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Politics

Turkish Drones in Northern Cyprus Heighten Regional Unease

NICOSIA — An air base hosting Turkish drones in the breakaway northern third of ethnically divided Cyprus is ratcheting up unease among neighboring countries, which see the station as an added instrument of instability in the turbulent east Mediterranean region.

The Cypriot government views the drone deployment as a means for Turkey to pursue what it called an "expansionist agenda" – using military assets to extend its outreach and buttress its control of a region that potentially holds significant natural gas reserves. 

Turkey has stationed heavy weapons and more than 35,000 troops in northern Cyprus since the island was split along ethnic lines in 1974, when Turkish forces invaded in response to a coup by supporters of union with Greece. But the deployment of the drones provides Turkey with a wider strike capability that has upped regional unease. 

The leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots, Ersin Tatar, boasted on Turkish television earlier this month that the Bayraktar TB2 drones at the air base in Gecitkale – or Lefkoniko in Greek – could be scrambled much faster than from bases on mainland Turkey to "inspect the region" up to the coast of Egypt.

An Egyptian official described the deployment as another in a series of "Ankara's provocative measures" that require a "firm reaction" from the international community – especially the United States and the European Union, of which Cyprus is a member.

"The base, along with other measures in Cyprus, Libya and the Mediterranean, would only further destabilize the region. It is alarming," an Egyptian diplomat told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue. 

"The latest (the base) solidifies the notion that Turkey will not be deterred through statements, but it needs actions from relevant countries," he said.

Egypt's ties with Turkey have frayed since the Egyptian military's ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, a close ally of Ankara, in 2013. 

The drones were sent to northern Cyprus in December 2019 in response to oil and gas prospecting by international energy companies licensed by the Cypriot government. Turkey claimed the prospecting off Cyprus' southern coast ignores its rights and those of Turkish Cypriots, to the area's potential wealth of hydrocarbon deposits. 

Turkey mounted a hydrocarbon search of its own in waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece. The EU condemned Turkey's actions as a breach of international law and of Cypriot and Greek sovereign rights.

At least two Bayraktar TV2 drones are currently stationed at Gecitkale. With an operating range of 200 kilometers (125 miles) and a flight ceiling of 6,100 meters (20,000 feet), the drones can can carry weapons and surveillance equipment capable of delivering real-time images to Turkish naval ships. 

Turkey is said to be upgrading the Bayraktar's systems to be satellite-guided to extend their range even farther. An intelligence report obtained by the AP indicates that the air base is receiving its own upgrade for a planned deployment of additional drones, surveillance aircraft, training planes and advanced fighter jets.

Israeli officials do not appear to consider the base to be a direct threat and declined to comment on the matter. In the past, they have objected to what they consider to be aggressive Turkish actions in the region. 

Last month, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat said the Israeli government was "following with deep concern recent unilateral Turkish actions" in northern Cyprus and expressed its "solidarity and full support" for the Cypriot government.

Although Israel has refrained from official comment, Israeli Institute of Regional Strategic Studies analyst Gabriel Mitchell said the drone base is a "worrying development that will add to the existing tensions" with Turkey. 

Israel has been trying to balance its support Greece and Cyprus with its efforts to leave "a door open for dialogue" with Ankara over the last decade, Mitchell said.

But Turkey's planned expansion of the drone base presents a problem because it will aggravate regional partners – particularly Greece and Cyprus – and "generate a new set of security considerations in the already overcrowded eastern Mediterranean," the analyst said. 

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