Erdogan weaponises anniversary of the Cyprus conflict

Turkey now advocates a two-state solution

Thousands of tourists are flocking to Cyprus this summer for a quarantine-free holiday. But something is afoot on the Mediterranean island. A political campaign is putting at risk a fragile peace that for decades has prevented a return to some of the worst internecine violence in Europe of the past 50 years.

The region is the staging ground for historic tensions between Greece and Turkey. Northern Cyprus, a main flashpoint, has been an area that Ankara alone recognises as a separate country since Turkey occupied it in 1974. The move came after a military grouping, backed by Greece, attempted to annex the island. Both sides have been in constitutional limbo ever since.

Now, on the 47th anniversary of the Turkish incursion, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is increasing tensions to levels not seen in years, by calling for a new process that recognises the north and south of the island as two separate states, not one unified country. The EU, of which Greece is a member, has said it would "never accept" such an arrangement.

Exploiting nationalist causes is a known tactic of Mr Erdogan and an effective vote-winner. But Cyprus holds a particular importance for him, as an issue that played a major role in shaping his brand of grievance politics. Having once accepted the reunification of the island, he became disillusioned with the idea after the diplomatic failure of a UN push to unite both sides in 2004. His faith in multilateralism is yet to fully recover.

Today, the Cyprus issue is full of symbolism that will probably boost his domestic appeal, much needed during a time of economic malaise. Mr Erdogan laid out his new vision for the island at a rally in the country's divided capital, to much fanfare and flag-waving. Officials in the north have also unveiled confrontational plans to resettle parts of the abandoned eastern town of Varosha, an area that was abandoned by its Greek residents decades ago in the face of advancing Turkish troops.

The issue of identity on the island is a complex one. Both Turkish and Greek Cypriots have been the victims of a difficult past and both are entitled to live without the looming threat of escalation. What is not acceptable is the interference of a powerful external state that chooses to break from precedent for its own domestic, political reasons.

Unfortunately, Mr Erdogan is not afraid of such ventures. For example, Turkey claims that a 2019 campaign in northern Syria was focused on securing its dangerous border with the war-torn country. But the offensive was also cover to confront regional Kurdish fighters, whom it deems terrorists, despite them being key western allies in the fight against ISIS.

Cyprus might be another vote-winner. But it is too early for Mr Erdogan to be sure of an unchecked success. The patience of countries in the Middle East and Europe is being tested, and alliances are being forged in response. Awakening old and dangerous ghosts on the island could be an affront too far.

Updated: July 22nd 2021, 1:15 PM