Cyprus, Global Grand Strategy, and the Conflict in the Levant

Nodes of institutional flexibility in the international system are difficult to locate. Geopolitical locations where overlapping institutional arrangements make for possibilities of dynamic coordination are fortuitous but require nimble diplomatic maneuvering and long-term foresight among foreign ministers, international agencies, and policy advisers. Cyprus occupies such a location in the construction of global grand strategy in the Levant. It does so because of its unique geopolitical and institutional place in international society. It is a divided frontier at the edge of the European Union. It exists at the confluence of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, as well as Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. It is in the EU but out of NATO. It is a sovereign member of international society, yet burdened by (mis)use of its territory by regional and global powers.[1] It is one of few states in the region with a pragmatic and non-aligned approach to both the United States and Russia. A solution to its divided status offers an uncommon opportunity to unite not only the two communities on the island, but also regional actors, in a coordinated strategy for the greater Levant.[2] In the discussion that follows, I briefly explore four key relationships in the foreign policy of Cyprus. Then, I explain how re-imagining these relationships makes Cyprus a node of institutional flexibility in the construction of a global grand strategy for the greater Levant.

First, Cypriot membership in the EU affords it an institutional shield that other states in the region cannot claim. As a member of the EU, it has an opportunity to act as a forum for a more robust and coordinated common foreign and security policy. To date, EU policy has been a reaction to UNSC policy and the individual actions of EU member states. It remains broadly traditional in its orientation around the isolation of the recalcitrant Assad regime and the destruction of ISIL. The complex of Council decisions and regulations, as well as subsequent revisions and amendments, are meant to restrict interactions across all sectors of state policymaking, isolate key individuals from participation in international society, and signal to regional and international actors who and what counts as members of international society.[3] To argue, however, that implementation of these actions has led to a common foreign and security policy with respect to Syria, or to make the more substantive claim that such directives and regulations provide evidence of EU grand strategy is misleading. At best, these policies represent patterns of behavior meant to discipline EU actors in their interactions with others deemed beyond the boundaries of international society. Still, the EU, as an actor in international society, has an important institutional role to play. And, its most southeastern member state could act as a centre of coordination for that role.

Second, few states in the eastern Mediterranean have strong, positive bilateral relationships with both the United States and Russia. Given the Russian bond with the Assad regime in Syria and US hegemonic influence and interest in the region, Cyprus could play an important role in coordinating the common interests of these two states. Russia has tied its foreign policy goals to a crumbling regime whose legitimacy, authority, and control of the state are tenuous at best. Few analysts believe that Russia has the long-term stamina (military and financial) to support Assad’s Syria and Russian overtures to Cyprus suggest that even Russia recognizes that new options are necessary.[4] Moreover, once other important actors in international society accepted the necessity of regime change, Russia became the only actor available to rebuild the infrastructure in a post-conflict Syria headed by Assad. Given its internal economic woes, it seems unlikely that Russia will be able to function as a primary donor for such a highly unlikely reconstruction. Cyprus, however, may provide an alternative vehicle for Russian interests in the region. The island is outside of NATO and (institutionally) separate from the US security alliance. Britain, seeking a somewhat independent post-WWII grand strategy and wishing to retain some freedom of action in the Middle East, declared Cyprus (and after independence, the SBA) to be outside of NATO.[5] Because the island is beyond the NATO umbrella, Cyprus has unique standing in the region.

With careful agreement and a clear understanding of limitations, Cyprus could serve its own interests by coordinating the common interests of the United States and Russia. The foundations of this complex relationship are already in place. Cypriot negotiations with Russia for use of the Andreas Papandreou Airbase in Paphos for humanitarian purposes are a beginning.[6] So too, was the decision by the GoC to limit that agreement to non-military purposes.[7] Cyprus plays a unique role in coordinating US, Russian, and other actors’ military and humanitarian interests in the region.

Third, one of the most complex bilateral relationships that Cyprus must navigate is its relationship with the United Kingdom. Cyprus must deal with the complex of SBA installations maintained by its former colonizer. The manner in which this legal restriction infringes upon the full sovereignty and foreign policy maneuvering of Cyprus should not be dismissed. Consistently, these installations complicate its own foreign and security policies, its bilateral relationships, and its institutional commitments. Use of RAF Akrotiri to launch bombing sorties over Syrian airspace and the more clandestine use of the SBA to support surveillance activity for more states than just the UK undermine perceptions of Cypriot sovereignty and invoke images of neo-colonial influence on a full-fledged member of international society.[8] The conflict in the Levant provides Cyprus with an opportunity to seek a new legal relationship with Britain regarding the SBA. The new relationship could improve GoC freedom of action and re-construct the sovereign relationship between former colony and colonizer.

Fourth, perhaps the most important relationship with Cyprus is that which exists among the various communities that make up its collective self. This is not the place to examine the origins of the Cyprus problem or the associated identity constructs that grew and reified as a result of that problem.[9] Nor is it the place to explore how those identities continue to limit the diplomatic and societal imagination. However, the potential that the current negotiations provide an opening to re-imagine what counts as Cypriot, what it means to be part of Cyprus, and what such a common narrative would mean for international society should not be underestimated. No solution to the division of the island is possible without a re-imagined identity. To assume such is to misunderstand the concept of security and its necessary role in the formation and maintenance of the state.[10]

As important as a common narrative is to the future of a unified Cyprus, it is just as important to international society. The conflicting identities in Cyprus are not unique to the island but representative of a larger conflict between and among regional and global actors. Few locations around the world offer opportunities to re-envision the relationship between Christianity and Islam, the west and the east, and Europe and its Moslem neighbors. Identities are stable constructions in which actors operate and make sense of the world.[11] They cannot be re-imagined quickly and made to work as tools for ordering choices and making decisions. Yet, civil society in Cyprus has had decades to build stable identity constructs inclusive of otherness.[12]


[1] While the most obvious ‘mis-use’ of Cypriot sovereign territory is the occupation by Turkey, equally problematic is the use of the island by the UK through its complex of SBA sites. See, Petros Savvides, “The Geostrategic Position of Cyprus: Israel’s Prospect for Strategic Depth in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Eastern Mediterranean Geopolitical Review 1 (Fall 2015), 6-20 (8-12).
[2] Any discussion of Cyprus as a node of institutional flexibility would necessarily exist on the understanding that a solution to the division of the island is at hand.
[3] EU Council Directive 2013/255/CFSP Concerning Restrictive Measures Against Syria, Official Journal of the European Union 147/14 (1.6.2013).
[4] Masis Der Parthogh, “Russia keen to use military bases in Cyprus” Cyprus Mail 21 January 2015,
Accessed on April 7, 2016.
[5] Evanthis Hatzivassiliou, “Cold War Pressures, Regional Strategies, and Relative Decline: British Military and Strategic Planning for Cyprus, 1950-1960,” The Journal of Military History 73 (October 2009), 1143-1166 (1160).
[6] Masis Der Parthogh, “Russia keen to use military bases in Cyprus.”
[7] Jean Christou, “No question of Russian bases on Cyprus,” Cyprus Mail 9 February 2015,
Accessed on April 7, 2016.
[8] Gareth Jennings, “UK debuts ‘bunker buster’ bombs against the Islamic State,” Jane’s Defence Weekly 26 April 2016,
Accessed May 21, 2016.
[9] Stella Soulioti, Fettered Independence: Cyprus, 1878-1964 (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Rebecca Bryant and Yiannis Papadakis, eds, Cyprus and the Politics of Memory: history, community and conflict (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012).
[10] See, Anthony D. Lott, Creating Insecurity, 56-64.
[11] Badredine Arfi, “Ethnic Fear: The Social Construction of Insecurity,” Security Studies 8 (Autumn 1998), 151-203, (152).
[12] See, for instance, Marios Epaminondas, et. al., “Home for Cooperation (H4C),” The Association for Historical Dialogue and Research (Nicosia, Cyprus: K&L Lithofit Ltd, 2011).

Anthony Lott

Associate Professor of Political Science
St. Olaf College

First Published at “In Depth Volume 13, Issue 4, August 2016″

The Future of Gulf-Asia Relations

In the first semester of 2017, Gulf politics were marked by numerous international events. Among them, three had a distinct significance. First, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, travelled to Delhi at the end of Januarywhere he was invited as guest of honor to the celebration of India’s Republic Day, a privilege given in the recent past to the former US and French Heads of State, Barack Obama and Francois Hollande. Four weeks later, the ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Salman, embarked on a historical month-long Asia tour that brought him to Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Japan, and China. Lastly, in June, in the midst of the biggest diplomatic crisis within the Gulf Cooperation Council opposing Qatar to Saudi Arabia and others, Turkish President Erdogan announced the speeding up of Turkey’s military base in Doha, its first overseas military permanent deployment since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

These three episode highlight one common development: Gulf strategic partnerships are no longer exclusively looking at the US and Western traditional powers and eye increasingly towards Asia. These new ties do not serve as a substitute but have a pragmatic purpose: to send a signal to Washington. In other words, this Gulf-Asia rapprochement can be understood as a way for Arab rulers to hedge against the declining influence of the US.

This new geopolitical landscape is the result of two separate trends from the last decade. First, from the chaotic reconstruction of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein to the inconsistencies of the Obama policy in the Middle East, the unpredictability of US policy in the region grew and caused local actors to diversify their strategic options.

Second, the growth of Asian economies – in particular India, China, Japan, and South Korea – is now driving oil markets. This means by extension that Asia’s economic ties to the Gulf are becoming more consequential than those of Western powers with Arab oil producers. If we exclude the US, the four biggest importers of oil in the world are today in Asia: China, India, Japan and South Korea which total 40.6% altogether of oil purchases in 2016. Over the next fifteen years, China, India and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will define the global energy consumption, leaving the countries of the OECD far behind.

The conjunction of these two trends has several ramifications. To start with, economic interdependence begets common security interests. The flow of commodities from the Arab peninsula to the Asia Pacific region relies on regional and maritime stability. Any trouble onshore (e.g. failed State, civil war) or offshore (piracy attacks) can disrupt this movement. This is why the last years have been marked by an increased role of Gulf and Asian navies in counterpiracy operations in the Indian Ocean. Likewise, Gulf stability is becoming a security priority for Asian countries, as evidenced by documents such as China’s Arab Policy Paper.

This interdependence may rely on Gulf oil supplies but it is widening its scope to include other sectors. A South Korean consortium has been building the UAE’s first nuclear plants since 2009. Saudi Arabia aims to follow the same path as it signed partnerships for its own nuclear program with South Korea and China. Investments in infrastructures also play a central role in Gulf relations with India and China, especially as countries like Saudi Arabia aim to position them as regional hubs for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In addition to these economic indicators, Gulf-Asia ties are also visible in the military domain. High level visits between military commanders increased, multiple defense agreements were signed and followed by numerous cooperation programs in the field of military education or joint training.

If this rapprochement is significant, does it mean a geopolitical revolution in the Gulf? One has to remain cautious: as of today, it does not mean a realignment of Gulf countries between the US and Asian powers. At the military level, it is unlikely that any country – be it China or India – could and would replace both the resources and the security guarantees provided by the US to the Peninsula. Moreover, the strategic rapprochement between Gulf and Asian countries may also be impeded by the way it impacts – as well as is impacted by – the local competitions. For instance, it is not clear how Gulf countries, which historically have had a strong military relationship with Pakistan, could strengthen their strategic dialogue with India without challenging their ties to the former. This is why this new geopolitical landscape should neither be ignored nor overestimated. In any event, given the current foreign policy style of the Trump presidency, the logic of hedging – meaning for Gulf countries to diversify their international relations and to cover against the US unpredictability – is likely to become the new pattern of Gulf strategies but it remains to be seen how much it will affect the regional security system on the long term.

* The views expressed in this paper are strictly those of the author. They do not reflect the views of the UAE National Defense College, or the government of the United Arab Emirates.

Jean-Loup Samaan
Associate Professor in Strategic Studies
UAE National Defense College

First Published at “In Depth Volume 14, Issue 6, December 2017″