What is the US aiming for by lifting the Cyprus arms embargo?

Warships from Cyprus, Greece, Italy and France participate in a joint military exercise which was held from Aug. 26-28, south of Turkey in Eastern Mediterranean Sea. (AP)
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Updated 05 September 2020

What is the US aiming for by lifting the Cyprus arms embargo?

  • Uncertainty grows as tensions between warring sides already high in east Mediterranean region

ANKARA: A new element has been introduced to ongoing disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announcing on Tuesday that a 1987 arms embargo on Cyprus was being partially lifted.

Experts are divided about Washington’s motive and whether this decision is connected to Ankara’s maneuvers in contested waters where it is drilling for gas.
The US decision, which was strongly criticized by Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Ministry on Wednesday, gives the green light for non-lethal weapons sales to Cyprus for a year. Turkey made it clear that it would take unilateral action if Washington did not reconsider its decision.
Ankara said that the US move might discourage Greek leaders from engaging in long-standing reunification talks with the Turkish side of Cyprus.
But for Aaron Stein, who is director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the US decision was about Russia rather than Turkey.
“There is a strain of American thinking that is pushing for a US effort to begin to push back against Russian influence on the island,” he told Arab News.
Under the 2019 Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act, Washington has boosted ties with Greece and Cyprus and provided them with security assistance in a bid to stop Russian military vessels from docking and refueling at Cyprus’ Limassol Port.
According to Stein, Turkey is so unpopular that it has no support in US Congress to stop these efforts. “So, the US State Department folks that were pushing this line were able to get it through,” he added.
In the meantime, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced late Thursday that Greece and Turkey had agreed to enter into technical talks under NATO auspices to “establish deconfliction mechanisms and reduce the risk of incidents and accidents” in the eastern Mediterranean.
Joe Macaron, a Middle East foreign policy analyst at the Arab Center, thought there were growing voices inside the US administration that were pressuring President Donald Trump to push back against Turkish policy in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“And this pressure will only increase now that Turkey has signed a contract to deliver the second batch of Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems,” he told Arab News.
In late August Ankara and Moscow reportedly signed a contract to deliver a second consignment of air defense systems to Turkey, making it the first NATO member to buy such a system from Russia.
Macaron said that the pressure was evident in the recent US condemnation of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s meeting with Hamas, and now this partial lifting of the arms embargo on Cyprus. Both were issued by the US State Department not the White House, which meant Trump wanted to keep the lines open with Erdogan.
“The US is taking some distance from Turkey without necessarily siding with France in the Eastern Mediterranean tensions, as this decision is valid for 1 year only and is restricted to nonlethal military equipment,” Macaron said.
Greece and Turkey, which are both conducting extensive research for energy in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, have conflicting understandings of maritime boundaries together with the long-standing quarrel between Turkey and Cyprus over offshore gas reserves around the divided island since 1974.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, agreed that the US decision was part of an effort to distance Cyprus from Russia.
“The timing may be related to the upcoming US elections as there are around 1.4 million Americans with Greek descent as opposed to around 350,000 Americans with Turkish descent,” he told Arab News.
Nevertheless, Unluhisarcikli added, while this move would not change the military balance on the island in any way, the timing was unfortunate as it may be perceived by Greek Cypriots as an endorsement of their current policy and disincentivize the start of dialogue with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on the exploitation of the island’s energy resources.

In the meantime, Brussels is expected to discuss a list of possible sanctions against Turkey during a leaders’ meeting later this month.

Iranian asylum seeker stuck in limbo on divided Cyprus

Iranian singer Omid Tootian, 46, gestures during an interview at a coffee shop in the UN-controlled buffer zone in the Cypriot capital Nicosia, on September 23, 2020, where he's been stuck since mid-September. (AFP)
Updated 27 September 2020

Iranian asylum seeker stuck in limbo on divided Cyprus

  • Because his songs are very critical of the Iranian regime, Tootian fears that if he returns to the north of the island, he will first be sent back to Turkey and then to Iran

NICOSIA: Dissident Iranian singer Omid Tootian has for days been sleeping in a tent in the buffer zone of the world’s last divided capital, after being refused entry by the Republic of Cyprus.
“I can’t go to one side or the other,” the performer, in his mid-40s, whose songs speak out against Iranian authorities, told AFP. “I’m stuck living in the street.”
His tent is pitched between two checkpoints in western Nicosia, among the weeds outside an abandoned house in the quasi-“no man’s land” that separates the northern and southern parts of Cyprus, which has been divided since 1974.
In early September, he traveled to the north of the Mediterranean island, controlled by the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognized only by Ankara.
Two weeks later, Tootian, who had been living in Turkey for around three years, tried for the first time to seek asylum in the Republic of Cyprus, which controls the southern two-thirds of the island and is in the EU.  But once at the green line, the 180 -km buffer zone that traverses the island and is patrolled by UN peacekeepers, he was denied entry into the south.
Refusing to return to the TRNC, where he fears he would be in danger, Tootian found himself in limbo in the few hundred meters of land that divides the two territories.
“I don’t know why they haven’t approved my entry ... but I think it’s because of the coronavirus,” he said, speaking at the pro-unification Home for Cooperation community center in the buffer zone where he eats, grooms and spends most of his days.
“But I hope things will become clear because now I don’t know what will happen, and it’s a very difficult situation.”
Because his songs are very critical of the Iranian regime, Tootian fears that if he returns to the north of the island, he will first be sent back to Turkey and then to Iran.

Turkey is no longer a safe country for me because the Turkish regime is close to Iran.

Omid Tootian, Dissident Iranian singer

“Turkey is no longer a safe country for me because the Turkish regime is close to Iran,” he said, adding that he had for the past six months been receiving anonymous “threats” from unknown callers using private phone numbers.
In July, three Iranians were sentenced to death by the Islamic republic. Two of them had initially fled to Turkey and, according to the non-governmental group the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Turkish authorities cooperated with Tehran to repatriate them.
Since arriving at the checkpoint, Tootian has tried “four or five times” in a week to enter, without success, despite the help of a migrant rights advocacy group known as KISA and the UN mission in the buffer zone.
According to European and international regulations, Cyprus cannot expel an asylum seeker until the application has been considered and a final decision issued.
The police said “they have restrictions not to let anybody in,” KISA member Doros Polycarpou told AFP.
Cypriot police spokesman Christos Andreou said “it is not the responsibility of the police” to decide who can enter the Republic of Cyprus.
They “follow the instructions of the Ministry of Interior,” put in place “because of the pandemic,” he added.
According to the ministry, “all persons who are willing to cross from a legal entry point to the area controlled by the Republic must present a negative COVID-19 test carried out within the last 72 hours” — a requirement Tootian said he had fulfilled.
Polycarpou charges that the Cypriot “government has used the pandemic to restrict basic human rights.”
A spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Cyprus Emilia Strovolidou said “there are other means to protect asylum seekers and public health at the same time ... we can test people when they arrive or take quarantine measures.”
“We have someone who is seeking international protection, he should have access to the process,” she added.
Due to the closure of other migration routes to Europe, asylum applications have increased sixfold over the last five years in Cyprus — a country of fewer than 1 million inhabitants — from 2,265 in 2015 to 13,650 in 2019, according to Eurostat data.