US President Trump’s recent decision to move the American Embassy in Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem has dominated international politics and media coverage. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a religious, political and territorial struggle well known across the globe.
However, territorial conflict is not unique to the Middle Eastern region. The site of a little known territorial dispute lies just 472 kilometres away, across the Mediterranean Sea, in a country that has been occupied for 44 years. This country is the most southern of the European Union nations, Cyprus.
For hundreds of years, Cyprus was home to a minority Turkish-Cypriot population. In the late 1960s to early 70s, there was significant internal political instability in the country following Cyprus’ declaration of independence from Britain. This was due to the rise of the EOKA-B, a military junta who campaigned against the then President Makarios and who fought for union with Greece. This period of turmoil was brought to an end in 1974 when the EOKA-B staged a successful coup d’état against the government.
Fearing that union with Greece would lead to Turkish-Cypriots losing rights in Cyprus, Turkish troops landed in and invaded northern Cyprus in July 1974. By mid-August, Turkey had occupied 40 per cent of the country, known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The invasion ultimately led to the displacement of thousands of Greek-Cypriots, as well as the deaths of Greek and Turkish-Cypriots alike. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is not recognised by any country other than Turkey.
At the end of last year, Turkish President Erdogan undertook an unexpected state visit to Greece. Since the failed coup in early 2017, Erdogan has lost many friends in the European region and the trip across the Aegean was believed to have been motivated by a desire to fix diplomatic relations with a country that is also unpopular in the region.
However, Erdogan should not have been so quick to assume that Greece would be wiling to mend old wounds. In a press conference with the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Erdogan stated that the reason the Cyprus issue is ongoing is because the Greek-Cypriots continue to walk away from negotiations.
In response, Tsipras clarified, “we must not forget that this issue remains open because forty three years ago it was an illegal invasion and occupation of the northern section of Cyprus.” Tspiras’ response made it clear that although Greece may have been willing to start building bridges across the Aegean, meaningful diplomatic relations are contingent on Turkey conceding to Cyprus on particular contentious matters.
So how is it possible that a country in one of the most peace-rich regions in the world remains so divided?
There are many similarities between the situations of Cyprus and Palestine. Most importantly, the countries’ belligerents, Turkey and Israel respectively, share one crucial commonality – they both have the unwavering support of the United States behind them.
In the international game of territories, it all comes down to whom you know. Although Turkey is not the most popular kid in the global playground at the moment, strategically they still have the two most important allies backing them – the United Kingdom and the United States. In 1974, the US Government placed an arms embargo on both Turkey and Cyprus, but President Carter lifted the embargo on Turkey just three years later. To this day, the embargo remains on Cyprus.
The UK and the US have had a long-standing tradition of supporting Turkey’s interest in the region due to its strategic position at the port of Europe and as a gateway to the Middle East – and this is unlikely to change in the near future. For example, the UK has two significant military bases in Cyprus, which provide it with ease of access to the Middle East.
Turkey and Cyprus have much shared history and culture. In 2017, we saw a push for change from all stakeholders, such as peace talks held in Switzerland in June-July. Although the situation in Cyprus is currently non-violent, the issue must be resolved in order to end the illegal Turkish occupation and allow for all people living on the island to live there peacefully and in unity.
The best hope for Cyprus is for a new generation of peacemakers to bring attention to the forgotten conflict and use common ground to help bring down the wire that divides a capital, a nation and a region.
Elena Christaki-Hedrick is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.