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Friday, August 30, 2002; Page A23 (Reprinted from the Washington Post)

The Bush administration has so many foreign policy crises on its plate now that it can be forgiven for not wanting to spend much time on second-tier international issues. At first glance, Cyprus looks like the definition of such an issue. It has been 28 years since Turkish troops were dispatched to the Mediterranean island republic in response to a Greek-led coup. Since then, Cyprus's ethnic Greek and Turkish populations have been separated by a barbed-wire divide that is heavily militarized but reasonably stable. No one expects any fighting in the foreseeable future. In fact, the Greek side of the island has grown so prosperous that Cyprus will be invited to join the European Union in December.

Yet when that EU invitation comes, Cyprus suddenly is going to become crucial to the great overarching security challenge the West faces. The United States and its NATO allies must project power into the "arc of crisis" stretching from Egypt to the West Bank to Baghdad to Afghanistan and beyond -- but in ways that do not lead to a clash of civilizations with the Islamic world. Cyprus can either make this vexing challenge easier or much harder, depending on whether the Bush administration engages more heavily than it has so far in solving the Cyprus problem.

The outlines of a Cyprus settlement have been known for years. Basically the Greek side would give up some land and municipal authority in return for both sides joining a federated state. But decades of U.N. mediation, including an attempt in May by Secretary General Kofi Annan, have proven fruitless. Most observers understand that only a major push by the United States can resolve the dispute. But if that push doesn't come soon and there is no Cyprus settlement by December, the EU will invite only the Greek side to join. Turkey has warned that when that happens, it will all but annex the Turkish side of the island, where 35,000 Turkish troops are deployed.

But if Turkey does this -- and powerful interests in the country will demand it -- then Brussels will almost certainly revoke Turkey's candidacy for EU membership. That would be a huge blow to U.S. policy, which for decades has been premised on drawing Turkey, NATO's only member in the Muslim world, ever more tightly into the Western orbit. Though the EU's action will have been prompted by Turkish behavior, Muslims around the world will see it as evidence that the West will never grant an Islamic country a place at the table of economic prosperity. Anti-Western Muslim extremists will surely amplify that message, severely undercutting U.S. efforts to win Islamic hearts and minds in the war on terrorism.

By formally assimilating Turkish Cyprus, Turkey would also probably put itself back on a war footing with Greece. That, too, would be a disaster for U.S. interests. Greece and Turkey are both members of NATO but also long-standing rivals, with Cyprus being their biggest bone of contention. Though relations between Greece and Turkey have improved in the last few years, serious issues remain between them, which routinely compromise NATO readiness.

Two years ago, for example, a major NATO exercise in the eastern Mediterranean ended abruptly after a legal quarrel led Turkey to deny Greek fighter jets flyover rights. Such disputes have been only modestly harmful as long as NATO was focused on its traditional mission: deterring a Soviet/Russian invasion of Western Europe.

But Russia now has formal relations with NATO, and the real threats to European and American security are emanating from the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Balkans. NATO must be able to project power more vigorously in these regions if it is going to be of any real military relevance. Some in the Bush administration understand this and they are talking about the prospect of winning at least some NATO backing for any war to oust Saddam Hussein or for policing a peace settlement in the West Bank and Gaza. None of this can happen effectively, however, if the two NATO members closest to the region, Greece and Turkey, are busy having dogfights over the Aegean and otherwise hindering alliance operations.

All these negative consequences will be realized if a Cyprus peace agreement isn't reached by the end of this year. But if the Bush administration becomes engaged and an agreement is reached, the positive consequences will be considerable. Tensions between Greece and Turkey will largely disappear. NATO's southern flank, as well as its ability to respond to regional threats and emergencies, will strengthen. Turkey's EU candidacy will accelerate. Greek and Turkish Cypriots will join the EU together as one. And Turkish will become an official language of the EU -- a powerful sign to Muslims the world over that when we in the West say we accept Islam, we mean it.

John Sitilides is executive director of the Western Policy Center. Paul Glastris is a senior fellow at the center and editor in chief of the Washington Monthly magazine.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company


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