US Partial Lifting of Cyprus Arms Embargo Draws Turkey’s Fire

With a heavily-armed 35,000-strong army on the occupied northern third of Cyprus, Turkey is furious that the United States will partially lift a 33-year-old arms embargo and tighten security with the island's legitimate government.

While it's still technically an arms ban as it only applies to non-lethal equipment and no details were given on what Cyprus can purchase, the move nevertheless set off anger in Ankara.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said the decision “ignores the equality and balance between the two peoples on the island,” without mentioning the unlawful occupation or its army there.

“It is certain that this decision will also have negative effects on the efforts to reach a settlement to the Cyprus issue,” it said, referring to reunification hopes that fell apart in July 2017 talks at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana.

Those collapsed when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci said their army was there forever and that they wanted the right of further military intervention when they wanted.

The timing of the partial embargo lift was coincidental and not retaliation for Turkey drilling for oil and gas in Cypriot waters nor for Erdogan sending an energy research vessel and warships off the Greek island to hunt for energy, the US State Department claimed.

Erdogan is friendly with US President Donald Trump who had called him on the phone and twice spoke with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in a bid to de-escalate tension in the East Mediterranean to avoid a conflict there.

Turkey was unrelenting in its criticism although the balance of power is heavily in its favor with the Cypriot government, a member of the European Union that Turkey has been trying to join since 2005, being far outgunned.

“In a time, where efforts are spent to reduce the tension in the Eastern Mediterranean, the US’s approval of such a decision, which poisons the peace and stability environment in the region, does not comply with the spirit of alliance,” the Turkish ministry statement added.

“We expect the US to reconsider this decision and support the ongoing efforts to establish peace and stability in the region,” it said, without mentioning its drilling in Cypriot waters.

There was a veiled warning. “Otherwise, Turkey, as a guarantor country, will take the necessary decisive counter steps to guarantee the security of the Turkish Cypriot people, in line with its legal and historical responsibilities,” it said.

Speaking during a press briefing with Greek journalists, US 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.

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 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 Florida 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.

US officials were concerned the ban has brought Cyprus closer to Russia, with the Cypriot government in 2015 signing off on an access deal to ports while the United Nations ignored entreaties from Anastasiades to get involved.

On Wednesday, Greece carried out a bond auction as part of efforts to boost cash reserves for additional support to pandemic-hit businesses as well as defense spending to face the crisis with Turkey.

Pompeo said U.S. President Donald Trump has urged both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to pull back and talk things out.

"We’re urging everyone to stand down, to reduce tensions and begin to have diplomatic discussions about the conflicts … in the eastern Mediterranean," Pompeo said. “It is not useful to increase military tension in the region. Only negative things can flow from that."

The U.S.'s ambassador to Cyprus, Judith Garber, said the lifting of the embargo strengthens the U.S.-Cyprus security partnership while boosting regional security. She said Washington informed Turkey of the embargo lifting late Tuesday and urged that “there not be an over-reaction to this decision.”

Garber said the aim of the embargo lifting is to make Cyprus a “more capable partner” in dealing with challenges like terrorism, weapons trafficking and maritime security without having to sell the the country lethal weapons.

The ambassador said Washington waived a requirement that Cyprus ceases to offer refueling and other port services to Russian warships, but that it would continue to “encourage" Cypriot government authorities to deny those services.


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