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Time For The U.S. To Get Serious – And Honest – On Cyprus

By on February 16, 2014
Endy Zemenides

Endy Zemenides

With what was described as an “attaboy” call from Vice President Joe Biden to Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, the latest resumption of reunification negotiations in Cyprus began with a signal of more direct U.S. involvement than in the recent past.  As comforting as it may be to have the friendly Biden on the line rather than a Henry Kissinger, the Obama Administration has to work to regain trust on Cyprus if it wants to seize this historic moment and facilitate the reunification of Cyprus.

The history of U.S. involvement in Cyprus is not a positive one.  Henry Kissinger’s role in the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 makes him one of the reviled figures in Cypriot history and was included in the “bill of indictment” detailed by Christopher Hitchens in his Trial of Henry Kissinger. Then there is the State Department’s 40 year allergy when it comes to using the words “invasion” and “occupation.” Most recently, officials at the National Security Council, State Department, and even the U.S. Ambassador in Nicosia during much of the first term were considered adversarial – if not hostile – to Greek-Cypriots.

Why might this year or this round of negotiations be any different?  Although the case of characters may be different on the U.S. side, 40 years of occupation and frustration has tempered confidence in any U.S. Administration.  However, at least five new factors create atmospherics that may lead to a more positive U.S. role:


The discovery of hydrocarbons – natural gas and oil – in the Eastern Mediterranean is most definitely a game changer.  When it comes to the Greece-Cyprus-Israel triangle, it is an opportunity to have the first Western, democratically controlled source of energy in the region. It will help Europe’s energy independence, and give U.S. foreign policy greater flexibility vis a vis energy exporting states like Russia and Iran.  Greece, Cyprus and Israel are cooperating with Egypt, and the U.S. clearly is invested in the idea that the revolutionary potential of these energy finds are best assured if Turkey is part of the equation as well.  With Turkey the only one of these states without its own sources of energy, it has to come to terms with Cyprus and Israel in order to be part of these new energy alliances.

The Players in Athens and Nicosia

For perhaps the first time ever, it can be argued that both Greece and Cyprus have the leaders that the U.S. prefers.  This increases the pressure on Washington.  If they do bolster Samaras and Anastasiades – or make them back another disaster like the Annan Plan – they risk new leadership that is less committed to closer relations with the U.S.  With Russia and China trying to gain influence in the Eastern Mediterranean – while the U.S. is also trying to pivot to Asia – taking this risk would not be wise for U.S. policymakers.

The limits of Turkey’s hubris

The “most favored nation” and “most favored leader” status that Turkey and Erdogan respectively enjoyed during President Obama’s first term has been temporarily lost.  During his trip to Washington in May, Erdogan managed to turn off even traditional supporters of Turkey, and enraged critics.  The GeziPark protests in the summer and present political crisis have ended descriptions in Washington of Turkey as a model Muslim democracy.  And as quantitative easing slowly ends in the U.S., there is a realization that Turkey’s “economic miracle” was largely based on cheap dollars, and that there is still much economic reform to be had.  Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy has morphed into hostility with Israel and Egypt, divergence with the U.S. on Iran, problems with Iraq, and a questionable role in Syria (all on top of its bullying of Greece, Cyprus and Armenia.)  If there ever was a time for “big brother” in Washington to tell Turkey that it needs to get its act straightened out, it is now.

What can the Obama Administration realistically do?  After all, even it has been the target of Erdogan’s hostile rhetoric.  The President, however, can take a page out of his own playbook when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  Last Spring, the Anastasiades government put a bold confidence building measure centered around Famagusta on the table.  It was dismissed as out of hand by Turkey, and U.S. officials stated that it might be a “bridge too far” for Turkey at this point.  It is time for the Obama Administration to pressure Turkey to come up with a measure that is at least as impactful.  Just as the President pressured Israel to freeze settlement activity, he must convince Turkey to suspend altering Cyprus’ demographics with settlers from Turkey, transferring/selling occupied properties, and construction in occupied Cyprus.

A historic moment may be upon us.  The Republic of Cyprus has shown a willingness to step up and be part of history.  There are serious questions about Turkey and indeed about the U.S.  Throwing out a solution for the sake of a solution will not work.  One unworkable solution went down in flames in 2004.  President Obama and Secretary Kerry are simultaneously working on the two longest standing issues before the UN Security Council (Israeli-Palestinian peace and Cyprus).  It is time that they treated both with the same amount of care and creativity.

About Endy Zemenides

Endy Zemenides is the Executive Director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC), a national advocacy organization for the Greek American community. To learn more about HALC, visit www.hellenicleaders.com