On Tuesday, Secretary of State Tony Blinken called the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Cyprus Nikos Christodoulides. For those who have become accustomed to Washington, D.C. only dealing with Cyprus as the “Cyprus Problem” (i.e., the continued illegal occupation of the northern part of Cyprus since Turkey’s 1974 invasion), the tone and substance of the State Department’s statements were striking.
Ned Price, the State Department spokesperson, tweeted that “The [Republic of Cyprus] is a critical partner for regional stability, security, and prosperity.”
As if to underscore Cyprus’ role in this regional stability, the State Department’s official readout of the conversation included this: “The Secretary expressed support for the 3+1 mechanism, which includes the [Republic of Cyprus], Greece, Israel and the United States.”
The Pappas Post interviewed Endy Zemenides, the Executive Director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council, about how the “3+1” is shaping the US-Cyprus relationship.
PP: Why is the “3+1” so important to Cyprus?
EZ: A few years back, there was an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History called Cyprus: The Crossroads of Civilization.
This exhibition featured hundreds of artifacts that demonstrated quite clearly how Cyprus has, throughout the centuries, been a place where East met West, where North met South.
Those walking through the exhibition could see the footprints of history’s great empires – that of Alexander the Great, of the Romans, of the Byzantines. You saw the influence of the Egyptians, the Greeks returning from the Trojan War, the Venetians, of Richard the Lionheart. And even up through the 20th century, the Ottoman and British Empires played leading roles in Cyprus.
The Mediterranean is history’s “Middle Sea”, it is perhaps the great connector between civilizations and religions. It has been a roadway of sorts – actually it continues to be – for people crossing over from Asia and Africa to Europe and vice versa. And Cyprus sits right in the middle of the Eastern part of the Mediterranean.
Just by virtue of its location and the powers that surround it, Cyprus will never get to experience a totally calm and boring neighborhood. It will never be part of a region that is devoid of competition between regional – and sometimes even global – powers.
The “3 + 1” is critical to Cyprus because it is the best forum through which it can try to bring stability to a rough neighborhood. History is being made in the region, and it is the first time that 4 Western democracies are at the forefront of the process. Our former Foreign Minister compared this moment to the European Coal and Steel Community, which eventually led to the European Union.
This means Cyprus could be playing the same role as Belgium or Luxembourg – who teamed up with powers like Germany, France and Italy to bring peace, prosperity and a much brighter future to Europe.
PP: Why is Cyprus important to the “3+1” and by extension, to the United States?
I would like to once again refer back to The Crossroads of Civilization exhibit. The importance of Cyprus’ geography throughout the ages was obvious. It is equally obvious today. Cyprus is a speedboat ride away from Beirut – in fact, last year’s explosion in Beirut was felt in Cyprus. It is a 30 minute flight from Tel Aviv – the late Shimon Peres supported Cyprus’ candidacy because it brought the borders of the European Union so close to Israel.
American citizens escaping war in Lebanon were evacuated to Cyprus. During Hamas’ rocket fire on Tel Aviv Israel’s air traffic was diverted to Cyprus. British and French air operations against ISIS in Syria were launched from airfields in Cyprus.
If geography is indeed destiny, Cyprus is destined to play some type of role in significant regional issues for the foreseeable future.
The exhibit also provided evidence of multiple cultures interacting or at least crossing paths in Cyprus. We see the same pattern today. Greeks and Turks; Christians – Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Armenian – and Muslims all live side by side. As the recent Paphos meeting demonstrated, Cyprus is a diplomatic hub that has a familiar feel to Europeans, Israelis and Arabs and a cultural connection to each.
Finally, Crossroads of Civilization kicked off by explaining that a natural resource – back then, copper – drew the known world’s gaze to Cyprus. A decade ago, another resource – natural gas – drew similar attention. If at the turn of the century someone had sat in this chair and told you that Exon, Chevron, Total would be major corporate partners with Cyprus and dominant presences in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone, they would have been laughed out of the room. But here we are.
So, Cyprus brings hard assets with its geography and natural resources, and soft power, with it historical relationships and cultural ties, to the 3 + 1.
PP: What is the greatest threat to the “3+1” and to relations between Nicosia and Washington?
The easy answer here is Turkey. There is no question that Turkey sees the Eastern Mediterranean as its sphere of influence, perhaps the same way China sees the South China Sea. And like the case of China, Turkey is not happy about other actors in the region banding together to deny its regional primacy and is even more unhappy when the United States acts in concert with these actors.
But the region has been clear – as expressed through the communiques of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum and in bilateral discussions – that Turkey is welcome to be part of the spirit of cooperation and integration that is underway in the region. It just cannot pursue hegemony at the same time. There is a win-win-win for everyone involved, it just will not happen if Turkey insists on the negotiating strategy of “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine.”
So, at this point the biggest threat to the “3+1” is mixed or confused signaling by the United States. The U.S. must make it clear that its relations with the Cyprus-Greece-Israel trilateral, or bilateral relations with any of the three, are not part of negotiations over let’s say S400s or over Syria. Turkey’s relations with the “3+1” has to be dependent on its relationship with all four, not just with Washington, D.C. And I’m not sure Ankara has understood – or even been given – that message.
Take today’s readout for example. Secretary Blinken plainly rejects Turkey’s absurd insistence on two states (a Greek Cypriot one and a Turkish Cypriot one) as the basis for a solution to the Cyprus problem. Yet, in the same sentence he encourages both sides to demonstrate flexibility and compromise. Turkey is the occupier, Turkey refuses to recognize the very existence of the Republic of Cyprus, Turkey is insisting on things that are contrary to UN Security Council resolutions and US policy.
PP: What do you think the future holds for US-Cyprus relations?
I am still bullish on that front. The US and the Republic of Cyprus have converged on strategic and economic matters more in the last decade than they had in the five previous decades. There are still too many foreign policy professionals in the US that view Cyprus mainly as the Cyprus problem, or the Republic of Cyprus as merely the Greek Cypriot community. But they are wrong, and an increasing number of policy makers and thought leaders recognize this.
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As Eastern Mediterranean integration and cooperation advances, Cyprus has an integral and indispensable role to play, and soon enough conventional wisdom in Washington D.C. will treat Cyprus as a “solution” rather than as a “problem”.