July 20, he would visit Northern Cyprus. “The messages we will give from Northern Cyprus concern not only the island but the whole world,” he warned.

Not only the United States but also the European Union should understand Erdoğan’s threats are real. They should not make the mistake of three decades ago when they dismissed as rhetorical excess Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s declarations that Kuwait was Iraq’s 19th province. Evidence suggests that his recent threats are not rhetorical bombast but substantive. Erdoğan and other top Turkish officials have bragged openly about transferring drones – at first surveillance and then attack – to the Lefkoniko Airport in the occupied portion of Cyprus, which the Turkish military has now rebranded Geçitkale Air Base. The Turkish drone base in Cyprus threatens not only the unoccupied portions of Cyprus, but also the entire region – from Crete to Israel and from Athens to Egypt.

Turkey’s establishment of a drone base on Cyprus makes it imperative for the United States to end the arms embargo on Cyprus for two reasons. The first is military: former secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s partial lifting in September 2020 was more symbolic than real. Cyprus received little more than bulletproof vests because of the resistance of career diplomats and the State Department’s own Turkey lobby. Erdoğan’s stationing of Bayraktar-TB2 attack drones mandates transfer to Cyprus of technology to counter drones. This might include Patriot missile batteries such as the United States has provided both Israel and Saudi Arabia in the past. The Pentagon should also fast-track jamming devices capable of blinding if not bringing down Turkish drones. Indeed, the Biden administration should go even further. Cyprus at present has no air force of its own and only a small volunteer force. To rectify this, the United States should make it a strategic priority to build up the nascent Cypriot drone capability to the point where Cyprus has a qualitative military edge over Turkey.

The second reason to lift the embargo is diplomatic. No longer should Brussels or Washington expect Nicosia to offer concessions to Ankara. Doing so only rewards Turkish aggression. The only effective way to convince Erdoğan to stop shredding the status quo is to demonstrate that every time he acts unilaterally, Turkey’s strategic position will decline.

On June 1, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides. While Blinken’s promise of deepened bilateral cooperation and “promoting stability in the eastern Mediterranean” is welcome, words alone will not counter Turkish attack drones. It is time for the United States to end its unilateral arms embargo.

(A version of this article was originally published by the Kathimerini newspaper and is reproduced by permission.)

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