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A Little Something New: Cyprus Talks Begin
A Little Something New: Cyprus Talks Begin
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?

A Little Something New: Cyprus Talks Begin

On 11 February 2014, Nicos Anastasiades and Derviş Eroğlu – respectively the leaders of Cyprus’s Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities – restarted UN-facilitated talks on finding a Cyprus settlement. Our Turkey/Cyprus Project Director Hugh Pope (@Hugh_Pope) looks at the issues involved.

What’s new in these talks?

The talks’ goal, a bizonal, bicommunal federation for Cyprus, is not new; the UN-facilitated parameters are much the same; and many of those involved in the talks are veteran negotiators. The process now started is in large part an attempt to revive the round of talks held between 2008-12, itself the fifth major round over nearly four decades.

There are, however, three new aspects that have excited some diplomatic hopes. The first is that the Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades, who was elected Republic of Cyprus president a year ago, has made clear that he is seeking a light federal structure for any new republic, with constituent entities controlling their own borders and citizens having no contact with the central federation government in their daily lives. This is a more realistic approach than that of his predecessors and is more likely to lead to a settlement with the Turkish Cypriots, who are keen to keep as much power in their constituent entity as possible.

The second novelty is that the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot chief negotiators will soon visit Ankara and Athens respectively. Especially on the Greek Cypriot-Ankara axis, a lack of trust, and an inability to see that the other side really does want a deal, has long held back progress. Crisis Group has pushed strongly for the opening of this channel of communication since our briefing Cyprus: Six Steps Towards a Settlement.

The third new aspect is that the United States has taken a leading role in pressing for this round of talks to start. U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus John Koenig played an unusually prominent role in passing messages; agreement by both sides on a joint declaration to restart talks was achieved after a rare visit to the island by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland; and Vice-President Joseph Biden telephoned President Anastasiades to congratulate him on the new round of talks.

What’s behind the new American interest?

One reason is the increasingly active world of eastern Mediterranean energy politics.  An American company, Noble Energy, is the main operator working to extract natural gas from deposits discovered in the eastern Mediterranean over the past decade. The most commercial deposits have so far been found in Israeli waters, but there is significant potential in offshore Cyprus too (see our report Aphrodite’s Gift: Can Cypriot Gas Power a New Dialogue?).

The cheapest, quickest, most secure and most profitable way to get this gas to market is probably by pipeline to Turkey. But such a pipeline would have to pass through Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and a senior Greek Cypriot official tells us there is no chance Nicosia will allow that to happen before a Cyprus settlement is arrived at or, at the least, before there is a very good prospect of one. And if a Cyprus settlement doesn’t materialize quickly, energy experts say the Israeli developers will choose a more expensive, but more certain, alternative export method, such as a floating terminal that freezes and liquefies the gas to load into tankers.

The U.S. is interested in supporting Israel as its ally appears to seek an insurance policy against Middle East turbulence by building a stronger line to the European Union through closer ties with Cyprus, Turkey and Greece. A gas pipeline linking three or four of these countries would be one way of reinforcing such a strategy. Israeli ideas are summarized in our blog here. U.S. mediation since March 2013 is also now close to resolving the crisis of confidence between Israel and Turkey. The trouble started when Ankara objected to an Israeli assault on Gaza in early 2009 that killed 1,430 Palestinians; tensions peaked when Israeli commandos killed eight Turks and a Turkish-American on the ship Mavi Marmara as it tried to bring aid to Gaza as part of an international fleet in 2010.

Why did this round of Cyprus talks take so long to get going?

The talks were first expected in October, but were held up when the Greek Cypriot side said it wanted a strong joint communiqué from a first meeting of leaders that would set the goals of the talks.

Specifically, the Greek Cypriots wanted a firm statement on a single sovereignty and a single international identity for the future federal state. Although Turkish Cypriots had already agreed to this in previous talks, in the event of a firm statement on single sovereignty they then wanted to add their own language underlining demands for political equality and strong residual powers held by the constituent states.

These talks about talks at last resulted in the joint communiqué that launched the current round. The communiqué reflects the language of both sides but breaks little new ground. Indeed, it is actually a step backwards in that it makes no reference to the 75 pages of convergences distributed to the two sides by UN facilitators after the 2008-12 round of talks (here), nor to the long-negotiated Annan Plan of 2004, which was the closest the two sides came to reunification but is rejected by Greek Cypriot politicians.

Is there a chance of new confidence-building measures?

The chances of this seem slim, although a striking confidence-building measure could radically change the atmosphere. Both the Cypriot leaders’ communiqué and a statement welcoming the new talks by EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy and EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso (here) stressed the desire to see something of this sort.

For now such calls constitute mainly an attempt to excite public interest. In mid-2013, Greek Cypriots refloated an old proposal that Turkey hand back the ghost resort of Varosha to its original owners, most of whom are Greek Cypriots. There were hints that, in return, they might free up some of Turkey’s EU negotiation chapters, allow Turkish Cypriots the right to send exports-tax free directly to the EU, and partially legalize the Turkish Cypriot airport (known as Ercan or Timbiou). Turkish officials viewed the offer as inadequate and nothing materialized. Historically, negotiations on confidence-building measures have almost always got knotted up in the larger Cyprus problem and failed to occur. The few that work are mostly done unilaterally and tend to normalize the situation on the ground.

The most obvious confidence-building measure would be for Turkey simply to extend its EU Customs Union to the Greek Cypriots, a measure that was already fully negotiated back in 2005 and is known as the Additional Protocol to the Ankara Agreement. It has been blocked for political reasons in Ankara, partly as a sanction against Greek Cypriots but also because Turkey lost interest in actively pursuing EU membership.

Ratifying the Additional Protocol would be a leap forward on several tracks: it would normalize trade with Greek Cypriots, helping their economy, which was shattered in 2013 by a financial-sector meltdown, and changing their perceptions of Turkey; it would clear the principal obstacle to opening 14 of Turkey’s 35 negotiating chapters with the EU; it would almost certainly result in Turkish Cypriots’ winning tax-free “direct trade” with the EU; and it would greatly improve the atmosphere of the Cyprus settlement talks.

Has Turkey shown much sign of wanting to do this?

Not yet. But, after years of neglecting Cyprus and its EU accession process, Turkey has now announced that 2014 will be a ‘Year of Europe’. In January, Prime Minister Erdoğan visited Brussels for the first time in five years and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, played a crucial part in pushing forward the beginning of this new round of Cyprus talks. Such moves may partly be to shore up domestic popularity after a bumpy year, but they are steps in a positive direction.

Turkey should also undertake sustained outreach to Greek Cypriots. This was successful in 2010, when Prime Minister Erdoğan did invite to Istanbul a group of former Greek Cypriot officials, journalists and civil society activists. At the meeting, they were wowed by his repeated assurances that he wanted to do a deal on Cyprus. This visibly began to neutralize one of the most important drivers of the Cyprus dispute: institutionalized Greek Cypriot fear of the intentions of their far bigger and more powerful neighbour.

How high are hopes that this round of talks will reach a breakthrough?

Cynicism is rife among ordinary Cypriots. This is partly due to the four-month delay in starting the talks over what were widely seen as pedantic details, partly due to the disappointment of high hopes ahead of the 2008-12 talks, and partly due to the failure of the 2004 Annan Plan, which was accepted by 65 per cent of Turkish Cypriots and most of the international community but rejected by 76 per cent of Greek Cypriots. Most people think it will take a miracle of some kind to reach a settlement anytime soon.

What’s the price of failure?

While all sides would benefit from a settlement – any settlement – failure to make the politically painful compromises necessary to reach an outcome quickly will deepen the de facto partition of the island. Indeed, the level of disconnection between the two communities already looks almost irreversible. Lack of a settlement will leave Greek Cypriots isolated and poorer on the far eastern tip of the EU; Turkish Cypriots will remain stranded with little way to escape integration into Turkey; and NATO-member Turkey will be burdened with, at best, a frozen EU accession process and the steady drain on its resources of propping up the Turkish-Cypriot administration. Myriad regional benefits will also likely stay remote: the EU and NATO will remain unable to share assets; eastern Mediterranean natural gas will remain cut off from its most lucrative market in Turkey; and Greece and Turkey will be unlikely to solve their expensive maritime-boundaries dispute in the Aegean.

Background

The Mediterranean island of Cyprus won independence from Britain in 1960, but the constitutional arrangements between Greek Cypriots (then 80 per cent of the population) and Turkish Cypriots (18 per cent) broke down in 1963-64. Turkish Cypriots left the government and hundreds of people were killed in inter-communal violence. UN peacekeepers were deployed, but many Turkish Cypriots remained in ghettos. In 1974, a coup inspired by the military regime in Athens sought to annex Cyprus to Greece. Turkey, citing a legal right as a guarantor power, invaded the country and reversed the coup. But some 30,000 Turkish troops remained, occupying the northern 37 per cent of the island. The Greek Cypriots kept control of the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, an EU member since 2004, while the Turkish Cypriots’ self-declared “Turkish Republic of North Cyprus” is only recognized by Turkey. Despite the major international stresses caused by the Cyprus problem, nobody has been killed in the frozen conflict since 1996, and only 10 people since 1974. Censuses on both sides show about 1.1 million people now live on the island, 840,000 in the Greek Cypriot south and 265,000 civilians in the Turkish Cypriot north.

Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?

Originally published in Valdai

Last weekend, the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia met in Ankara to discuss, among other things, the latest developments in Syria amid Turkish concerns over the consequences of a Syrian government offensive in the last rebel enclave, Idlib. 

The Russian-backed offensive against that last opposition enclave is aimed at keeping the rebels at arm’s length from the Russian air base in Latakia, re-opening the Damascus-Aleppo highway and eventually retaking the city of Idlib, the provincial capital that has been held by the rebels since 2015. As such and for the past six months, much of Idlib and its environs have been under intense attack from the Syrian Arab Army on the ground and Russian warplanes in the air. The government forces have been able to seize strategic villages, including the medieval fortress town of Qalaat al-Madiq, a major crossing point into Idlib, and the towns of Kafr Nabudah and Khan Shaykhoun. The long-dreaded offensive has left 1,089 civilians dead and 600,000 displaced.

In September 2017, the three Astana guarantors, (Turkey, Iran, and Russia), negotiated a partial ceasefire in Idlib under a “de-escalation” agreement, monitored on the opposition side through twelve Turkish military outposts deployed along a blurry deconfliction line between the rebels and government forces. A year later, a deal between Turkey and Russia, announced in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, headed off a seemingly imminent Syrian army offensive and reinforced the earlier deal. The Turkish-Russian agreement tacitly committed Turkey to oversee the withdrawal of jihadis along with all heavy weapons, tanks, rockets systems and mortars held by all rebel groups from a 15-20 km “demilitarised zone” bordering government-controlled areas, and allowed the re-opening of the Latakia-Aleppo and Damascus-Aleppo highways, which pass through Idlib.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio.

Ankara and Moscow, however, remain at odds over the interpretations of the Sochi deal and its implementation. Moscow has made clear that a de-escalation arrangement is by no means a permanent alternative to the eventual return of the state to north west Syria. On the other hand, Turkey views the deal primarily as a tool to prevent a Syrian offensive on Idlib, and preserve a “de-escalation zone” out of Syrian government control until a broader political settlement can be reached for the eight-year old Syria crisis. As such, Turkey has agreed that moderate rebel groups would be separated from radicals and the latter would lay down arms and move out of a defined demilitarised zone. However, Moscow and Ankara remain at loggerheads over which rebel groups in Idlib should be designated as terrorists. When the agreement was announced, Hai’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a group formerly linked to al Qaeda, controlled around 50% of Idlib Governorate; today they control almost all of it. Ankara believes that much of HTS is fundamentally pragmatic and a potential ally for eliminating radical transnational jihadists, while Russia treats HTS uniformly as a terrorist group, and describes the Sochi ceasefire as conditional upon HTS’s removal from the demilitarised zone and “separation” from the armed opposition. In terms of implementation, Turkey claims that they have successfully rolled back jihadis and cleared the demilitarized zone of all heavy weaponry. On the other hand, the Russian Ministry of Defence has stated that HTS attempted to attack Russia’s Hmeimim Airbase twelve times in April 2019 using unmanned aerial vehicles.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio. It is no secret that if Russia greenlights an all-out offensive, an opposition-led infantry ground force will not be able to stop it. Nonetheless, a military solution in Idlib would still be exceptionally costly for all parties, Russia included. Retaking Idlib militarily would strain Moscow’s relations with Turkey and would require force levels that could only inevitably lead to a bloodbath in the densely-populated province. More significantly, capturing Idlib militarily would risk scattering jihadi militants now inside Idlib across Syria, and globally, including into post-Soviet states. If Russia hopes to avoid that, it needs to consider an alternative to a catastrophic military victory.

Today, a return to the existing Sochi understanding will do little good, in part because – to acknowledge an uncomfortable reality – any agreement that is to prove sustainable needs to address the divergent views between Russia and Turkey over some of the key actors in Idlib, including HTS. Russia can help the Syrian government crush Idlib, if it so chooses, and if it is willing to absorb the grave cost of victory, including thousands of jihadis scattered across Syria and beyond. If it hopes to spare itself that cost, however, it needs to consider alternatives to a military victory, which would have grave security consequences.