During a two-day visit to Northern Cyprus last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan escalated tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean by threatening unilateral action, including an indirect land grab, on the divided island, triggering condemnations by the United States, European Union, and UN Security Council. Erdogan’s latest provocation is part of his ongoing effort to destabilize the region and undermine U.S.-backed partnerships among littoral states.
On July 19, the Turkish president and his ultranationalist coalition partner Devlet Bahceli arrived in North Nicosia, hoping that the rally-round-the-flag effect of a nationalist incident would help reverse the ongoing erosion of their voter support in Turkey, a consequence of their authoritarian policies and economic mismanagement. During the visit, Erdogan announced that a two-state solution is the only way to solve the Cyprus conflict, singlehandedly reversing longtime Turkish and Turkish Cypriot positions and discarding five decades of negotiations aimed at reunifying the divided island as a bizonal and bicommunal federal state. The Turkish president also took further steps to reopen sections of the abandoned coastal town of Varosha to offer spoils to his clients in the construction sector, in breach of UN Security Council resolutions that call for the town to be handed over to UN administration so that its former residents can return to their homes.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when the Turkish military seized the northern third of the island. Ankara’s action came in response to a coup attempt organized by the military junta in Athens with the aim of uniting the Republic of Cyprus with Greece. Turkey maintains nearly 40,000 troops in the northern breakaway region, which Ankara alone recognizes as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
The Erdogan government’s heavy-handed meddling in TRNC elections last year, which included death threats against incumbent President Mustafa Akinci and his family, resulted in a narrow victory for the hardline pro-Erdogan challenger, Ersin Tatar. Since then, Erdogan and Tatar have intensified their efforts to impose Erdogan’s Islamist worldview on a Turkish Cypriot community known for its secular lifestyle.
In response to the actions taken by the presidents of Turkey and the TRNC, Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement on July 20 calling Erdogan’s and Tatar’s actions “provocative, unacceptable, and incompatible with their past commitments to engage constructively in settlement talks.” The same day, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell criticized the duo on Twitter, saying that their unilateral move “risks raising tensions,” reiterating an earlier statement this month by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that Brussels “will never, ever accept a two state solution.”
On July 23, the UN Security Council issued a unanimous condemnation of Erdogan and Tatar for their announcement of the further reopening of Varosha, calling for “the immediate reversal of that course of action.”
The Turkish president’s unilateral moves also drew a negative reaction from Turkish Cypriots. Two opposition parties boycotted the parliamentary session Erdogan attended. Akinci also warned that Erdogan’s policies, “condemned by all international organizations and countries,” would isolate Turkish Cypriots. Erdogan, however, is unlikely to respect either international law and global public opinion or the will of Turkish Cypriots in charting and imposing his future course of action on the divided island.
To contain the Turkish president’s disruptive behavior in Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean, the Biden administration should develop a concerted strategy with the European Union, including the imposition of coordinated sanctions targeting Erdogan’s and Tatar’s construction sector clients implicated in illegal land and property grabs in Varosha. Washington should also appoint a special envoy for the Eastern Mediterranean and strengthen its ongoing cooperation with littoral allies and partners.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Aykan, the Turkey Program, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.