At first glance, Cyprus would appear to have little connection to either the forthcoming clash with Iraq or the ongoing war against international terrorism. Yet, the fate of this divided Mediterranean isle is closely linked with both. British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon, visiting Turkey in an effort to enlist Ankara’s full participation in any potential military action against Iraq, said on January 8th that it was critical to demonstrate to Baghdad that the international community was “not simply going to pass resolutions and not see them enforced” and that “we restore Iraq to the international community as a peaceful neighbor of Turkey, that we work together to ensure a peaceful outcome to the present difficulties.” Both outcomes are far more likely if a U.N.-drafted peace plan for Cyprus is accepted as the basis for a final agreement that would end a longstanding source of instability and tension in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Much attention has been rightfully focused on the February 28th deadline for a settlement. If an agreement cannot be reached, only the portion of the island controlled by the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus will be admitted, leaving the unrecognized “Turkish Republic of North Cyprus” outside of the common European home, and further impeding the eventual accession of the Turkish mainland into the EU.
But there are more immediate consequences. Carl Bildt, former U.N. Special Envoy for the Balkans, observed that a settlement for Cyprus “concerns not only a divided island in the eastern Mediterranean, or the relationship between two important countries straddling the divide between Europe and the Middle East. It is of key importance in the quest for peace and stability in the entire post-Ottoman area that stretches from Bihac in Bosnia in the north-west to Basra at the Persian Gulf in the south-east.”
The peace plan put forward by Kofi Annan envisions a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation for the island. Admittedly, it is not a perfect solution, for it tries to balance between the competing and clashing claims to self-determination of Cyprus’s Greek majority and Turkish minority. What it attempts to do is to provide a workable mechanism for two communities to live and co-exist in shared geographic space within the framework of the internationally recognized Cypriot state and under the rubric of a common Cypriot nationality that does not require ethnic homogenization. At the same time, it hopes to prevent the opening of a Pandora’s box that could plague the entire Eastern Mediterranean: revising state boundaries; a plague that many fervently hoped the 1975 Helsinki Final Act had banished from Europe once and for all.
Iraq faces many of the same issues that bedevil Cyprus. Its current solution has been to subordinate all regional and ethnic groups to the personal, dictatorial tyranny of Saddam Hussein. When his regime falls, however, something must take its place. Simply dividing Iraq into three “cantons” — a Shiite province in the south, a Sunni center, and a Kurdish statelet in the north — is a recipe for disaster. Not only does such a “solution” fail to consider that populations are not neatly segmented (Baghdad, after all, has a largely Shiite population) and ignore other ethnic minorities dispersed throughout the country, it would preclude any central “Iraqi” identity from developing. This, in turn, would increase the risk of regional strife that would draw in neighboring states. (I commend readers to Dan Byman’s excellent essay on this subject.)
On the other hand, a functioning Cypriot bi-zonal, bi-communal federation could serve as a model for reconstructing postwar Iraq in a fashion that respects local autonomy yet permits freedom of movement and investment across Iraq, allows for the creation of a durable Iraqi “identity” and maintains a viable Iraqi state within its current boundaries.
Another reason for making a settlement on Cyprus an urgent priority is that it can produce momentum toward solving other lingering conflicts in the Balkans and the Caucasus that have produced “brown zones” (whether unrecognized statelets like Abkhazia or ill-defined international protectorates like Kosovo) where definitive state authority is lacking. Such “holes” in the international system help to facilitate the activities of terrorists, organized crime factions and drug smugglers. If a workable bi-communal, bi-zonal federation can be created for Cyprus, it could then serve as a model upon which solutions for ethno-separatist conflicts such as Nagorno-Karabakh or Trans-Dniestria could be crafted. It might also help to redefine and strengthen currently weak states such as Bosnia, which endures largely because of the ongoing infusion of outside capital and troops to sustain the Dayton Accords. Crafting more viable states throughout the arc of Eurasia serves long-term American interests as well. After all, the best means for weakening international terrorist networks are effective governments that can police their borders and exercise supervision over their territories.
Cyprus is not simply a “European” problem. It requires continued American effort as well. It is not a “distraction” from the larger problems that beset the United States. Rather, Cyprus may provide a way to deal with larger headaches in the years ahead.
— Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.