Unforced errors in US-Cyprus relations


In the pages of this newspaper, analyst after analyst – myself included – has celebrated a high point in the Greece-US relationship. Most peg the beginning of this high point to 2015 and the Obama administration’s efforts to avoid a messy Grexit.

2015 can also be remembered for a significant missed opportunity in another bilateral relationship – that between Cyprus and the US. Just one year earlier, Vice President Joe Biden had conducted a celebrated official visit to Cyprus, one that raised the hopes of both solving the Cyprus problem and establishing a new strategic partnership.

Positive developments in the Cyprus negotiations followed, but the promise in the bilateral relationship was not realized.

In fact, the Cyprus negotiations have consistently dictated the course of relations between the US and the Republic of Cyprus.

From the stubborn insistence on sticking with the arms embargo on Cyprus (and thus preventing a closer security relationship between Washington and Nicosia), to reportedly making a meeting with the US vice president conditional on President Nicos Anastasiades’s commitment to attend negotiations at Mont Pelerin, to having uniformed Turkish occupation troops attend receptions for the US ambassador in Nicosia, there were several instances over two years that left one wondering whether Biden’s declaration of Cyprus as a “strategic partner” was really US policy or another instance of the vice president going off script.

Then in December 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry took his long-anticipated trip to Cyprus. Having just sealed his Iran nuclear deal, there was speculation that Kerry would focus on Cyprus and include another “peace plan” in the Obama administration’s foreign policy legacy.

Kerry’s trip to Cyprus started the day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to the island. Multiple sources noted that Kerry was nowhere near as fluent on the Cyprus issue as Lavrov. Combined with what came across as an artificial timeline (that there should be a push to wrap up negotiations before the presidential campaign in the Republic of Cyprus got into full swing) by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, the US’s standing as honest broker in the Cyprus negotiations took a hit.

US diplomacy failed to realize the tremendous prospects raised by Biden’s visit, and the hope raised in 2014 started to fade.

December 2015 came to mind last week after Ambassador Jonathan Cohen – the acting US permanent representative to the United Nations – spoke on the resolution reauthorizing the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).

Over the years, the withdrawal of UNFICYP has been dangled in front of Greek Cypriots in order to force them to reconsider their negotiating strategy. Over the past few months, there was much angst that such a tactic was going to be employed again.

Some of the worst fears seemed to be unsubstantiated as UNFICYP was unanimously reauthorized, and the change in its mandate – pushed for by Turkey and Turkish Cypriots – was not seriously considered. Then Cohen stepped up to the microphone. Two lines in his remarks – “on principle, perpetual peacekeeping missions are unacceptable” and “we will not support the status quo for missions where political processes are stalled” – caused quite a stir.

One headline responded, “United States issues a strong warning in the Security Council tying UNFICYP mandate to progress in the negotiations.” Another analyst tweeted, “US was very clear that UNFICYP has to go if there are no negotiations by July (yes it only takes one veto).”

To be fair, a full reading of Cohen’s remarks makes it clear that his main purpose was to respond to Russian complaints about US peacekeeping principles in their remarks.

Furthermore, Cohen did not lay out the marker of negotiations by July as the only definition of a political process that is no longer stalled. Finally, characterizing these remarks as a win for Turkish positions on Cyprus ignores that there was not even a comprehensive review of UNFICYP’s mandate, much less a change to that mandate. The sky is not falling (yet).

The bigger problem is that the hope of 2014 was diminished a bit more. Diplomacy is an art, and often involves nuanced signaling that leads to action.

Yet last week’s signaling is as likely to encourage Turkey to dig in and see if it can realize its goal of altering UNFICYP’s mandate as it is to kick-start fruitful negotiations. And it is about time one wondered out loud as to what would happen if UNFICYP were to withdraw.

The US has argued that peacekeepers are generally meant to work themselves out of a job. But let’s remember their first charge: to keep the peace. If UNFICYP goes, what will the countervailing measure be? Will Greece make its defense of Cyprus more robust? Will Nicosia invite other militaries to play a role in Cyprus? Will the frozen conflict on the island thaw into a dangerous flashpoint rather than peace?

There are also consequences to the bilateral relationship. It is no exaggeration that the Anastasiades government has taken a more pro-American orientation than any of its predecessors. But there has been no tipping point in bilateral relations that would elicit the same “best ever” observations we’re hearing in Greece.

The US Embassy in Nicosia also has a trickier job than its counterpart in Athens, as part of its mandate is to maintain a strong relationship with Turkish Cypriots. Yet Foggy Bottom has not yet realized that making the bilateral relationship with the Republic of Cyprus significantly stronger could have positive effects on the Cyprus problem while the reverse is not necessarily true.

There are plenty of reasons to expect significant and positive movement on both the US-Cyprus relationship and the Cyprus problem. But present US diplomacy on Cyprus is lacking, and solely to the benefit of Russia – which wouldn’t favor progress on either front.

Endy Zemenides is executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.