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Moment of truth for US on Cyprus

The strained relationship between the United States and Turkey is like a ship adrift at sea. The relationship’s North Star – the NATO alliance – was lost when Ankara stubbornly went forward with its purchase of Russian S-400s over repeated and strenuous US objections. It is also not clear how the relationship can move forward, as there is a gap between the two countries in terms of both strategic interests and fundamental values.

But unlike one of the most famous characters who was lost at sea – Odysseus – this relationship does not have a clear Ithaca that it is trying to get to. Turkey may remain a formal ally of the United States, but it won’t be considered a reliable one. Washington will continue to seek areas in which it can work with Turkey (for example, Afghanistan or Iraq) but it will not hesitate to oppose Ankara when it undermines US policy.

This lack of a clear destination, especially in the midst of rough seas, will result in a good deal of unpredictability and some level of instability in the regions and issues where this relationship plays out. This lack of predictability will pose a particular problem on Cyprus.

On the one hand, there is much to be encouraged about when it comes to the Biden administration’s early approach to the Republic of Cyprus.

There has been an early and consistent commitment to the bilateral relationship, and a great deal of activity around the “3+1” (Cyprus, Greece, Israel plus US). Full implementation of the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act is a top agenda item, and the administration has proclaimed “US support for Cypriot-led, UN-facilitated efforts to reunify the island as a bizonal, bicommunal federation for the benefit of all Cypriots, as the United States encourages both sides to demonstrate the necessary openness, flexibility and compromise to find common ground to restart Cyprus settlement talks.”

Still, the United States has a tortured history of trying to have it both ways on Cyprus, and the encouragement of “both sides” to demonstrate “flexibility and compromise” is not as encouraging as it may seem on its face.

There are still people in the State Department who still treat the Republic of Cyprus as merely the Greek-Cypriot community rather than the strategic partner with whom they are engaged with in a “3+1” process and bound to via the East Med Act. There are some State Department officials (some who work on the Cyprus issue only for a few short years) who repeat Turkish talking points to the Greek-American advocates as if we haven’t heard them over and over again.

This habit of the State Department and UN officials like Elizabeth Spehar of pressuring Greek Cypriots to compromise every time Turkey provokes a crisis (because it is easier than holding Turkey accountable) has to change. When it comes to US-Turkey relations in general, there has been a commitment in Washington to calling Turkey out and trying to hold it accountable (CAATSA, the Halk Bank case etc) even without knowing what the eventual endgame is in the bilateral relationship.

The same approach has to be taken on Cyprus. This week, key United States senators – led by Bob Menendez, Chris Van Hollen and Marco Rubio – sent a letter to President Biden condemning Turkey’s action in Varosha and raising the possibility of sanctions in response to Turkey’s continued intransigence on Cyprus. Just a few years ago, a call for sanctions over Varosha would have been unimaginable.

On July 21, eight of the letter’s signatories will have a chance to press Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland during a Senator Foreign Relations Committee hearing devoted entirely to Turkey. They will have the chance to press the administration to outline what holding Turkey accountable in Cyprus means. Undersecretary Nuland can – and should – make it clear that the senators’ suggestion on sanctions in the case of Turkey carrying out its plans in Varosha is under consideration.

She should be unequivocal in condemning these plans as well as Turkey’s insistence on a two-state solution. And she should hint at further consequences for Turkish Cypriots involved in opening Varosha – including eliminating the liaison office the US maintains in the occupied north and refusing to meet with “ministers” of the Turkish-Cypriot pseudo-state.

Over the next few months there will be additional hearings – most notably the confirmation hearings for Karen Donfried as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and Jeff Flake as the next ambassador to Turkey – where the Biden administration can prove that it will not tolerate Turkey’s continued intransigence on Cyprus.

But this Wednesday, it will be interesting to see whether Undersecretary Nuland is as clear-eyed on Turkey as Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised the administration would be.


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