September 4, 2020 | Policy Brief

Turkey Slams U.S. Decision to Lift Cyprus Arms Embargo

September 4, 2020 | Policy Brief

Turkey Slams U.S. Decision to Lift Cyprus Arms Embargo

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Tuesday that he will allow “the sale of non-lethal defense articles and services to the Republic of Cyprus,” partially lifting Washington’s 33-year arms embargo. Pompeo’s announcement signals growing U.S. engagement in the Eastern Mediterranean, where both Turkey and Russia have sought to project their influence, often by violating the sovereignty of others.

The State Department’s renewable waiver will allow Cyprus to purchase military goods – but not weapons – in the coming fiscal year, which begins October 1. U.S. officials presented the move as a measure to limit Russia’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, since U.S. law conditions the lifting of the embargo on whether Cyprus has both denied Russian military vessels access to its ports and complied with anti-money laundering regulations to prevent Russian illicit financial activity.

Nonetheless, Ankara slammed Pompeo’s decision for targeting Turkey, accusing the United States of poisoning regional peace and stability. Turkey maintains nearly 40,000 troops in the northern third of the island, which Ankara alone recognizes as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. After the discovery of sizable gas reserves in Cypriot waters, Turkey has interfered with drilling efforts, at times by employing naval forces, claiming its intervention is necessary to ensure Turkish Cypriots get an equal share in the gas revenues.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when pro-Greek elements launched a coup attempt sponsored by the military junta in Athens; this led the Turkish military to intervene on behalf of Turkish Cypriots. The next year, the U.S. Congress imposed an arms embargo on Turkey, which lasted until 1978. Washington followed with an arms embargo on Cyprus in 1987 to encourage reunification talks, reduce tensions between Greece and Turkey, and deter an arms race on the island.

Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean have risen sharply since November 2019, when Turkey signed an agreement with Libya’s Government of National Accord, in which they claimed waters belonging to Greece and Egypt. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s gunboat diplomacy and his belligerent irredentist rhetoric that accompanies it have escalated tensions further.

In 2019, amid calls to lift the embargo, the House and Senate passed bills to that end, which became law as part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

Despite preconditions in the law that target Russia first and foremost, Ankara sees the lifting of the embargo as an attempt to push back against Turkey. For Ankara, Washington’s move builds on the European Union’s threats last Friday to impose fresh sanctions unless Turkey takes steps to defuse its escalating dispute with Greece.

The Cyprus dispute and the tensions between Greece and Turkey, two key member states on NATO’s southeastern flank, continue to roil the Atlantic alliance, providing the Kremlin with opportunities to exploit. The United States should insist that Erdogan settle maritime disputes through bilateral and multilateral talks or at the International Court of Justice. If Erdogan employs threats and force to pursue his tendentious claims, Washington and its allies should hold him accountable. Washington should also continue to monitor Nicosia to ensure it remains on track with anti-money laundering measures and denying its ports to Russian military vessels. Ultimately, the only tangible result of an embargo that failed to reunify the island may be attenuating Russian influence through the ban’s lifting.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Aykan, the Turkey Program, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power Russia Sanctions and Illicit Finance Turkey U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy