Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Potential instability on Cyprus a concern for Turkiye and EU

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Potential instability on Cyprus a concern for Turkiye and EU

The Eastern Mediterranean has long been a hotspot for geopolitical tensions. Hezbollah’s mention of Cyprus recently has added a new dimension to the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened repercussions for Nicosia if it allowed Israel to use its bases for military forces in a potential war between the Lebanese militant group and Israel. The EU responded to this threat saying, Cyprus “is a member state of the EU, this means the EU is Cyprus and Cyprus is the EU.” Nicosia is a member of the EU but not of the NATO defense alliance that obliges member nations to come to each other’s defense in case of an attack.

On the other side, Hezbollah’s mention of Cyprus was actually a threat directed at the EU and the US, drawing an EU country, for the first time, into a war that has already spread across the Middle East. Hezbollah would not be interested in expanding the Gaza war into the EU and Nicosia, following Nasrallah’s threat, has also announced that it would remain neutral and not get involved in any war.

Yet the potential instability in Cyprus due to Hezbollah’s threats underscores the fragility of the Eastern Mediterranean region’s security landscape. Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkiye sent troops to the island in the aftermath of a Greek-inspired coup. The Cypriot administration in the south is internationally recognized, while only Turkiye recognizes the Turkish administration in the north. This long-standing division continues to influence geopolitical tensions and reflects the rivalry between Ankara and Athens, although both sides have recently sought a thaw in their icy relations.

Since the island hosts Turkish Cypriots, Turkiye is also under the spotlight. Following Nasrallah’s threat, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan also warned Nicosia to avoid becoming a part of the larger conflict, arguing that it has already become an “operation center” in the Israel-Gaza war. “When you become a part of the ongoing wars in the Middle East, this fire will come and find you too. And as we share the same geography, it will then come and hit us too.”

Hezbollah leader Nasrallah’s mention of Cyprus was actually a threat directed at the EU and the US

Sinem Cengiz

Cyprus’ strategic location in the Eastern Mediterranean makes it a valuable partner for Western allies. However, this positioning also makes it vulnerable. Any instability on the island could lead to increased military tension in the region. Turkiye maintains a significant military presence in the north and closely monitors developments in the south, especially its military cooperation with others.

For instance, back in 2015, one newspaper stated that “Cyprus is the training base of Israelis,” as the Greek Cypriot side had become a regular exercise base for the Israeli air force. Nicosia considers its relations with Israel to be at the level of strategic partnership. Even when the Israeli president visited Turkiye to mend ties, he assured the Greek Cypriots that this normalization would not be at the expense of Israel’s relations with them.

Meanwhile, the Turkish Cypriot side is sharply critical of Israel’s actions in Gaza. Israel has even accused the Turkish Cypriot authorities of allowing Iran to use its territory for attacks on Israel — a claim that was denied and has not been proven. Thus, the Israeli war on Gaza has brought a new dimension to the tensions between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, as they stand on totally opposite sides of the conflict.

Ankara has already been disturbed by Nicosia’s policy of excluding Turkiye from the energy and military cooperation that it engages in with other external actors, including Israel. Nicosia was a founding member of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which sought to deepen energy cooperation with Israel and Arab states amid maritime tensions with Turkiye. However, taking steps — such as supporting Israel in this conflict — that could drag the island to war would have significant repercussions for Turkiye, given the complex political, economic and security dynamics in the region.

For Turkiye, this situation presents a multifaceted challenge, intertwining military, economic and refugee dimensions

Sinem Cengiz

For Turkiye, this situation presents a multifaceted challenge, intertwining military, economic and refugee dimensions. The Eastern Mediterranean is rich in hydrocarbon resources and the island of Cyprus has been at the center of energy exploration efforts. Instability could jeopardize these projects, affecting Turkiye’s energy strategy and its economic interests in the region.

Although Nicosia’s unilateral energy exploration and drilling operations with other nations have frustrated Turkiye, Ankara is very much concerned about the stability of the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkiye is not alone in this; the last thing Greece and the EU would want is an escalation in tensions triggering a new wave of refugees seeking safety on the Greek part of the island. Given its proximity, both Turkiye and Greece will be the ones facing pressure to manage a potential influx.

It is crucial to recognize that the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean is highly complex and not easily reduced to black and white. Moreover, the regional and international environment is not static. Any instability concerning Cyprus will involve several actors: the guarantors, Greece and Turkiye, and then the EU and the US. Therefore, the international community’s engagement will be crucial in preventing the island being dragged into a war and in ensuring the stability of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Even if the island is not physically at war, it has psychologically been under tension for decades due to irregular migration, the Cyprus dispute, energy exploration and territorial sovereignty in the Aegean. The Israel-Gaza war further exacerbates this situation. At least for now, the EU and the US should keep serious pressure on Israel, because the fire is right on Europe’s doorstep.

  • Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkiye’s relations with the Middle East. X: @SinemCngz

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point of view

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