There is always potential trouble when rulers sense their position weakening, given the possibility they will resort to drastic measures to divert the public’s attention and boost their standing.
In Turkey’s case, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s popularity has been declining for several months, there is a fear among Middle East observers that he may be looking at intervention in Cyprus to serve just such a purpose.
The last time Turkey intervened in Cyprus was in July 1974. The Turkish Army occupied 40% of the island and continues to do so to this very day, maintaining that the military’s presence is necessary to protect the island’s Turkish population and balking at any mention of occupation.
During his stint as Turkish head of state, Erdogan has gone out on many limbs, especially in foreign policy. The often unhappy results have tarnished the positive reputation he enjoyed at the beginning of his tenure. There is little doubt that Erdogan is now weaker and politically vulnerable.
An incursion in Cyprus where the Turkish Army would likely overwhelm the small Greek Cypriot force would be a convenient diversion from challenges to his authoritarian rule.
He may think revisiting Cyprus militarily can help improve his standing, but it is likely to cause him significant headaches with neighbors, including Egypt and Israel, and more distant powers, namely the European Union and the United States.
Greece would almost certainly jump in to protect the Greek part of the island, possibly escalating the conflict into a major conflagration between two NATO members.
Facing a severe economic crisis at home, Erdogan may be tempted to go after the maritime oil fields recently discovered off the coasts of Israel, Lebanon, and Cyprus, to which Turkey has tried to lay partial claim.
He should be wary, however, particularly of the United States. The Trump administration is not at all happy about the Turkish leader’s stated intention to purchase Russian S-400 missile defense systems. The Pentagon has voiced deep concern about the sale of American F-35 fighter jets ordered by Turkey.
Officials in the US military worry that while installing the S-400 systems the Russians will pick up intelligence on the new US warplane.
The Greeks, and especially the Greek Cypriots, fear a replay of the 1974 intervention. Except this time, the plausibility of the conflict spreading quickly from the Middle East to Europe and beyond is considerably higher. All sides have more sophisticated weapons, which if deployed would substantially increase the lethality of armed conflict.
There has been an uptick in tension due to Turkey’s launch of a major naval exercise near Cyprus involving more than 130 ships. “Our aim in military exercises is to show that the Turkish armed forces are extremely determined, committed and capable of ensuring the security, sovereignty, independence, maritime rights and benefits of Turkey,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar was quoted as saying. He continued, “We take all necessary measures to protect the rights and the law of our country in the Aegean, the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus.”
In diverting Turkey’s foreign policy from that established by the Republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Erdogan runs the risk of shifting tectonic geopolitical plates, possibly redrawing the Middle East map or at least parts of it set by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
As for Cyprus, it may have thought it was safe being part of the European Union. It was until the machinations of Middle East politics came knocking at its door.
Claude Salhani is a regular columnist with The Arab Weekly and a senior fellow at the Institute of World Affairs