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Cyprus and the Military Component of Diplomacy

May/June 2000 - In his inaugural address in 1969, five years before the division of Cyprus, President Nixon said, "The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker." He was referring then to America's role in the world. Today, that promise of greatness and the title of peacemaker are within reach of Greece and Turkey should they find a settlement to the Cyprus problem.

Recently, the foreign ministers of Greece and Turkey, George Papandreou and Ismail Cem, have brought relations between their countries to heights not seen in several decades. In the European Union, with the support of Greece, full candidacy status has been offered to Turkey. And, in the Balkans, Greek and Turkish soldiers are serving side-by-side, both within NATO and in the newly formed Southeast European Brigade.

These changing dynamics could -- and should -- bode well for Cyprus. The King of Sparta, Agesilaus II, wrote in 400 B.C., "It is circumstance and proper timing that give an action its character and make it either good or bad." Circumstances are so clearly moving in the right direction that the timing for settling the Cyprus problem has arrived.

Of course, naysayers abound and will take exception to this view. They may be the same people who view the Cyprus problem in only political, social, and economic terms when the essence of it is security, both personal and strategic. Greek Cypriots fear the loss of the rest of the island and their lives to another Turkish military operation, while Turkish Cypriots fear for their well-being without the presence of the Turkish Army.

Had Agesilaus included the word "focus" in his statement, he would have had it just right. Circumstances and timing are currently favorable for a Cyprus solution, but it will also need the military component of diplomacy to focus on the security concerns of both ethnic communities. When this is included, the other aspects of the Cyprus problem will not seem so insurmountable.

Intercommunal strife between Greek and Turkish Cypriots goes back to at least 1963, when it escalated to a point that prompted the United Nations Security Council to send a peacekeeping force to the island in March 1964. The United Nations Force in Cyprus, or UNFICYP, was there more than 10 years before the military-led government in Athens sponsored a coup against the president of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios.

This was such an ill-conceived plan, pitting Greek against Greek Cypriot and directly threatening Turkish interests in the region, that it resulted in a Turkish military operation, the division of the island, an exchange of populations, a rift in NATO, militarization of the Greek eastern Aegean islands, the formation of the Turkish Aegean Army, and the stationing of a Turkish Army Corps of approximately 33,000 soldiers in the north of Cyprus.

Interestingly, the one positive result of the coup was the total collapse of the military government in Athens and the restoration of democracy in Greece.

Today, almost 26 years after the short-lived coup and Turkish military action, and 36 years after the U.N. first sent troops to Cyprus, the Turkish Army is still there, UNFICYP is still there, and Greek and Greek Cypriot forces continue to upgrade their military capabilities. Sometimes these upgrades lead to serious problems as well.

The Greek Cypriot decision to install Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles significantly raised the potential for conflict with Turkey, which was only averted last year when the missiles were diverted to the Greek island of Crete.

Understandably, the United States has been at the forefront of trying to resolve the Cyprus problem. If Cyprus can be defused, it will not only improve relations between NATO allies Greece and Turkey considerably, but it will also dramatically help Turkey's process of accession to the European Union. Politically, the U.S. Congress maintains a strong interest in Cyprus, the State Department has a Special Cyprus Coordinator, and the president keeps a Special Presidential Emissary for Cyprus.

As the U.S. government continues its efforts to assist Cyprus, it would be helpful and timely to emphasize the military component of diplomacy so that the security aspects of the Cyprus problem can be dealt with in a positive, immediate, and conclusive manner. A military component to a U.S. diplomatic team could have direct consultations with both the Turkish General Staff (TGS) and its Greek counterpart, the Hellenic National Defense General Staff (HNDGS). This military link would be especially useful with the TGS, who have a predominant role in the security policy for northern Cyprus.

The present security architecture in Cyprus is composed of several separate commands: the Turkish Army Corps (33,000) and a small Turkish Cypriot Security Force in the north, and the Greek Cypriot National Guard (14,000 active duty plus a large reserve) and a Greek Brigade (4,000) in the south. They are continually on guard duty, facing each other along the cease-fire lines of 1974, now usually referred to as the "Green Line." Patrolling the Green Line are the 1,300 soldiers who make up UNFICYP. Finally, the British deploy about 3,500 soldiers and airmen in two sovereign base areas in the south.

One more salient military consideration is geography. Cyprus lies just 40 miles south of Turkey and over 500 miles from mainland Greece. There are obvious military implications to geography that will never change.

A new security architecture could be built now. It could be bold, it could expand Greek-Turkish rapprochement to the military arena, and it could be the needed impetus to move forward on the political, and other, dimensions of the problem.

The military component of diplomacy should build an architecture that eliminates indigenous Cypriot forces altogether, equalizes Greek and Turkish mainland units at brigade level (4,000 to 5,000), replaces UNFICYP with European/NATO units, and puts all the forces under a single commander from a NATO country.

What would this new security architecture accomplish? It would eliminate on-island offensive military capability on both sides. It would provide the same level of protection for Turkish Cypriots that they now have. There would be no Greek Cypriot military force, so security would boil down to crowd control and preventing possible terrorist acts. It would give Greek Cypriots strategic security not enjoyed since 1974. It would create unity of command for all military forces. The benefits of having the Greek and Turkish brigade commanders reporting to the same commanding general are self-evident. It would make the Greek and Turkish militaries part of the ongoing rapprochement process. It would eliminate a major obstacle to full Turkish membership in the EU. It would promote and ease the solution to the political, social, and economic aspects of the Cyprus problem.

Think about a changed environment in Cyprus where Greek Cypriots no longer have to fear a Turkish on-island offensive military capability and Turkish Cypriots enjoy the same degree of security now being provided by a large Turkish military force. There would be no arms build-up, there would be no "facing-off" along the Green Line, and there would be no Cypriot soldiers in either ethnic community. The potential for future military tensions in Cyprus would indeed be remote.

Assiduous planning is required by the staffs at TGS, HNDGS, and NATO to work out the myriad details associated with a new security architecture. Should all parties reach agreement on this, even though implementation might be contingent upon a political settlement, it would be a major step and the most positive for Cyprus since 1974. Knowing in advance that their security would be addressed, populations on both sides of the Green Line would be less skeptical and more supportive of building a future for all Cypriots.

A new security architecture would not totally solve the Cyprus problem, but it would address the major aspect of the problem and would rejuvenate, accelerate, and ease discussions on the political aspects. Victor Hugo wrote a prophetic sentence: "An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come." The idea is using the military component of diplomacy to create a new security architecture for Cyprus, and the time is now.


About the Author

Col. Steve Norton

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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more