Cyprus, Turkey, and the Crescent of Crisis: the Question of American Strategy
Sherle R. Schwenninger
May 2010


I. American Strategic Priorities in the Crescent of Crisis.

  1. American strategy toward the Crescent of Crisis is defined by the following priorities: expanding the security of Israel; maintaining a controlling influence over the world oil market; neutralizing radical Islam and eliminating potential terrorist safe havens; preventing the emergence of a regional power hostile to Israel; and limiting the influence of outside powers in the region, particularly those who do not share Washington’s strategic priorities. Turkey figures prominently into American strategy for four reasons.
  1. American policy seeks to deny Russia exclusive control over EurAsia’s oil and gas resources. Turkey is seen as being one of the main counter-weights to Russia, offering an alternative transit point for the region’s oil and gas, as illustrated by Washington’s forceful support by the Baku to Ceyhan pipeline.
  1. American strategy toward the Middle East is premised on the nearly unconditional support of Israel, and thus it is predisposed to good relations with any country in the region that is willing to make peace with Israel or, even better, that is willing to be a strategic ally of Israel’s. Turkey has been and remains in Washington’s eyes Israel’s only ally in the region. In previous decades, Turkey and Israel developed substantial military and intelligence cooperation.  Most recently, Turkey has tried to improve its image in the Islamic world and so the focus of Turkish- Israeli  cooperation  has  shifted  somewhat.    For  example,  Turkey  has  served  as  a  go-between  for  informal negotiations between Syria and Israel, in an effort to capitalize on both its longstanding relationship with Israel and its improved ties with Arab countries.
  1. Washington seeks to counter the mistrust if not hatred of the United States that pervades the Islamic world. It also seeks to champion a moderate model for the Islamic world. Turkey has become the poster-child of America foreign policy toward the Islamic world—with Turkey-U.S. relations held up as an example of U.S. goodwill to countries with Muslim populations and Turkey promoted as an example of the compatibility of Islam and democracy.
  1. The United States has encouraged European integration and wants Europe to assume more of the burden for international security but it does not want a Europe that would pose a challenge to America foreign policy or chart on independent course on key issues of critical importance to the United States, especially on issues related to the Crescent of Crisis. Washington has sought to advance Turkey’s accession into the European Union, and maintain a close relationship with recently admitted Central and Eastern Europe countries, in order to dilute Europe and to retain U.S. influence on the direction of any collective European foreign policy.
  1. In general, American policy toward the region seems to be driven by a lingering suspicion of Russia and its perceived allies. At times, this suspicion seems to spill over into what appears to be a bias against the Orthodox Christian world. Over the past decade and half, the United States has sided against the Orthodox Christian side in every major conflict, irrespective of the merits of the dispute.  It favored Azerbaijan over Armenia; the Bosnian Muslims  and Croats against  the Bosnian Serbs;  the Kosovar  Albanians  over  Serbia;  Chechnya  over  Russia; Moldova over the Trans-Dienster, and the Western-leaning political leadership of Ukraine over Russia.

II. Turkey’s Role in American Strategy:  A Special Relationship

  1. Not surprisingly, American policy has almost without exception put its relationship with Turkey ahead of the interests of Cyprus, in spite of the so-called influence of the Greek lobby in the American Congress. Indeed, Turkey enjoys the status of a special relationship that is second only to that of Israel and Britain.
  1. Turkey is largely exempt from the human rights and good governance lectures other countries receive from the United States. In particular, it has been given a free ride on its treatment of the Kurds and the measures it has taken to suppress Kurdish self determination.
  1. The United States has used its power and influence to get the IMF and the European Union to periodically bail out the Turkish economy and to subsidize its economic development—with much more lax conditions than would normally be applied.
  1. It has encouraged the expansion of Turkish influence in the EurAsia region and has used its power and influence to re-direct the transportation of the region’s oil and gas resources through Turkey and away from Russia.
  1. After an initial embargo of arms sales to Turkey, it has put few if any constraints on Turkey’s occupation of northern Cyprus or on the activities of the Turkish military in the north.
  1. It has championed Turkey’s entry into the European Union. In order to further Turkey’s accession to the EU, it has pushed a political settlement of the Cyprus issue that is not in the long-term interests of the Republic of Cyprus.
  1. The special relationship is not without limits but the relationship is surprisingly asymmetrical in Turkey’s favor. Where Washington would draw the line on Turkish foreign policy is not exactly clear. There is reason to believe that that Washington would disapprove of any overt Turkish coercion or aggression against Cyprus, but it is doubtful whether it would actively oppose the slow strangulation of Cyprus’s sovereignty or take action to prevent Turkey from integrating Cyprus into its regional sphere of influence over a longer period time, notwithstanding the presence of British bases on Cyprus.  Washington, for example, would probably welcome the end to Cyprus’s role as an offshore financial center that facilitates investment into Russia, and would be happy to have Turkey subvert any ambitions on Cyprus’s part to expand its role as a regional financial center.   This is especially the case if Cyprus itself opens the door to greater Turkish control by concluding an agreement very similar to the proposed Annan Plan.
  1. In short, under current circumstances, American strategy provides little if any protection for Cypriot interests let alone an expansion of its ambitions.  For the most part, Washington sees Cyprus as a nuisance that from time to time threatens to complicate its special relationship with Turkey or to get in the way of its goal of promoting Turkey’s entry into the European Union.

III. Fault-lines in the U.S.-Turkish Special Relationship

  1. There are, however, some cracks or fault-lines in the U.S.-Turkish special relationship and the American strategy.  These fault-lines may reduce Turkey’s perceived importance to American strategy in the future.  They may also force some changes in American strategy.  But they are not likely to be so serious as to call into question the priority the United States gives to its relationship with Turkey as it affects Cypriot interests.
  1. The refusal of Turkey to allow the American military to use Turkey’s facilities and territory for the 2003 invasion of Iraq planted some seeds of doubt, albeit very small ones, into the minds of some American officials about the reliability of Turkey as an American ally.
  1. Turkey’s goal of limiting the autonomy of the Kurds in Turkey conflicts at times with American policy toward Iraq and with American sympathy for the Iraqi Kurds. Whether there is a potential for the Kurds to become the next cause of American foreign policy idealism, however, remains doubtful.
  1. The strategy of seeking to deny Russia control over the oil and gas resources of the EurAsia region has thus far been counterproductive, stiffening Russia’s nationalist resolve, and has actually delayed the commercial development of the region’s energy resources. It has also has added to the cost of the development and transport of these resources since many of the alternatives to Russian transit are commercially less viable and require greater subsidy.   Moreover, it turns out that Turkey has less influence in the region than Washington assumed, and thus has not been able to advance Washington’s interests in the region. A better strategy would be for Washington to improve relations with Russia and seek greater cooperation in the development of the region’s resources.   If it did so, Turkey’s importance to the U.S. strategy would be greatly reduced.
  1. Despite Washington’s efforts to promote its relationship with Turkey as evidence of its comity with Islam, Turkey is not seen as a model for moderate Islam in other countries in the region, particularly in the Arab countries. Rather Turkey is seen as a former imperial power who is an Israeli ally. Turkey has improved its Islamic credentials in recent years but that has not substantially changed the suspicion with which it is viewed in many Arab capitals.
  1. Even though Turkey has facilitated contacts between Syria and Israel, a peace between Syria and Israel and a stable Lebanon would reduce Turkish importance, since it would reduce the value of Turkey’s strategic relationship with Israel. Given Syria’s influence with Hamas and its relationship with Iran, Syria’s position would increase at the expense of Turkey’s.
  1. Turkey’s human rights and economic problems may be too large for an overstretched European Union to accept especially in light of the stresses created by the world financial crisis. For some time, the leading economies of Europe will have their hands full manage the debt and banking crises of Central Europe and are in no position to take on more financial burdens that Turkey’s entry into the European Union would create. If Washington continues to push Europe on Turkey’s accession then it is possible that may become an increasing source of irritation in US- European relations, especially if Washington continues to back Turkey’s accession.

IV. Cyprus’s Strategic Options Given American Strategy

  1. What, then, are Cyprus’s strategic options given American strategy and Washington’s still considerable power and influence in the region? Previous Cypriot governments do deserve credit for successfully maneuvering Cyprus into the European Union and for avoiding an agreement that would have unduly limited Cypriot freedom of action (beyond that of being a good member of the European Union).  From an outsider’s perspective, the Annan plan was seriously flawed and would have made Cyprus more vulnerable to Turkey’s pressure and would have given Turkey more opportunity to influence Cyprus’s future.   Avoiding such an outcome while gaining full membership in the European Union has considerable strengthened Cyprus’s position, giving it some leverage over Turkey’s future while reducing Turkey’s ability to influence the course of government and economic development in the Republic of Cyprus.   That said, one must face up to the reality that the strategy of resting Cyprus’s future security and prosperity upon membership in the European Union has limits given the weaknesses of the European Union and given the emerging neo-Ottoman foreign policy tendencies of the current Turkish government.  Cyprus therefore must think seriously about its strategic options before it enters into a bi-communal agreement.
  1. The place to begin that thinking is to consider that the Crescent of Crisis is no longer an American dominated region. Rather, it is a region of competing and overlapping geopolitical, geoeconomic, and geocultural alliances and spheres of influence and interest. Cyprus needs to understand these various forces and how best to align itself with them given its values and strategic interests.   It needs to counter the neo-Ottoman tendencies of Turkish regional policy that could limit the island’s future security and prosperity and undermine the advantages it now enjoys as a member of the European Union.
  1. In addition to Turkey’s nascent neo-Ottoman sphere of influence, there are five other overlapping and/or competing geopolitical and geoeconomic spheres of power and interest in the region to consider: the American- Israeli relationship; the Transatlantic Alliance as represented by NATO and the U.S.-British relationship, of which Cyprus is tangentially involved as the host to British bases; the European Union, of which it is a full member; the Russian and Christian Orthodox community, to which it is connected by culture and by being a gateway to investment in Russia and a offshore banking center for Russian money; and the New Silk Road as represented by the expansion of commerce from Dubai, Iran, to India and China, of which it has only marginal relations.   One must  also  mention  the  Sunni  Arab-American  axis  as  represented  by  the  Saudi-American  oil  and  security relationship; and the competing Iranian-led Shite alliance, which includes Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
  1. To oversimplify somewhat, Cyprus has essentially two strategic choices—to deepen or to widen, beyond its current strategy  of  pursuing an  inter-communal  agreement.    The first  choice is  to seek  to  deepen Cyprus’s integration into the Transatlantic relationship as a complement to its current membership in the European Union and as part of a larger bargain relating to an inter-communal agreement.  The touchstone of such a strategy would be for Cyprus to become a member of NATO and to upgrade its security relationship with Britain and the United States.  It might also have as a complementary strategy the acceptance of Turkey into the European Union under the theory that Turkey’s integration into the European Union would constrain (rather than empower) Turkey’s neo- Ottoman foreign policy goals.
  1. Such a strategy faces several obstacles. Turkey could use its influence with the United States to block Cyprus’s entry into NATO; Britain may not want to share its bases in Cyprus with the United States even as it is forced to reduce its overseas commitments; and  even if Cyprus was able to gain entry into NATO it  might  not  alter Washington’s calculations about the priority of its relationship with Turkey.   Such a strategy would also have a number of serious costs. It would most likely spell the end of Cyprus’s aspirations of becoming a regional financial center and would call into question Cyprus financial relationship with Russia.  It would reduce Cyprus’s foreign policy and economic choices but without necessarily improving Cyprus’s security from the low-intensity threats that would emanate from an expanding Turkish sphere of influence.  And It would reduce the ability of Cyprus to block Turkey’s into the European Union but without any guarantee that the European Union would be able to constrain or alter the course of Turkish foreign policy.
  1. The second choice would be to widen Cyprus’s involvement in the region’s competing spheres of interest with the goal of balancing Turkey. The principal idea behind this strategy is that Cyprus would be able to make itself less vulnerable to the Turkish foreign policy by increasing its role and usefulness in as many of the other competing spheres of influence as possible.   Such a strategy would recognize that the main threat to Cyprus’s security is not outright Turkish aggression but its potential vulnerability to Turkish pressure and influence over its political and economic future.   Thus Cyprus should avoid an inter-communal agreement that would open itself up to Turkish manipulation and should seek to expand its international ties with the goal of increasing its economic and political options.
  1. In addition to using its membership in the European Union to its best advantage, a widening strategy would pursue the following three goals. The first would be to expand Cyprus’s role as a regional financial center by extending its existing international financial relationships to include India, China, and the New Silk Road relationships and to include other petro-dollar states as well as well as Russia.  In addition, Cyprus may be able to capitalize on the crack-down of international tax havens to be able to offer itself as a legitimate low-tax jurisdiction thereby attracting European and American companies to set up international and regional headquarters there for tax purposes.  The second goal would be for Cyprus to establish itself as an international meeting place—to become a transnational geo-economic and geo-cultural hub, if you will, for the exchange of ideas and information.   The third element would be to build on Cyprus’s potential as a place of higher education and scientific research, which would go hand in hand with the second element of enhancing Cyprus’s importance as an international meeting place.   If successful, Cyprus emergence as a transnational hub for meetings and higher education would replace mass tourism as one of the main sources of economic growth.  Becoming an international meeting place and a place of higher education  would  yield  more  political  and  economic  influence  than  would  mass  tourism  while  being  more compatible with Cyprus’s long-term ecological health.
  1. This second strategic option would also face a number of obstacles, including the question of whether there is the necessary political leadership to implement such an ambitious international strategy. It also would have some potential downsides, including the possibility of furthering alienating Washington and making Cyprus a target of American pressure.  But the United States is likely to be distractive by more critical challenges for the foreseeable future.
  1. As a non-Cypriot, it is not for me to say what the best strategic course of action is for Cyprus. But I can lay out what I see as Cyprus’s options in light of American strategy and in light of emerging forces within the region.  And that is what I hope I have done with some clarity in this paper.


Sherle R. Schwenninger is Director of the Economic Growth Program at the New American Foundation and a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute. Mr. Schwenninger is also a member of ERPIC’s editorial advisory boad and editor of the journal Perihelion.


This article was originally published in the Middle East Economic Survey (MEES), 22 March 2010