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17 June, 2024
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Buffer zone tensions and Cyprus problem scenarios

Turkey's diplomatic dilemmas on Cyprus problem

Yiannis Ioannou

Yiannis Ioannou

After the incident in the buffer zone at Pyla, the National Security Council in Turkey convened. This was its first meeting after Erdogan's reelection. Erdogan not only made a historic reference to the Treaty of Lausanne, describing it as the "foundation of peace and stability in the region for a century," but also addressed the event in Cyprus. He emphasized that the "physical intervention of United Nations Peacekeeping Force soldiers in the sovereign territory of the TRNC last Friday cannot be accepted." Erdogan, through a series of unprecedented statements, not only acknowledged that the Treaty of Lausanne was no longer subject to his revisionist rhetoric of recent years but also referred, for the first time since 2017, to the "sovereign territory of the TRNC" regarding an event that not only occurred within the buffer zone but was also condemned by almost the entire international community, including the P5 countries of the UN Security Council.

This intriguing contradiction serves as a strong political signal regarding the event in the buffer zone at the Pyla. It reminds us of how fluid the status quo remains in Cyprus and the Cyprus issue at multiple levels. Furthermore, in a period of heightened activity, with the aim of restarting negotiations in Cyprus after a six-year hiatus, the coming months will reveal whether the situation at the Pyla is a game-changer for the better, offering a last chance scenario for Cyprus, or if it points in an entirely opposite direction.

Both from the event at the Pyla and the reactions, both from Ankara and the Turkish Cypriot leadership, condemning the incident, it is inferred that the persistence in constructing the Arsos Road (Larnaca to the Pyla) "ticks" multiple boxes for Turkey's aims in Cyprus:

• Strengthens the narrative of the humanitarian dimension of "isolation" for Turkish Cypriots and simultaneously the position, post-2017, of "sovereign equality" and a solution of "two states" - both as an endgame and a negotiating starting point in Cyprus.

• Utilizes the buffer zone as an object of negotiation, with implications for territorial issues (the buffer zone is TRNC territory given to UNFICYP for its peacekeeping mission) as well as potentially altering the narrative of its transfer to the Greek Cypriot side in all previous negotiations, historically, concerning the Cyprus issue.

• Serves military planning in the region - not with an immediate threat of violence - given that the area holds a military outpost of Turkish occupation forces and strategic importance for the tactical movement of armored vehicles and anti-aircraft systems in the critical axis of Larnaca and the free areas of Famagusta.

The interplay of these three points highlights, as has often been underscored by "K," that even if Turkey consents to restart dialogue in Cyprus after the UN General Assembly sessions in New York, it is preparing for multiple scenarios in Cyprus, maintaining alternative plans. The ambiguity of Erdogan's statements also demonstrates that there is now a crystallized perception of complete separation between the Greek-Turkish issues and the Cyprus issue, as well as developments related to Cyprus as a crucial factor in EU-Turkey relations. While the incident was condemned at the highest levels (EU, UN, a range of countries), with a strong verbal reaction even from the UN Security Council and its five permanent members, Turkey reacted with a "lukewarm" response. This indicates Erdogan's willingness to return with "strong cards" to the Cyprus issue while maintaining a more restrained approach in dealings with the EU, NATO, and Athens.

Finally, a point of great significance in the Pyla incident and its dynamics as a spoiler in the process of restarting dialogue in Cyprus is the operational approach of the occupying authorities in the event involving UNFICYP peacekeepers. This can be inferred from visual material from open sources (OSINT - Open Source Intelligence) like the MKD. The conflict didn't overtly involve members of the so-called police (PGM) or "security forces" of the "TRNC," nor members of the occupying Turkish armed forces (TSK). Instead, it involved individuals with political affiliations. This aspect was also noted by the US Department of State, which perceives Turkish armed forces' involvement in an act of violence within the buffer zone - targeting members of a UN peacekeeping mission, no less.

Whether the incident at Pyla will serve as a deterrent regarding the significant milestone of a meeting between the two leaders in New York with the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, for the purpose of appointing a special envoy to Cyprus remains to be seen in the coming weeks. The important aspect is that the event was strongly condemned by the UN Security Council itself, with the announcement providing room for further diplomatic actions. After such a serious crisis, this could create an opportunity for a return to dialogue. Another significant milestone that will reveal the EU's intentions to re-engage with Ankara in the context of Euro-Turkish relations is the informal meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the "27" on the upcoming Wednesday, August 30. If the Turkish FM, Hakan Fidan, is invited, along with Erdogan's visit to Hungary, it indicates a mobility that could benefit Nicosia.

Lastly, the stance of Moscow regarding the UN Security Council's convening to discuss the Pyla issue should not go unnoticed. Not only was there a delay from Moscow's side in issuing a statement along with the other permanent members for 72 hours, but also a photo from last Sunday's meeting between the Turkish FM, Fidan, and the Russian ambassador in Ankara, Alexei Erkov, went viral. The visit of Miroslav Yetz, Assistant Secretary-General of the UN, to Cyprus on Sunday is also noteworthy. His visit will reveal whether Ankara and Tatar will pave the way for a meeting between the latter and President Christodoulides, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. The realization of this meeting opens the path for a dialogue restart, while a refusal from the Turkish Cypriot leader, Ersin Tatar, forebodes a new period of stagnation, especially after the Pyla incident.

The incident in Pyla has so far become a serious crisis point for the Christodoulides government, which has been attempting for five months to restart dialogue on the Cyprus issue, supported by the active involvement of the European Union in the process of resolving the bufferlock. Nicosia might have been prepared for the relatively predictable path of condemning an attack against the UN in the "buffer zone." However, the event demonstrated inherent weaknesses in managing both the prevention process and the subsequent day, both politically and communicatively, especially during the summer. The non-convening of the National Council, which was already scheduled for early September in preparation for New York, was noted in the public sphere. An on-site visit with the ambassadors of EU countries and the UN Security Council, involving the government and parties, would signal immediate interest, as key countries like the USA, France, and the UK reacted promptly to the incident, with the EU being the first to condemn the scene. The same applies to the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot communication propaganda, which, right after the condemnation, spun narratives of misinformation, such as the event not occurring within the buffer zone and that the UN peacekeepers attacked first. These narratives were not systematically addressed by Nicosia to counter with factual arguments.

The crisis in Pyla sets a standard for a new level of potential crises – even of higher intensity, conventional or hybrid in nature – that the Republic of Cyprus could face within the buffer zone. It needs to be regarded as a case study for the standardization of reactions (and management of corresponding crises) that could erupt in the medium term, particularly in the scenario of a lack of dialogue on the Cyprus issue.

[This article was translated from its Greek original]

Cyprus  |  bufferzone  |  Turkey  |  problem  |  dispute  |  Erdogan  |  UN  |  Pyla

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