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Intel Brief on Violence in Cyprus


 
Map of Cyprus with border





Date: 04/09/2023

Location: the island of Cyprus

Parties involved: the United Nations, UNFICYP Peacekeepers, Turkish Cypriot authorities, the UN’s special representative in Cyprus, the government of the Republic of Cyprus.




What happened?

  • On 17/08/2023 Turkish Cypriot authorities unilaterally announced their decision to begin construction on a road linking the villages of Pyla/Pile and Arsos/Yigitler. The planned road would traverse the UN buffer-zone and grant Turkish Cypriots direct access to Pyla/Pile by circumventing a checkpoint at the Dhekelia British military base.

  • The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) immediately deemed the construction of such a road as “unauthorised” as it would alter the status-quo along the ceasefire lines and encroach into the buffer zone. Subsequently, UN Peacekeepers moved to block the road should construction begin.

  • On 18/08/2023 violence erupted after UN Peacekeepers attempted to prevent the building of the illegal road. Around a dozen UN Peacekeepers clashed with a group of Turkish Cypriot military and police personnel in plain clothes. Three Peacekeepers were injured and taken to hospital. Several UN vehicles were also badly damaged after Turkish Cypriots rammed them off the road or attempted to pull them away.

  • The clashes happened less than a mile from the perimeter of the Dhekelia military area, one of the two British sovereign bases on the island.

  • On 21/08/2023 the Cyprus representatives of the United Kingdom, France, and the United States all released a statement as permanent members of the UN Security Council. The statement expresses concern at the launch of an unauthorised construction by the Turkish Cypriot side and condemns the assaults on UN personnel and property as a serious violation of international law.

  • The de facto “government” of Northern Cyprus accused the UN of being biased against Turkish Cypriots and making unfounded claims that UN soldiers and property were attacked. According to the Turkish Cypriot side, the UN’s decision to physically intervene and obstruct the construction team operating within Turkish Cypriot territory was unacceptable.

  • The UN is maintaining a constant presence in the Pyla area to monitor the situation and prevent the recurrence of arbitrary operations. Despite reports by Turkish news agencies that construction work has continued as normal, the UN reported that the works have been halted since the incident on 18/08/2023.

  • On 01/09/2023 a solution was allegedly found to the controversy surrounding the Pyla-Arsos road. Mediation talks between the United Nations’ special representative in Cyprus, Colin Stewart, and the respective governments of the Republic of Cyprus and Northern Cyprus seem to have proved fruitful.

  • The agreement proposes that the road will be built with the condition that the UNFICYP will have the sole responsibility for the buffer zone area. The agreement also includes a plan for the development of the Pyla village regarding housing as well as agriculture in the surrounding area as far north as Pergamos.

  • However, the agreement has not yet been ratified. Further talks are needed regarding the special use management of the various zones within the Pyla area, taking into account local stakeholders.

  • Cyprus has also been experiencing violence due to tensions resulting from increased migration flows to the island. On 27/08/2023 and 28/08/2023, the Greek Cypriot local community clashed with Syrian asylum seekers in the village of Chloraka, leading to 21 arrests being made by the police in the aftermath of the riots. The violence also spread to Limassol on 01/08/2023 when a far right protest against migrants and refugees resulted in racist assaults and vandalism. A further 13 arrests have been made since.

Analysis:

  • With an apparent solution having been found recently, it is unlikely that the clash between UN Peacekeepers and Turkish Cypriots will lead to an escalation in the conflict. However, the agreement has still not been officially ratified which is cause for concern as tensions remain high in the Pyla/Pile area. Turkish Cypriot authorities are likely to continue to press for the construction of the road since it would offer residents of Northern Cyprus greater freedom of movement into the Pyla/Pile area. The peaceful resolution of the dispute will heavily depend on the UN’s mediation efforts led by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Cyprus, Colin Stewart. On the other hand, the UN is straddling an increasingly difficult position due to accusations from the Turkish government and the de facto Turkish Cypriot government that it has lost its neutrality in the conflict.


  • The violent incident involving UN Peacekeepers has brought the Cyprus conflict back into the attention of the international community at a challenging time for international security. The Security Council released a press statement on the matter on 21/08/2023 calling for the two sides to reach an agreement regarding the appointment of an UN envoy to support the return to urgent formal negotiations for a lasting settlement in Cyprus. Peace talks between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides have broken down since 2017 when a deal failed to materialise. The eruption of violence in the UN buffer zone is likely to serve as a reminder of the fragility of the peace that is keeping the Cyprus conflict in a frozen state. An escalation in the conflict would present severe consequences not only for the stability of the EU but also for the wider Eastern Mediterranean region due to Cyprus’ strategic position and the presence of 2 British military bases on the island. Unless formal peace talks resume in light of the seriousness of the situation, there is a considerable risk that Turkish-Greek Cypriot relations will continue to sour.


  • Whilst there have been previous infringements of the UN buffer zone in Cyprus over the years, they have never resulted in a violent altercation with UN Peacekeepers. The resort to force by Turkish Cypriot military and police personnel indicates an increase in the continuous challenge coming from the Turkish Cypriot side to UNFICYP’s authority and legitimacy to maintaining the status quo on the island. The official challenge first came in July 2018 when the former Turkish-Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci, sent a letter to the UN Security Council asking for the reassessment of the mandate of UNFICYP. Indeed, the Turkish Cypriot side insists that UNFICYP is cooperating with Turkish Cypriot authorities without a legal basis since consent for the admission and operation of a UN force has only been granted by the government of the Republic of Cyprus. However, because the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is not recognised by the UN as a sovereign state, it cannot give such consent under international law. The Turkish side is likely pushing for a “solution based on two states cooperating with each other” rather than the unification of Cyprus under a bizonal, bicommunal federation model as stipulated in previous UN Resolutions. This is certain to be a contentious issue in any formal negotiation on the Cyprus conflict and is therefore likely to lead to further challenges to the mandate of UNFICYP by the Turkish side.


  • There is a realistic probability that the migration crisis and violence experienced by the Republic of Cyprus has been aggravated by the actions of Turkey and the de facto Turkish Cypriot state. The government of the Republic of Cyprus claims that around 90% of migrants cross from mainland Turkey into the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north through a loosely regulated student visa system. Thousands then cross the UN buffer zone to seek asylum in the EU member Greek Cypriot south. Greek Cypriot national security officials have accused Turkey of waging a hybrid war against the Republic by using migration flows to escalate tensions and destabilise the country. Indeed, Turkey has previously been known to weaponize migration as a tool to accomplish broader political, economic, and foreign policy goals. The Turkish side may therefore be utilising migration as a tool to put pressure on the Greek Cypriot Republic and the international community to gain recognition for the sovereignty of the TRNC.


Conclusion


The violent clash between UN Peacekeepers and Turkish Cypriot military and police personnel over the construction of the Pyla/Pile-Arsos/Yigitler road has called attention to the possible volatility of the political situation in Cyprus. Moreover, the Turkish side is likely to continue to challenge the UN’s authority and legitimacy as the primary mediator on the Cyprus conflict and may therefore pursue further destabilising actions in order to extract political concessions. In light of the many geopolitical dynamics at play in Cyprus, the frozen conflict on the island as well as the status of UNFICYP must remain closely monitored.


 
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