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Who's at the Helm? Cyprus Navigating Conflict and Trade on the Global Stage

Updated: May 23

The Eastern Mediterranean is playing a critical role in the Israel-Hamas conflict. The important role the region plays in maintaining both freedom of navigation (FON) and undisrupted global trade has been proven beyond doubt by Friday night's joint UK-US air campaign against the Ansar Allah (Houthi) group in Yemen.

According to the BBC, four Typhoon fighter jets took off from RAF Akrotiri in the British Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus, dropping Paveway IV precision-guided bombs on Houthi launch sites and infrastructure. The jets covered approximately 1,500 miles (2,400km) from Cyprus to Yemen, supported by a Voyager refuelling tanker. The joint British-American operation struck more than 60 targets in 16 different sites across the country that included "radar systems, air defence systems, and storage and launch sites for one-way attack unmanned aerial systems, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles", as per the US Central Command (USCENTCOM), headquartered in Qatar. 

Much has been written and argued over the merits and dangerous allure of expeditionary warfare and remote war practices. The remotely coordinated and often remotely delivered air strikes against qualitatively inferior non-Western armies have been the cornerstone of the West's strategic model in the MENA region, in combination with Special Operation Forces and local proxy militia shouldering the burden of ground battles. 

It provides on-the-cheap intervention with little to no boots on the ground and hence minimal casualty rates while conventional airpower, drones and proxies fight in faraway lands removed from public scrutiny and, indeed, attention. 

As Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian suggests: "Any questions in parliament about them are met by the Ministry of Defence with "no comment", even when their presence in conflict zones has been established by the media."

While the US-led military response to the Houthi's hostile and disruptive attacks across the Red Sea should not be considered an act of remote war per se, with the ground and unmanned elements apparently missing, the geostrategic network supporting the operation was largely similar. The geopolitical significance of the UK's Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) in Cyprus stands out as the decisive enabling factor allowing the UK to secure FON, thereby preserving the sea lanes of trade and prosperity that continental Europe, the UK and beyond rely on. 

The joint cross-branch interoperability and combined multi-domain operations that form the tactical and strategic blueprint informing and driving modern expeditionary and air warfare campaigns require overwhelming material resources and bases to translate policy and military doctrine into practice. Those enabling and force-multiplying variables are often ignored or overshadowed by shallow generalisations on the character of the US and UK war in the MENA region and sensationalist TV news updates. 

Against this backdrop, what can be said about the seemingly invisible host nation of such potent regional order-shaping capabilities? 

Cyprus, aka the Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier, conspicuously positioned at the crossroads of East and West, has long been treated as a forward base, an occupied territory and most notably, a colonial subject unbecoming of any political agency of its own. Ottoman Turkey, the British Empire, now the Republic of Turkey and the UK have for centuries usurped, subjugated and stamped out the prospect of a free and united Cyprus through invasions, ethnic cleansing and de facto division and occupation. 

As far as the contemporary state of war on the island, conventional wisdom tends to frame it as "frozen", which is to say Turkey's occupation continues largely unimpeded and unchallenged by its NATO allies. In the permissive shadow of the offshore hegemon (US) and amidst the ongoing reaping of benefits by the former imperial proprietor (UK), the pursuit of peace on the tortured island has been downgraded to, at best, a cumbersome and hopeless endeavour that none of the purportedly liberally-minded great powers sincerely wishes to address. 

It is indeed darkly ironic that the UK has employed aircraft and personnel from the SBAs to perform Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance (ISR) missions off the coasts of Ukraine and Israel while Cyprus's fate hangs in the balance for now almost half a century.

Liberal delusions and hopes aside, the UK's historical and contemporary role in the Cyprus issue is pretty inconspicuous compared to its real lasting interest, maintaining its SBAs in the framework of the neocolonialist 1960 Treaty of Establishment

Article 2:

(2) The Republic of Cyprus shall cooperate fully with the United Kingdom to ensure the security and effective operation of the military bases situated in the Akrotiri Sovereign Base Area and the Dhekelia Sovereign Base Area, and the full enjoyment by the United Kingdom of the rights conferred by this Treaty. 

Article 3:

The Republic of Cyprus, Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom undertake to consult and cooperate in the common defence of Cyprus. The offshoring of Cypriot security and sovereignty to the Guarantor powers, Greece, the UK and Turkey, doomed the Republic at its birth.


The Treaty of Establishment was notably recently referred to by the Cypriot Defence Minister upon being asked to comment on the take-off of British aircraft from the Akrotiri base: "Regarding the use of UK bases in Cyprus, the government is in constant communication with the United Kingdom, always within the framework defined from the Treaty of Establishment and its accompanying documents". In this context, a Cypriot Foreign Ministry spokesperson told Cyprus Mail that "the Republic of Cyprus is not involved in [military] operations in the region."


Signed at the culmination of Cyprus's liberation struggle, the Treaty was accompanied by the official establishment of the Republic of Cyprus, "subject to the 1960 Constitution three Treaties (namely the Treaty of Establishment, the Treaty of Guarantee and the Treaty of Alliance) and three 'guaranteeing powers' (namely Greece, Turkey and the UK.)"


While official British records and some rather uncritical academic journals suggest that Greek-Cypriots are naive to see Britain's introduction of Turkey into "tripartite negotiations" over the status of Cyprus as designed to foster "intercommunal hostility" and division, the empirical record begs to differ. 

In the words of then British defence minister, Selwyn Lloyd: "Throughout the negotiations, we would aim to bring the Greeks up against the Turkish refusal to accept enosis [union with Greece] and so condition them to accept a solution which would leave sovereignty in our hands."


While Turkish offensive realism necessitated (and still does necessitate) strategic control of the island for the same reasons that the Ottoman Empire ceded Britain Cyprus in 1914 - imperial(ist) power projection and command of the sea lanes - Britain's invitation to Ankara functioned as a powerful diplomatic counterweight to Greek and Greek-Cypriot claims and influence. The neocolonialist Guarantor system not only legitimised external and foreign control over Cypriot affairs but also effectively paved the road for the July 20 and August 14 1974 Turkish invasions and occupation. 


21st-century Britain is perhaps not so much bothered by the illegal invasion and occupation of 40% of the Cypriot homeland, driven by Turkish state imperialism, masquerading as a "humanitarian intervention" for the protection of the island's Turkish minority. After all, cold, "realist" logic did not demand American or British efforts to deter Turkish expansionism. 

In the words of the late and deeply controversial Henry Kissinger, "There is no American reason why the Turks should not have one-third of Cyprus". 

It should, nevertheless, be stressed that there is not a single American or British realist argument for why Turkey should have "one-third of Cyprus", given the Erdogan government's profound anti-American and anti-Western tirades underpinning his fence-sitting in the Europe, Russia and US triangle. Balance-of-power politics and logic suggest that a truly sovereign and independent Cyprus would serve regional stability and order much more effectively than a 40% occupied Republic with no sufficient capabilities to police and regulate its northern territorial sea, let alone contribute to securing free trade flows in the Red Sea. 


Nevertheless, as long as British use of, and sovereignty over, the Akrotiri and Dekelia Sovereign Base Areas remains unimpeded and unchallenged, London seems content with, or at best unbothered by, the island's de facto division. If a genuinely independent and united Cyprus was not a desirable outcome in 1960, why would it be today? Could the United Island's Greek and Turkish Cypriots possibly demand another British withdrawal, completing the piecemeal and unfinished decolonisation of 1960? 


The joint US-UK strikes against the Houthis brought the island's timeless and invaluable strategic utility back to the forefront, as well as the geopolitical blessing and curse that has made Cyprus a prisoner to its own geography. 

Image: Cpl Lee Goddard


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