New York.- By Apostolos Zoupaniotis
News regarding the COVID-19 crisis has been drowning out all other news. Turkey may have been a beneficiary of everyone’s attention being elsewhere. At the beginning of the crisis, Turkey was weaponizing migrants and refugees and trying to overwhelm Greece’s borders. Now, at the height of the crisis, Turkey resumes its incursions into Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone.
The Greek American community has rallied to draw attention to Turkey’s provocations, whether by writing letters to the New York Times, calling Congressional offices, holding Zoom calls with members of Congress or think tank analysts.
In addition to all of the above, the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC) has specifically criticized what it believes are “weak” US responses to Turkey’s escalations. Greek News interviews HALC’s Executive Director Endy Zemenides.
GN: HALC reacted strongly to the State Department’s initial statement on the Evros crisis. What were you objecting to?
Zemenides: We realize that the State Department is the diplomatic arm of the US government, and that it is not that likely to speak bluntly. But to urge “restraint” when only one party is taking aggressive action and to fail to characterize Turkey’s actions properly is irresponsible. State will claim that it is trying to gain leverage with Ankara by not criticizing it directly, but it seems that they are just trying to avoid getting to the point where they have to speak bluntly and honestly about Turkey in public as long as they can. This approach has utterly failed in the past – take the case of the S400s – and it is failing now.
GN: Do you think the Administration got it right in the end?
The declarations that were part of DAS Palmer’s and Ambassador Pyatt’s trip to northern Greece were strong, but I do have to note that they came on the back end of: Greece making it clear that it was not going to back down; Greece receiving strong EU support; and outrage being expressed by the Greek press and the Greek American community at the initial State Department statement.
We are constantly being assured that State is pressuring Turkey “in private”. That is a convenient little trick by State, since it is not a proposition that can be disproven. But there is little indication – look at readouts of calls between the Administration and Turkish counterparts, public statements of Administration officials regarding relations with Turkey – that State is actually applying any such pressure.
GN: What about State Department’s approach with regards to Cyprus?
The Administration’s failure to capitalize on the opportunity to drastically improve bilateral relations with Nicosia – as it has with Athens – is something that should be scrutinized far more closely.
In 2014, the U.S. declared a “strategic partnership” with the Republic of Cyprus. The State Department has teased the prospect of putting substance behind those words – for example, with the Statement of Intent signed by Secretary Pompeo and Foreign Minister Christodoulides. The departure of former Assistant Secretary Wess Mitchell apparently robbed the State Department of the only leader there who was fully committed to effectuating this strategic partnership.
Today, the U.S. risks having the “strategic partnership” being defined as a “one-way” street in Nicosia. The Republic of Cyprus is consistently providing deliverables, and State resists even symbolic rewards in return. This type of relationship is even more untenable than the status quo in Cyprus.
GN: Do you think that the opportunity for a true strategic partnership has passed?
Not at all. This is primarily a question of policy and secondarily of personnel. The progress in the last two years of the Obama Administration was somewhat a change of direction in U.S. policy and might be attributed to Vice President Biden’s direct involvement. As I mentioned earlier, Assistant Secretary Mitchell helped move the ball forward. And let us not forget the difference Richard Holbrooke made at the end of the Clinton Administration.
The challenge is that such progress has typically relied on individual efforts and is not part of an institutional mindset in the US foreign policy establishment. Creating such an institutional mind set may end up being the greatest long-term achievement of the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act. Congress is ahead of State both on Cyprus and on the region, and it has set US policy in a certain direction. There will be holdouts in the Administration, and I expect several attempts to frustrate Congress’ purpose in the short term, but the right direction has been mapped out.
And one last point here, this is not just a matter of US-Cyprus relations, or Greco-Turkish relations. The Eastern Mediterranean is coming together as an economic and political region. While the U.S. once celebrated Turkey’s supposed “zero-problems with neighbors” foreign policy, Ankara now has “zero neighbors without which it has problems.” The State Department may be willing to sacrifice little Cyprus to keep Turkey happy, but with Cyprus being increasingly anchored to Greece, Israel, Egypt and others, such a “sacrifice” will decidedly harm U.S. national interests.
GN: How about State Department’s approach to Turkey’s latest provocations in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone?
This is a perfect example of how wrong the State Department’s approach is with regards to Cyprus. On the one hand, it repeats its commitment to the Republic of Cyprus’ rights to exploit its EEZ under international law. Then it resorts to the nonsensical language about “all” parties refraining from provocations – as if multiple players are acting contrary to international law. And then to put an exclamation point on this counterproductive statement, they repeat the belief that both communities should share in hydrocarbon wealth.
Unless the ultimate goal of the State Department and the US Embassy in Cyprus is to make Turkey and the Turkish-Cypriots feel that they are advocating for them, such statements serve no purpose. It fails to advance the bilateral relationship – indeed, it may harm it. It fails to pressure Turkey to end its provocations – in fact, by including the statement on the two communities, it encourages Turkey. They are telling Turkey, “we don’t like what you did, but we will give rhetorical support to what you want anyway.” This is not diplomacy it is diplomatic malpractice.
If the goals are stability in the region and real prospects for a reunified Cyprus anchored to the West, Turkey – AND the Turkish-Cypriots, who are encouraging Turkey’s provocations – has to be told there is no possible reward for such blackmail and escalation. The State Department’s statement of equitable sharing of resources is also curious, since during the Conference on Cyprus it was in fact agreed that in the short term the sharing would be inequitable in the favor of Turkish-Cypriots in order to bring the north closer to GDP parity.
The State Department is charged with handling the relations of the United States with the Republic of Cyprus. It is high time that it starts treating the Republic of Cyprus as a country and a “strategic partner” and not just a “community”.