In 1987, the US Department of State placed the Republic of Cyprus on a list of countries to which sales and transfers of defense articles and services is prohibited under the International Trade in Arms Regulations (ITAR). The reason for the prohibition has never been clear. However, it appears to have been imposed in the erroneous belief that it would somehow encourage Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots to resolve the nearly 45-year division of the territory of Cyprus.
In December 2018, members of Congress (including this commentary’s co-author) sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in which the Department of State was urged to remove Cyprus from the ITAR list. The members asserted Cyprus should never have been placed on the ITAR list because Cyprus does not and never did fall within any of the ITAR categories which warrant the prohibition. They also asserted the State Department has the regulatory authority to remove Cyprus from the ITAR list without legislation.
In its response to the letter, the State Department stated that a policy of prohibition may apply “whenever an export of defense articles or defense services would not otherwise be in furtherance of world peace and the security and foreign policy of the United States.” The response also acknowledged Cyprus has “a shared interest in combating terrorism, enhancing maritime and border security, and promoting regional stability,” and the United States is exploring an enhanced security relationship with Cyprus.
In fact, the State Department’s letter cites last year’s statement of intent between the two countries as an example. The topic has even been raised in bilateral discussions as recently as this month’s meeting between Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Palmer and President of the Republic of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades.
Therefore, the State Department’s response is at odds with itself. Either Cyprus is a threat to peace, stability and US security interests or it is a reliable ally which promotes regional stability and security. It cannot be both.
Since the day Turkey invaded in 1974, it has occupied the territory of Cyprus and excluded the lawful owners from their property. Most recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has explored and drilled in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Republic of Cyprus, activities which violate international law. It is these unlawful acts, as well as the occupation, which impede any resumption of settlement negotiations.
However, no progress toward a peaceful and just settlement has occurred since the prohibition was imposed in 1987. The lack of progress is due to Turkish intransigence most recently demonstrated by Turkey’s insistence on antiquated and obstructive stances, such as the Treaty of Guarantee, which would allow for future unilateral Turkish military interventions and is completely unacceptable and contradicts the governing principals of a European Union member-state.
The portion of the territory of Cyprus which Turkey occupies should remain on the ITAR list. It is the presence of the 40,000-strong Turkish occupation force which falls into the four categories of the ITAR list.
It is time to lift the arms prohibition on Cyprus. It is as anachronistic as Turkey’s perspective on the Cyprus issue – after all, Nicosia is the last divided European capital. It is in the best interests of the United States for Cyprus to look to the United States, and not any other nation, to procure its defense articles. A provision in the recently introduced Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019 will accomplish this task if the State Department is not willing to do it on its own accord.
Gus Bilirakis is a member of the House of Representatives and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Issues. Nick Larigakis is president of the American Hellenic Institute.