In Missiles' Shadow: Cyprus Progress

Some weeks ago on a writing assignment in Cyprus, I visited the Turkish-occupied north of the island, curious to see daily life in this statehood-aspiring international outcast.

I was surprised to see an area buzzing with entrepreneurial activity, stunning Mediterranean villas under construction, and a fledgling Western business presence. The incredible sight of a huge, Turkish Cypriot flag painted on the side of a mountain looking down on the Greek side summed up this busy confidence: We're here, we're staying, get used to it.

Still, nothing would prepare me for the somewhat chilling display of national pride to be found in Kyrenia, the beautiful port city and landing site of Turkish forces during the 1974 invasion. There, an open-air museum of captured Greek tanks and artillery next to the bullet-pocked former house of a Greek Cypriot politician proudly showed off this power. My Turkish diplomat guide laughed, "And just think, in a few months - you'll see the missiles up here as well."

The missiles, the missiles. Today, 24 years after the de facto division of Cyprus, the island is best known for a set of 36 Russian surface-to-air missiles that the (Greek) Cypriot government will deploy this fall. The purchase is viewed as the most significant military provocation on the island since the invasion. The 200-mile range of the radar on the missile tips could potentially disrupt US intelligence networks in the Middle East. Turkey recently announced intentions to increase its own military arsenal on the island.

Yet in contrast to the hype over such concerns, the confidence displayed by Turkish officials underscores a less-alarmist view of the situation. Seeing themselves as part of a larger geostrategic necessity and security concern to the United States that favors their side in the long-term, the Turks bring attention to a different course of developments obscured by the usual panic and inertia. Indeed, any would-be country planning multimillion-dollar tourism ventures is hardly a place gripped by fears of war.

Such invigorated momentum on the Turkish side is clearly the island's most significant development in years. What's more, the Turks' increasingly blunt candor about their aims calls the bluff on 20 years of US diplomacy on Cyprus. Years of hand-wringing about international law, militarization, the threat of Russia, and growing tensions now seem dangerously two-faced.

First, an inflammatory issue such as the missiles gets put into proper perspective. As the Turks pointed out to me, Russia has been selling these S-300 missiles to the likes of Hungary, China, and India with little or no complaint from the US. As for Russia's looming presence in the NATO periphery, that's a done deal. The 1992 military technology agreement already made Turkey the first and largest NATO country to buy Russian weapons. What's more, as missile-saturated Turkey is but 40 miles from Cyprus and has famously boasted it can prepare and send over 20,000 men in 24 hours, the Greek Cypriots know as well that Turkey has little to fear.

Second, the Turks - in contrast to what the US tries to portray as a local, Balkan-type conflict - openly admit their strategic argument for wanting an independent north: shipping to Turkey's southern coast; the development of nuclear facilities in southern Turkey; oil shipping ports to be based in Ceyhan; fortified bases at Adana and Iskanderun; military relations with Israel. All are part of their need for an independent north.

The most outstanding factor in Turkey's favor, however, has been a long-time US-driven arms race between Turkey, Greece, and by extension Cyprus. With $150 billion to spend on modernization, Turkey is one of the largest and most loyal customers of the US.

FOR example, though criticizing the Turks for their famous walkout from the Cyprus peace talks last August, the US apparently overlooked the transfer of heavy arms earlier in the year from Turkey to the north of the island of more than 100 US-made advance-class main battle tanks. While wrist-slapping Turkey over a series of overflights in Greek airspace late last year, the US cleared the way for a long-delayed controversial $3 billion sale of attack helicopters.

While blaming Turkey and Turkish Cypriots for making provocative threats of war on Cyprus, Congress cleared the way for a copycat sale of 40 F-15 fighter aircraft - the most advanced of all and owned by only a few NATO countries - to match Greece's. Where is there any incentive to back down or compromise?

The so-called Cyprus question now enters a quarter-century of failed diplomatic resolve. The only progress is an increasing accommodation of the very Turkish presence the US calls an illegal occupier. We are curiously quick to see the missiles as having set Cyprus on the course for disaster - but shamefully less inclined to admit who has steered things down that path.

* Marcia Kurop, a former UN correspondent for the Monitor, writes about the UN for The Economist and specializes in Aegean-related issues.

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