NICOSIA – The United States will let Cyprus buy non-lethal equipment in a partial lift of a 33-year-old arms embargo, coming as Turkey – which has occupied the northern third since an unlawful 1974 invasion – is drilling for oil and gas off the island's coast.
The decision was reportedly announced over a call by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades and comes eight months after the U.S. Congress voted to lift the ban put in place in 1987.
That was imposed in an attempt to prevent an arms race on the island where Turkey, which keeps a 35,000-strong army on the occupied side, has armed itself to the teeth against the legitimate government, a member of the European Union that Turkey has been trying to join since 2005.
Speaking during a press briefing with Greek journalists, U.S. officials reportedly said that the lifting of the ban will be effective for a year and could be extended after that but it wasn't said what kind of equipment would become available and if – or when – arms would be allowed to be purchased.
According to the same reports, the officials said that the decision is not related to recent developments in the Eastern Mediterranean where Turkey has put an energy research ship and warships off the Greek island of Kastellorizo, planning to drill for oil and gas, ramping up fears of a conflict with Greece.
The Cyprus arms embargo has driven the Cypriot government to seek other partners, while Turkey can rely on NATO, the defense alliance to which Cyprus doesn't belong although it's a member of the EU, and the only one not in NATO.
No other country recognizes Turkey's self-declared republic on the occupied side of Cyprus while it has been allowed to keep an army there – the defense alliance chief refusing to intervene there or over Turkish provocations in the East Mediterranean.
Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Republican Senator Marco Rubio from Florida were behind the effort to lift the embargo, saying they also wanted to encourage growing cooperation between Cyprus, Greece and Israel, CNN earlier said.
"With Cyprus seeking to deepen its strategic partnership with the United States, it is in our national security and economic interest to lift this outdated decades-long arms restrictions that are no longer helping US security objectives," Menendez said after initial approval of the lifting of the embargo.
U.S. officials were concerned the ban has brought Cyprus closer to Russia, with the Cypriot government in 2015 signing off on an access deal to its ports while the United Nations has ignored repeated entreaties from Anastasiades to get involved.
A UN-brokered meeting in 2017 at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana seeking reunification fell apart when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci said they would never remove their army and wanted the right to militarily intervene – invade – again when they wanted to.