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.