Geopolitical Shifts Will Enable Cyprus’ Reunification

Controlling the Aegean Sea, and hence Cyprus, is a priority for neither Greece nor Turkey anymore.

Canadian peacekeepers patrol the airport of Nicosia, Cyprus, September 8, 1974
Canadian peacekeepers patrol the airport of Nicosia, Cyprus, September 8, 1974 (UN/Yutaka Nagata)

In 1974, Turkish forces invaded Cyprus, splitting the island into a Turkish north and a Greek Cypriot south. Now, for the first time in decades, unification seems at hand. Once the sorest point for the NATO alliance, the Cyprus dispute may soon be consigned to the dustbin of history.

What’s happened here? Why has everyone suddenly started acting so reasonable?

The short answer: the geopolitical conditions that caused the 1974 war are dead and buried.

Ruling the Aegean

Those conditions were hinged on who dominated the Aegean Sea. While Cyprus isn’t in the Aegean, the entire conflict was wrapped up in the heated dispute between Athens and Ankara over who would rule the wine-dark seas of Homer.

The Aegean is relatively easy to cross: littered with harbor-friendly islands, it was the key trade route between Asia and Europe in ancient times. Any power based in Greece or Anatolia seeks to secure it and enjoy the accompanying prosperity.

Ancient Persia tried to secure it through the Persian Wars. Rome actually did secure it through piecemeal conquest. Its successor state, the Byzantine Empire, survived largely because it held the Aegean — and was undone when it lost its monopoly on it. The Ottomans were strongest when the Aegean was a Turkish lake; as Europeans pried islands away from it, Ottoman power was fatally undermined.

This pattern continued well through the twentieth century. As Greece gained independence from the Ottomans, it sought to take advantage of the tottering empire by grabbing up Aegean islands. This culminated in the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-22 in which Athens tried to build a Greater Greece that could dominate the whole of the Aegean Sea.

Part of that Greater Greece would have been Cyprus.

Checking Anatolian power

The value of Cyprus is as a base to flank any power in Anatolia.

To hold Cyprus means forcing any Anatolian-based power to deploy forces to protect its long southern coastline. This thins Anatolian power and would make it easier for a Greek power to dominate the all-important Aegean Sea.

Britain understood this well enough; it annexed Cyprus in 1914 and used it as a staging point to wage war on the Ottomans during World War I and against the Axis powers in Greece during World War II.

Vast British military bases still dominate the island. In a pinch, such bases are used to deploy power throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, which includes the Suez Canal.

Proxy war

As British power waned in the 1950s, the regional power vacuum was filled by Greek and Turkish nationalism.

Both Greece and Turkey were threatened by Soviet power: Greece had had a communist-backed civil war in the 1940s and Turkey shared a border with the Soviet Union. Both saw the Soviet Union as the greater threat and joined NATO. But that did not halt their competition to control the Aegean.

Because Cyprus was a mixed ethnic island with very few communists and two large NATO bases, the Greek-Turkish competition could continue there in relatively safety.

Given Cyprus’ Greek majority, the Greeks had the upper hand. Propelled by a right-wing military junta back in Athens in the 1960s, Cyprus got close to unifying with Greece before a Turkish invasion split the island in two.

That two NATO allies almost got into a shooting war frightened the rest of democratic Europe. Much diplomatic energy was put into freezing the conflict to Cyprus’ detriment. Ethnic cleansing took place to solidify the two proto-states and then everyone got to ignoring the island for the next forty years.

Putting the conflict to rest

But now geopolitical competition over the Aegean has shifted in form and a broken Cyprus benefits no one.

With the rise of the European Union and the primacy of NATO in Europe, neither Greece nor Turkey can hope to achieve total domination of the Aegean; neither, for that matter, much wants to anymore. No longer seeing either as their biggest threat, Greece and Turkey have no use for a Cypriot proxy war anymore.

But Cypriot elites had settled into a relative comfort with their respective roles. Forty years will build habits in any situation. Cyprus could well have muddled along divided had other key powers seen no value to igniting talks for unification.

Cyprus’ division has cost the island dearly. In 2013, it needed bailouts to save its tottering banking system. This roused the interest of the EU, which had allowed Greek Cyprus to join the eurozone. The United States, meanwhile, sees a place for cheap soft power points: to unify Cyprus is to stabilize NATO and win easy goodwill as a peacemaker. It simplifies NATO’s security situation in the Eastern Mediterranean while allowing America the propaganda of a peace deal.

Russia is the only power that might seek to keep Cyprus divided, but Moscow lacks the influence to change the geopolitical calculation of its reunification. It has no cultural or ideological bedfellows on the island; its tenuous guardianship of Orthodox Christians is a stretch on the best of days. Russia is wisely avoiding picking a fight it cannot win.

Now the impetus is toward a simpler, easier-to-traverse Mediterranean. Cyprus should benefit. So long as the EU and NATO provide an economic and security structure to Europe in general and Greece and Turkey in particular, the island’s reunification is a matter of time. The fiction of a Turkish republic can be buried. Cypriots can start making up for lost time.

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