It’s no secret that relations between Turkey and its Western allies have become quite testy over the past year or so regarding an assortment of issues, including policy toward Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Western leaders are understandably eager to heal the breach with Ankara because Turkey is a significant regional power. Unfortunately, it seems increasingly likely that the small nation of Cyprus will end up being a sacrificial pawn in that effort.
The latest indicator is an article by former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw arguing that it is time for Britain and other governments to consider the formal partition of Cyprus, if the latest round of U.N.-brokered talks do not achieve a breakthrough. The northern portion of Cyprus has been occupied by Turkish troops ever since the 1974 invasion of that country. Following the invasion, Ankara set up a puppet government (which is recognized only by Turkey) in the occupied territory and brought in more than 250,000 settlers from the Turkish mainland. Periodic U.N. mediation efforts have failed to resolve the division of the island.
As yet, neither London nor Washington has embraced Mr. Straw’s proposal, but it has all the characteristics of a prominent trial balloon. Over the years, numerous members of the foreign policy communities in both Britain and the United States have privately toyed with the idea of imposing a formal partition.
Going down that path would be a mistake - for both practical and moral reasons. The practical consideration is that the U.S. and the leading EU countries already set a dangerous international precedent in 2008 when they encouraged and then formally recognized Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia. At the time, NATO troops occupied Kosovo, preventing Belgrade from doing anything to thwart that secession.
Numerous governments warned that the move trampled on Serbia’s sovereignty and created a highly destabilizing precedent. That fear was soon realized when Russian troops implemented the secession of two restless provinces from Russia’s small neighbor, the Republic of Georgia.
Now the Western powers may be flirting with the notion of forcibly dividing Cyprus against the will of the Cypriot government and a majority of the Cypriot people. Such a move would reinforce the unhealthy recent precedents set with respect to Kosovo and Georgia - and would encourage nations and movements with secessionist agendas around the world.
The moral case against partitioning Cyprus to curry favor with Ankara is even stronger. Turkey committed an act of aggression when it invaded its neighbor in 1974, and that violation of international law is made worse by the continuing occupation and the colonization effort using Turkish settlers. That should be unacceptable behavior by any country, but it is even more outrageous coming from a NATO member and aspirant to join the European Union.
The tepid reaction over the decades by Washington and its democratic allies to Ankara’s rogue conduct on the Cyprus issue is troubling. Those countries should not further reward Turkey’s aggression by making the division of Cyprus permanent.
There are other actions the West can take to help repair the fraying relationship with Turkey. In particular, the U.S. must show greater understanding that its policies in Iraq - especially the creation of a de facto independent Kurdistan in the north - create major problems for Ankara because of Turkey’s own restless Kurdish population. Likewise, the push for ever tighter economic sanctions against Iran poses major economic and strategic dilemmas for Turkey.
Those issues need to be addressed squarely, and efforts should be made at least to cushion the adverse impact on Turkey. But it would be wrong to adopt the cynical approach of using Cyprus as a convenient sacrificial pawn to ease overall tensions with Ankara. Such a move would betray important Western values and, in the long run, likely undermine important Western interests.
Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, including “Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America” (Cato Institute, 2008).