Anywhere from the capital of Nicosia, day and night, Greek Cypriots can see a giant flag painted into the mountains in the north, in a separate region that calls itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It is an area that is recognized only by Turkey and isolated internationally.
From the Greek side of the island of Cyprus, the flag is a provocative reminder that the 45-year-old conflict between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots is still a stark reality.
While hopes had been raised that new talks on unfreezing the conflict would find momentum after the United Nations General Assembly opened its annual session in September, Turkey’s invasion in northeast Syria this month and difficulties finding common ground in Cyprus are shuffling the cards.
With much of the world’s attention suddenly diverted on Syria in the latest fighting there, optimism is fading fast that the two sides in the Cyprus conflict will meet with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to resume talks, as planned. (The UN has one of its longest-lasting peacekeeping missions in Cyprus.)
After talks collapsed most recently in 2017, Guterres gave the two parties time to find the right mind-set to begin finding a resolution again.
The negotiations were supposed to occur in September or early October, but no announcement has been made as to when a tripartite meeting among Guterres and Greek and Turkish Cypriots will happen. Parties involved in the negotiations say they won’t meet before mid-November, at the earliest.
“No, there’s no news on Cyprus,” a spokesperson for Guterres said this week, when asked about a meeting.
[Update: on Oct. 25, Guterres’s spokesperson said the two leaders in the conflict have accepted his “invitation to an informal meeting to discuss the next steps in the Cyprus issue,” on Nov. 25 in Berlin.]
Turkey’s controversial incursion in northeast Syria has already created collateral consequences in Cyprus, a strategic island between the East and the West, in the Mediterranean Sea.
“Turkey’s actions in Syria create a sentiment of distrust towards it,” Zenonas Tziarras, a Greek Cypriot and a researcher at Prio Cyprus Center, a think tank, and a co-founder of Geopolitical Cyprus, told PassBlue from Nicosia.
“Many Greek Cypriots think that if they [the Turks] can do it in Syria, they could do it in Cyprus too.”
With decades of tensions and many failed negotiations, both sides have grown to distrust each other, which is why restarting new talks are considered essential. In fact, since the two sides do not talk to each other, the only avenue to a resolution is through the UN.
Andreas Mavroyiannis, Cyprus’s ambassador to the UN, said of Turkey’s recent action in Syria, “You can question if it’s a time in which you can really talk with Turkey.”
Another side-effect of Turkey’s offensive in Syria for Cypriots is that it distracts attention from big powers that keep an eye on Cyprus, such as Britain, the United States and Russia.
“The Republic of Cyprus usually counts on other actors to put pressure on Turkey, but right now there’s no leverage over Turkey on Cyprus,” Tziarras said.
Turkey is one of three international guarantors overseeing negotiations, along with Greece and Britain, between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. They have been at war passively and actively since 1974. That year, Turkey invaded the island after a Greek coup, allegedly to protect the community of Turkish Cypriots there, and Turkey’s troops never left.
Turkey’s direct role in Cyprus negotiations is imperative, as Turkish Cypriots rely heavily on the government for military, economic and political support. Turkey has about 35,000 soldiers stationed in northern Cyprus, while the UN has 1,100, based at its mission in Nicosia.
“In the missing of a deal in Cyprus, there’s a missing of legal status for Turkish Cypriots, so it creates serious problems of lack of representation, participation to the international community,” Kudret Ozersay, the foreign minister of the Turkish Cypriot community, told PassBlue in September.
Since Turkey invaded Syria this month, the president of the Turkish Cypriot community has been critical of President Erdogan: Mustafa Akinci wrote in Facebook that the situation is not black and white, a daring comment by Akinci, who is expected to align with Ankara, Turkey’s capital. Erdogan was furious with this statement, saying in a press conference in Turkey that it “had gone beyond his limits and needed to know his limits.”
For Ambassador Mavroyiannis of Cyprus at the UN, it took Akinci “courage” to speak against Erdogan and shows how he tried to distinguish himself as a Cypriot and not only as a Turk.
Akinci is up for re-election in 2020, so criticizing Erdogan may be political. “He’s trying to show that he’s not a puppet of Turkey,” Tziarras, the Cypriot researcher, said.
But from the perspective of the UN, despite lasting animosity between the Cyprus halves, the conflict is relatively stable and solvable.
“As soon as he took office, he got involved on the question of Cyprus,” Mavroyiannis said of Guterres, “only 12 days after the assumption of his duties. . . . I honestly believe that we stand a chance with him. I believe in his commitment. Of course, if he succeeds, it will be very good for his legacy, but I don’t believe that he does it for his legacy!”
Cypriot media reported this week that Jane Holl Lute, the UN envoy to Cyprus, who doesn’t talk to the media about her work, is expected to travel to the island in November, to prepare a possible tripartite meeting. That plan is not confirmed by the UN.
The grab for natural gas
Another major issue stalling progress in resolving the Cyprus conflict is Turkey’s drilling of natural gas offshore of Cyprus. Turkey has not signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; moreover, it disagrees with three articles of the convention, including one stating that islands, like Cyprus, have maritime jurisdiction.
When Greek Cypriots discovered natural gas offshore, Turkey started drilling there too. Cyprus signed an Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) agreement with some of its neighbors — Egypt, Israel and Lebanon — and has started an “energy triangle” project to pipe natural gas with Israel and Greece from offshore Cyprus. Turkey is livid.
“The Greek Cypriot side has unilateral EEZ claims in the same area, overlapping partially with our continental shelf, thus unrecognized by Turkey,” Memet Mevlut Yakut, Turkey’s deputy ambassador to the UN, told PassBlue.
The European Union and the US call Turkey’s drilling “illegal,” but for Greek Cypriots, Turkey’s drilling is also a blatant disregard of negotiating a peace agreement.
“We are victims of the idea and policy in the Mediterranean Sea of Turkey,” Ambassador Mavroyiannis of Cyprus said. “They are not a party of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, and their idea is that islands don’t have [a] maritime zone, but it has nothing to do with international law.”
Turkey contends it merely wants Turkish Cypriots to have equal access to the island’s resources.
“Unless the Greek Cypriots include the Turkish Cypriots as equal partners of the island into the decision-making mechanisms regarding hydrocarbon resources or cease their unilateral hydrocarbon activities, we will continue to protect the continental shelf rights of the Turkish Cypriots as well,” Yakut, Turkey’s deputy ambassador to the UN, told PassBlue.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated that position when he visited Greece earlier this month.
“We’ve made clear that operations in international waters are governed by a set of rules,” he said. “We’ve told the Turks that illegal drilling is unacceptable and we’ll continue to take diplomatic actions to . . . ensure that lawful activity takes place.”
The US citing a “set of rules” may be disingenuous, given that it is not a member of the Law of the Sea treaty either.
Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.