Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has a clear foreign policy strategy aimed at advancing his political goals. Typically, when he decides to make a significant foreign policy move, he first makes a statement or takes an action that serves as a catalyst for international escalation. This ensures that he becomes a key player, recognized by all parties as an essential mediator. Erdoğan subsequently de-escalates the situation and strives to win the admiration of both the Turkish domestic audience and the global community as a leader capable of resolving crises.
The Cyprus issue serves as a regular tool in Erdoğan’s foreign policy toolbox. By raising tensions over Cyprus, he forces the international community to take note of his presence and demands. He then uses this spotlight to extract concessions in the international arena or to consolidate his domestic power.
The Erdoğan administration officially asserts that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) is an independent and sovereign state, although the KKTC government is recognized only by Turkey. However, this claim is contradicted by Turkey’s substantial involvement in KKTC affairs, from influencing elections to directing both domestic and foreign policy by way of its appointed ambassador. The KKTC often functions more like a Turkish province than a separate entity. Given this level of control, it’s difficult to argue that the KKTC conducts its foreign policy independently, based solely on its own interests. Consequently, any incidents involving the KKTC, such as a recent altercation between peacekeepers from the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) and local Turks and police forces in the UN-controlled buffer zone—sparked by the Pile-Yiğitler road construction project that commenced on Aug. 17—cannot be viewed as isolated from the influence of the Erdoğan administration. According to a statement made by the UN, four peacekeepers were wounded on Aug. 18 as they tried to block “unauthorized construction work” near Pile. The European Union condemned Friday’s violence, and Washington blamed it on unauthorized construction begun on the Turkish Cypriot side.
Cyprus achieved independence in 1960 through a constitution that aimed to harmonize the interests of its Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. This was solidified by a treaty involving Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom that guaranteed Cyprus’s constitutional framework, territorial integrity and sovereignty. However, the idea of balanced coexistence quickly unraveled, culminating in inter-communal violence in December 1963. With peace efforts failing, the UN Security Council (UNSC) enacted Resolution 186 (1964), establishing UNFICYP. The force was mandated to prevent further hostilities, restore law and order and foster a return to normalcy.
The situation escalated again in 1974 with Turkish military intervention on the Island, prompting the Security Council to expand UNFICYP’s responsibilities. This included supervising the de facto ceasefire established on Aug. 16, 1974 and managing a buffer zone to separate the Cyprus National Guard from Turkish and Turkish Cypriot forces.
The buffer zone — also called the Green Line — extends approximately 180 kilometers across the island. In some parts of old Nicosia it is only a few meters wide, while in other areas it is a few kilometers wide. Its northern and southern limits are the lines where the belligerents stood following the ceasefire of Aug. 16, 1974 as recorded by UNFICYP.
Keeping with the evolving complexities of the situation, the Security Council reviews UNFICYP’s mandate biannually, guided by reports from the secretary-general every June and December. To this day, the mandate continues to be renewed, underscoring the unresolved nature of the Cyprus conflict.
The UNSC has extended the UNFICYP beyond Jan. 31, 2023. The decision was made in line with Resolution 2674, which the UNSC adopted on Jan. 20, 2023. The text of the resolution emphasizes that the consent of the Government of Cyprus was taken into account in making the decision. Turkey and the KKTC claim that the UN should also obtain the consent of the KKTC as a sovereign state in order to extend the mandate of UNFICYP. The resolution also states that the parties should refrain from illegal construction in the buffer zone and avoid any behavior that would jeopardize peace and security in the buffer zone and undermine the authority of UNFICYP.
Under these circumstances, the appropriate course of action would have been to cooperate with the UN on constructing the Pile-Yiğitler road. Part of the road would pass through the UN-controlled buffer zone, facilitating access to the north of the island for Turkish Cypriots living in the village of Pile. The Turkish Cypriots could have used diplomatic channels to cooperate with the UN to construct the road. They could have pointed to the example of the Pile-Oroklini road, which was previously built by Southern Cyprus and passed through the buffer zone. By cooperating with the UN and using diplomatic channels, the Turkish Cypriots could have avoided the subsequent clashes with UNFICYP forces.
The Erdoğan administration’s foreign policy towards the EU and the Cyprus issue
The Erdoğan administration is facing an economic crisis and needs financial support, especially from EU countries, and foreign direct investment in Turkey. To convince the EU that Turkey is reorienting its course towards the West, Erdoğan must take concrete steps. A concrete step by the Erdoğan administration to resolve the Cyprus issue may be enough to convince the EU.
However, before taking a step on Cyprus that could be considered a step back by the Turkish public, the Erdoğan administration drew attention to the Cyprus problem by creating a crisis over the construction of the Pile-Yiğitler road. In the buffer zone, there was an altercation between KKTC citizens and police officers and UNFICYP soldiers trying to prevent the road construction, with vehicles bearing UN emblems sustaining damage. The UNSC issued a press statement condemning the KKTC for the incidents. These events have damaged the image of the Turkish Cypriot community, which has gone from being right to being wrong.
If Erdoğan follows his usual foreign policy approach, the following developments may take place in the near future regarding the Cyprus issue: After a short period, the Erdoğan administration could announce its readiness to resume negotiations at the UN, thereby convincing the EU that Turkey’s course is back towards the West, and at the same time, defusing a crisis in the Cyprus buffer zone, thereby giving President Erdoğan credibility with the EU and the UN.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.