Challenging Times In Cyprus

w/e 4th November 2022

Whilst the eyes of the world are on the continuing war in Ukraine, we sometimes have to remind ourselves that there are other areas of the world where there are continuing conflicts. Much of Africa is blighted by armed struggles, the Middle East is far from settled – think of Syria and Iraq –  and then there’s Cyprus. Whilst this island at the eastern end of the Mediterranean has been peaceful for a while, simmering tensions are never far from the surface.

I was reminded of this when I read that “Turkish-Cypriot authorities could be preparing to evict United Nations peacekeepers from their bases in northern Cyprus, triggering a new political and security crisis on the divided island”.  Why might this be, I wondered?

By way of general background, The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) mans the buffer zone between Greek Cypriots in the south of the island and the Turkish Cypriots in the north. There is a long history of antipathy between the two ethnic groups, and the multinational UNFICYP was set up in 1964 to monitor simmering tensions there.

The UNFICYP’s mandate is renewed by the UN Security Council every six months with the consent of the internationally recognised government of Cyprus, which is the southern Greek Cypriot one. The next renewal is due in January 2023, but this time the Turkish Cypriots have said it needs their consent as well.

This presents the Security Council with a legal problem because the UN does not recognise the TRNC, self-declared in 1983; it is not a UN member nor is it recognised by the international community. Only Turkey acknowledges its legitimacy.

Whilst it may be lacking in international recognition, however, the TRNC boasts a considerable military presence on the island. It is estimated that as many as 35,000 Turkish troops may be stationed there, many more than the Greek-Cypriot forces have.

Having see both of these militaries close up, albeit in 1989, I can tell you that if push came to shove and they went at each other it would be a pretty one-sided contest. Unless things have changed dramatically in the intervening period, the Turkish army is far more professional and competent than their Greek Cypriot equivalents.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, common sense prevails, and the TRNC sorts out its problem with UNFICYP. As far as the UK is concerned, well, we have two Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) on the island, retained for strategic purposes when the rest of Cyprus gained its independence in August 1960.

These are at Dhekelia and Akrotiri. The latter comprises the Episkopi Cantonment and RAF Akrotiri, much used of late for forays over Syria in pursuit of ISIS and other ne’er-do-wells. The Dhekelia SBA features the Ayios Nikolaos listening station run by GCHQ and partly funded by the Americans. I and my squadron had the dubious pleasure of guarding this particular installation against, well, nobody really, but guard it we did.

I still have bad dreams about the time I wasted on Cyprus on UN duty, but perhaps it was all part of a bigger plan. The Brits are still there and likely to be so for some time yet. Whether UFICYP will also be there depends very much on a compromise being reached with the TRNC. We wait with bated breath.

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