The newest person to venture into kick-starting talks between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots on the long-divided island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean is Jane Holl Lute. She is an American with a military and national-security background who has been assigned the task by the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres. Since the two sides on Cyprus do not talk to each other, the only avenue to peace is through the UN.
Lute is currently the UN’s point person on handling allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the organization, but she has been with the UN on and off for about a decade. Notably, she was an executive in the UN’s peacekeeping and peace-building departments. She has not worked, however, on the political side of UN affairs, so Cyprus is a new foray for her.
Her challenge is to test “the mood” of the two sides dividing Cyprus, said Guterres’s spokesman. The main goal of past talks, held many times over many decades, has been to reunite the island. That remains the ambition for new conversations.
But what is the reason for yet another attempt to resolve Cyprus? Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the UN, is demanding that the situation on the island change. The US may try to downsize the UN peacekeeping mission that has been present since 1964, if talks don’t resume. But a well-placed diplomat doubts that all members of the UN Security Council, which must authorize any change in the mission’s status, agree with Haley. Moreover, John Bolton, the US national security adviser, appears to be behind the demand for change regarding the Cyprus mission, as he has also pushed for the UN mission in Western Sahara to end soon if peace talks don’t begin again.
“There is no change in the situation on the ground that would justify drastic changes to the operation,” the diplomat said, referring to Unficyp, or the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus. “Even if the situation is calm, this could change if Unficyp is unable to fulfill its mandate.”
Russia said it would not let the mission shut — although the US could veto the renewal of Unficyp come January, pitting Haley against four other Council powers: Britain, China, France and Russia, who all hold a veto as well. Yet the resolution renewing the mission for six more months, approved in July, stressed that “the status quo is unsustainable,” apparently a reference inserted by the US.
The other important country on the Council to follow on the matter is Britain, Cyprus’s former colonizer. On Aug. 2, Stephen Hickey, the political coordinator with the British mission to the UN, said that after Lute relays the results of her meetings overseas to the Security Council in the fall, “We will calculate the next step in the political process.”
As part of the mission’s renewal, the Security Council required that everyone in the dispute “commit fully to a settlement process, using United Nations consultations to restart negotiations.” The US mission to the UN has a resident expert on the island: Haley’s No. 2, Jonathan R. Cohen, served as deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, covering Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, from 2016 until 2018. He was also deputy chief of mission in Nicosia, the island’s capital, from 2008-2011, so presumably he knows the politics well.
The last time talks approached a breakthrough occurred in early 2017, but it all suddenly fell apart. Some media reports suggested Russian meddling caused the collapse — its strategic interests in Cyprus are formidable, starting with the island’s placement between Europe and Asia. (Russians also flock to the beaches in Cyprus, as do Britons. Cyprus is also a major tax haven.) What Lute can produce over the next few months will be watched by many players in many capitals, from London to Ankara, Moscow to Washington, Athens and Brussels.
Lute has been meeting the relevant parties, including the security guarantors — Greece, Turkey and Britain — before she submits her results to Guterres in September. Lute declined to answer questions about her assignment, and the UN spokesman’s office declined to provide her travel agenda or other details.
“Mrs. Lute has started talking to the parties about resuming the talks, but it’s still early to say whether there is readiness by all to do so and whether the chances of success look good enough,” the well-placed diplomat told PassBlue.
President Nicos Anastasiades of Cyprus briefed Lute on the Greek Cypriot side’s positions, according to a report in In-Cyprus on July 23. The president expressed “his readiness for the resumption of the Cyprus negotiations.”
Lute’s meeting on July 30 with the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, was noted in equally bland terms by him on Twitter: “We shared our vision on the settlement of the Cyprus issue with Ms. Lute, the official assigned by the UN secretary-general.”
The conflict on Cyprus has been on low boil ever since hatreds spilled into violence in 1974, when the Greeks mounted a coup on the island — to unify with Greece — and the Turkish military intervened, resulting in its control of most of the north. The UN peacekeeping mission has been providing stability, by most accounts, since 1964, after fighting erupted just years after the island’s independence from Britain.
If the mission is gone, a diplomat said, that could present a serious disadvantage for all Cypriots — but not for Turkey itself, which reportedly keeps about 40,000 troops on its side. The UN calls Cyprus one of the most militarized places per capita on earth.
As to whether Turkey would send troops and fighter jets into the southern half of the island is impossible to predict. Cyprus may be the last item on Turkey’s priority list as it contends with a severe economic shock and argues with President Trump on tariffs. It could also be the first item.
The UN’s job on Cyprus is to supervise cease-fire lines and maintain the buffer zone. Unficyp has been pared to the bone: the military consists of 753 men and 54 women; police officers total 43 men and 22 women. Nicosia is the capital for both sides, and a Green Line that splits the island runs right through the city, with the Turkish Cypriots in the north and the Greek Cypriot community in the south, a buffer zone separating the two.
Unficyp is led by Elizabeth Spehar, a Canadian. The majority of the troops come from Britain. The strange role of Greece, Turkey and Britain as guarantors of security on Cyprus is based on a treaty whose legitimacy is bound to be questioned again in future talks. Another barrier to a resolution is the Greek Cypriots’ demand that Turkey’s troops leave. That is unlikely.
“I am convinced that Cyprus has remained calm and stable throughout the years in large measure because of the unwavering presence of UNFICYP, its preventive and deterrent capabilities and its role in defusing tensions,” Guterres said in his latest report on the mission. “During this long period, UNFICYP has preserved the trust of the opposing forces, ensuring that incidents do not escalate, cause tensions or disrupt ongoing negotiations.”
Yet a UN official conceded the time was right to “unstick the process” for talks. Guterres has a lot riding on Lute’s exploratory visits. A UN-led conference in Switzerland, held in August 2017 between the Cypriot sides, fizzled. This time, Guterres may not want another embarrassment.
One officer in the mission who asked to not be identified, told PassBlue, “Everything is peaceful for more than 10 years.” The UN police, for example, do such things as investigate crimes by non-UN personnel in the buffer zone. The officer’s opinion on what would change if the mission closed? Nothing.
The mission operates on a shoestring. As of July 1, its annual budget is $53 million, having taken a hit of about $2 million from the previous year. Of the total amount, the Cypriot and Greek governments pay nearly half. The US share of the UN’s expenses for the mission is about 28 percent, a relative pittance.
So money does not appear to be the primary motive of the US. Haley has made it clear since her arrival at the UN that it needed strict economizing, starting with its peacekeeping missions, and that they must be accompanied with peace efforts. Haley and her team have not offered a peace plan for Cyprus, however, a diplomat said.
Applying ultimatums to peacekeeping missions could be naive, especially if ending them could lead to bloody conflict. Haley’s corporate approach may have been useful for some people in South Carolina when she was a governor there. She was credited with wooing industries like Boeing and BMW to the state — or ensuring their stay — with incentives of low minimum wages, minimal corporate taxes and anti-union policies — but that model may not apply to peace operations in foreign countries.
Even a brief visit to South Carolina reveals a stark economic divide between cities and small towns, including in Haley’s hometown of Bamberg, which no longer has a supermarket or a hospital. Part of its main street is lined with mostly empty storefronts.
At the UN, the US is also gearing up to drop its annual scale of contributions to peacekeeping from 28 percent to 25 percent, when negotiations on assessments begin in the fall, several UN officials have said.
After the Swiss talks on Cyprus died out in 2017, local media sites opined on the seeming futility of it all. One commenter summed it up, writing: “TCs [Turkish Cypriots] will not accept no guarantees from anybody else other than Turkey and GCs [Greek Cypriots] will not accept any guarantees that involved Turkey. No amount of talking will resolve this.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.