This question has been asked a lot this week. This is only the second time that a US vice president has visited Cyprus, after then-vice president Lyndon B. Johnson’s visit in 1962. So just what was US Vice President Joe Biden doing in Cyprus late last week?
We must discuss numerous things together whenever Cyprus is mentioned; there is always more than one answer to any question about the troubled island.
Cyprus is very important for anyone analyzing the Middle East, Russia, the EU or the US. The southern half of the island is an EU member-state with close relations to Russia and newly discovered natural gas reserves. Northern Cyprus is under the “guarantorship” of Turkey, which is a US ally and NATO member state, and also the route for the flow of Israeli and Cypriot natural gas. A solution to the ongoing situation in Cyprus is therefore of direct concern to Russia, Syria, Israel, the EU and the US.
Following his arrival on the island, Biden said that he did not have a solution to the “Cyprus problem” in his back pocket. A solution to this problem had been before the two sides since February. Biden said his objective in visiting Cyprus was simply to send a message to “unblock” the stalled talks. But the subject of energy, of course, plays an important role in Washington’s sudden interest in Cyprus; Biden was accompanied by officials from the US Department of Energy. The EU is in the process of looking for new sources of energy following the events in Ukraine, and it has been looking to the Mediterranean as an alternative to Russia.
The real objective is not access to the limited natural gas in Cyprus, however. It is to prepare for the flow of natural gas located off the coasts of Israel and Lebanon into Europe. The only path for this vital energy corridor into Europe is through Turkey, via Cyprus.
Due to newly discovered natural gas reserves on its own territory—not to mention the rise of shale gas production—the US has guaranteed its own energy requirements for the near future. So if the real issue is not energy, why is the US becoming involved in the Cyprus problem?
Elections are approaching in the US. Obama, who has adopted a moderate policy on the Middle East, has been accused of failing on a number of issues. When monitoring this region, which has been rocked by the troubles caused by the Arab Spring, one must take into account the changing balance of power in the Middle East. But many people are failing to do so, attributing failures in the Israel–Palestine peace process, the situation in Syria, and the Ukraine crisis and Russia, to President Obama.
There is no doubt that success in resolving the situation in Cyprus might perhaps alter the balance of power ahead of US midterm elections later this year, delight the Greek lobby in the US and please the EU.
Another reason is the crisis with Russia. The US is concerned by Russia’s efforts to expand its Eurasian Economic Union and its moves in Crimea. We must also not forget the role that Russia is playing regarding the situation in Syria—and Moscow could also seek to expand its presence in the Mediterranean in Cyprus. The Transatlantic Free Trade Area, planned through the unification of NAFTA and the EU, is also great important to the US at this point. The US wants Turkey to be part of this union in order to guarantee its dominance in the region. But Turkey is not an EU member-state, and the Cyprus question is one of the main obstacles to Turkish membership. Therefore, the US would like this problem to be resolved as soon as possible.
That is the position regarding the US but there are, of course, other dimensions to the Cyprus question.
While the US is pursuing these great aims, should we regard the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) imposing a record fine of 90 million euros on Turkey over what happened in 1974 as a blow to peace talks? What about the dozens of Turkish villages attacked by the Greek–Cypriot paramilitary group EOKA between 1963 and 1974, and the hundreds of people who were killed? What about “Bloody Christmas,” the period of unrest between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in December 1963 which saw many Turks killed? Turkey’s dereliction of duty lies in not having applied to the ECHR over these crimes against humanity. Turkey is paying the price for this neglect.
Let me remind readers that the Turkish half of Cyprus has been fighting for survival since 1963. Turkey has remained committed to Northern Cyprus over the past 51 years, not making even the slightest concession on the subject. Not even the prospect of EU membership—which is so important to Turkey—has been enough for Turkey to relinquish its commitment to Cyprus.
It would certainly be ideal for the pains of the past to be forgotten and for a union to be established with brotherhood, friendship and alliance, and for stability to be brought to the area. We have longed for this over the years. But if the US really wants a solution on Cyprus, it must forget about self-interest and develop the capacity to understand the Turkish side of the island, which has been fighting an existential battle for decades. This must be Washington’s priority if it wants to establish a meaningful, long-term influence on the island, as well as in Turkey and the rest of the Mediterranean, securing the much-needed energy pipelines to Europe.