Cyprus, which has suffered from centuries of occupations by various foreign powers, British colonialism, ethnic violence, and a five-decade-long occupation, has seen tensions rise in their Eastern Mediterranean nation. A renewed rise in Turkish ultra-nationalism has ensued under President Tayyip Erdogan, who has prioritized his ambitions of a Neo-Ottoman Empire.
Already seeking to annex the occupied north of Cyprus, provocations and threats of war have heightened in the past year. The recent attack against United Nations peacekeepers on the Green Line is the most brazen breach of international law since the occupation and proclamation of the internationally condemned faux ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’.
Decades of appeasement, United Nations intervention, and British troops have not done anything to deter Turkish troops from continued land grabbing and violations of international law. With the United Kingdom demilitarized and in economic decline and the European Union in a state of appeasement with Turkey over Azerbaijani gas against Russia, now is the time for the United States to rewrite the mistakes of the past and start deterring the Turkish Republic.
Fixing the Mistakes of the Past
Initially, after World War I, the U.S. government had a policy of self-determination for all peoples in oppressive empires. Decolonization was a also a significant policy of then-American Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, and Washington pressured Western Europe to give independence to their colonies.
Cyprus was a major priority of of self-determination movement for the EOKA paramilitaries and the U.S. government. Under international pressure, however, Cyprus would have independence, but not the ‘Enosis’ they sought with Greece.
When Turkey expressed plans to invade and potentially annex Cyprus in the 1960s, President Lyndon B Johnson warned Ankara that America would leave them out to dry against the Soviet Union if their neocolonial ambitions went through. Unfortunately, Henry Kissinger would become Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford, and Cyprus’ fate would gradually be sealed.
Policies of ‘spheres of influence’ became the norm under a now Kissinger-influenced State Department. During the height of ethnic violence in Cyprus, Kissinger recommended that Turkey should have a third of Cyprus to maintain a NATO presence. The second Turkish invasion on August 14th, 1974, was quietly backed by the U.S., which Bill Clinton would acknowledge and apologize for.
Instead of becoming a significant peacemaker and deterrence factor at the height of violence in the Eastern Mediterranean, the United States took a side that maintained hegemony and influence for Turkey and Britain, and public opinion of NATO soured in Greece and Cyprus.
How American Presence in Mainland Greece Became a Valuable Deterrence
Instead of a non-biased mediator, the U.S. historically has shown favor towards Turkey more so than Greece or Cyprus in the region due to the geographic importance of Turkey’s Bosphorus Strait and Incirlik Airbase. Lately, however, as American and Turkish relations soured – mainly due to Erdogan’s ambitions in Syria, the Mediterranean, and North Africa – and with this geopolitical shift, Washington has grown its ties with Athens.
The United States and Greece have developed their shared military capabilities with joint bases in Alexandropoulis on the mainland and Souda Bay in Crete. U.S. forces in these regions have been a deterrence as Ankara rarely flies jets over those areas compared to the Aegean Isles, which have no American troops.
U.S. sanctions against Turkey, which grew its relationship with Russia, also allowed Greece to become part of the F-35B program. At the same time, Ankara was expelled from the new aircraft along with an ongoing F-16 embargo. The Biden administration has also lifted the arms embargo against Cyprus, which has allowed the Cypriot government to look for vital modern weaponry, such as the Merkava tanks from Israel that will soon be purchased. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently approved an extension of the arms embargo lift on Nicosia in 2024 in lieu of the renewed threats from Turkey.
It’s ‘Put up or Shut up’ Time
Cyprus’ fragility has only become more fluid due to the toothless fortitude of the United Nations and the inability of British troops on the isle to make an impact. Turkey, like Russia, feeds off appeasement and indecisiveness by the EU, NATO, and UN regarding condemning Turkey’s aggression and violations over Hellenic air and naval space and continued settlement buildup in the occupied areas of Cyprus.
The U.S. government has grown increasingly untrusting of Turkey, which has threatened American interests and national security, but ‘concerns’ are no longer enough. Akin to the plethora of sanctions against Russia and military support to Ukraine, now is the time for America to treat Turkish aggression in the Eastern Mediterranean the same way and back the Nicosia government that only wants to live in peace.
The Biden Administration must now apply the foreign policy of Teddy Roosevelt that initially made America a trustworthy partner – speak softly and carry a big stick.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims who never get their voices heard.