Cyprus Becomes The Latest Focus In US-Turkey Spat

Since the Iraq War, relations between the United States and Turkey have fallen from their post-Second World War height. After Turkish President Recep Erdogan recently successfully bullied US President Donald Trump into not recognizing the Armenian Genocide, he is once again issuing threats against US policy he dislikes, this time with possible regional consequences.

Point Of Conflict: US Military Aid To Cyprus

A pair of bills passed by the US Congress on Tuesday would effectively end an arms embargo on Cyprus and provide $1.5 million for military education and training between 2020 to 2022. The Senate overwhelmingly approved of the embargo lift, which was attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual spending bill required to fund the American military. The House of Representatives followed it up with legislation providing security aid. Trump has expressed support for both bills, which will become law with his signature. 

Energy Competition And Occupation In Cyprus

The Congressional acts come as a response to Turkish aggression in the Turkish-held area of Northern Cyprus, which it has held since 1974. Ankara recently sent a drone into waters off the Cyprus coast while ships searched for hydrocarbons in what has become an important Mediterranean resource-pool for the nation. 

The US has refused to recognize Turkey’s claims to northern Cyprus and has maintained a very positive relationship with the island state since 1960. Under Trump, the two nations signed a security agreement in 2018. Aside from the territorial and resource dispute between Cyprus and Turkey, Israel is another factor in the equation. In November, Cyprus sealed a $9 billion gas deal with Israel-based Delek, UK-Dutch oil company Shell, and Noble Energy, US. 

The Israeli component is reason enough for the US to back Cyprus, but Israel is negotiating with both Cyprus and Turkey to build gas lines in both nations. Nonetheless, Cyprus would like to defend its ability to leverage its own resources instead of relinquishing them to Turkish businesses.

“By including this legislation in the government funding package, the United States Congress is recognizing our significant national security interests in the eastern Mediterranean,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, after introducing the NDAA. “Bolstered by strong and expanding relationships with Greece, Israel and Cyprus, this commonsense legislation will drastically strengthen our bonds of friendship through joint efforts to promote peace, prosperity and security for our nations.”

Ankara’s Angry Reaction To US Support For Cyprus

Ankara called the US Congressional action “hostile” and warned that the move to end the American embargo would be a “dangerous escalation.” Turkey also protested its continued exclusion from the F-35 fighter jet program, a move prompted by Turkey’s decision to procure Russian air defense equipment instead of American. 

The passage of the legislation “will have no outcome other than hampering efforts towards a settlement on the island and creating a dangerous escalation”, the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement.

As a response, Turkey is considering deploying F-16 fighters to northern Cyprus where it maintains a standing army 35,000 strong and frequently dispatches drones from an airport there.

How Russia Also Figures Into This Crisis

The dispute over Cyprus is a continuation of the rift between Ankara and Washington over use of Russian military technology. Although Trump has repeatedly praised Erdogan, the two leaders cannot seem to reach an agreement. The US, seeking to maintain its influence over the region, desires to keep Russia locked out. There is also a financial side, something Trump boasted proudly about when Saudi Arabia committed to purchasing American defense equipment. Surely Trump would rather see those dollars go to US companies? Removing Turkey from the F-35 program did not convince Turkey to abandon its deal with Moscow, and the US has floated the idea of more sanctions.

“The language of threats and sanctions will never dissuade Turkey from resolutely taking steps to ensure its national security,” said the Turkish foreign ministry. “No one should doubt that necessary measures will be taken against these initiatives targeting Turkey.”

Unable to keep Turkey away from Russia, the US is now trying to secure its hold on Cyprus. In return for the military aid, Nicosia must refuse port access to Russian military ships. In 2015, Cyprus and Russia inked a deal granting such access.

Cyprus is only the latest development in the rift between Washington and Ankara, one born of a desire to solidify the region for American military manufacturers over its adversary and to keep sensitive military technology out of Russian hands. The conflict has never been about Turkey itself, although the perceived slight by an ally does little to help the situation.