The foreign minister of the divided island of Cyprus is accusing Turkey's president of attempting to promote a new Ottoman empire in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East — and says such an approach to geopolitics could adversely impact regional security.
Nikos Christodoulides, whose Mediterranean island nation is divided into a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and internationally recognised Greek Cypriot south that is a member of the European Union, pointed to what he called aggressive Turkish behavior not only in Cyprus but in Syria, Iraq, Libya and other Arab countries in the region.
“We see the militarization of the Turkish foreign policy,” Christodoulides said in an interview with The Associated Press, “and this is of great concern for all the countries in the region.”
Christodoulides invoked the Ottoman empire, which controlled much of southeastern Europe, western Asia and northern Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries from Constantinople, which is now Turkey's largest city, Istanbul.
The empire entered World War I on the side of Germany and the central powers that were defeated, leading to its breakup and the rise of the modern Turkish republic.
Christodoulides cited former Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu's policy of “zero problems with neighboring countries,” which was a flagship concept of the ruling Justice and Development Party led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“From zero problems with the neighbors we end up today with Turkey having problems with all neighbours,” he said. “There is not a single country that doesn't have problems with Turkey.”
“What we are witnessing from Turkey is an attempt to promote a new Ottoman policy in the region,” the Cypriot minister said. “Turkey wants to become the regional hegemony.”
Christodoulides was interviewed Monday, the final day of the U.N. General Assembly's annual high-level gathering of world leaders, after U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hosted Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar in hopes of jump-starting a return to negotiations to reunite the Mediterranean island nation.
Numerous rounds of U.N.-mediated talks have ended in failure, with the last push for a peace deal in July 2017 ending in acrimony.
That meeting also led to a shift by Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots toward seeking a two-state deal rather than pursuing their stated aim of reunifying the country as a federation made up of Greek and Turkish speaking zones as called for by the U.N. Security Council.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry didn't immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
Turkey's government, which takes pride in the country's Ottoman past, denies it has expansionist ambitions in the region and insists that its actions in the Mediterranean are geared toward safeguarding its interests and those of Turkish Cypriots on the divided island against what it regards as Cyprus and Greece's disproportionate maritime boundary and energy exploratory claims.
Turkey maintains troops in northern Iraq and frequently conducts cross-border operations there to battle Kurdish militants. It has also sent troops to Syria with the stated aim to clear militia forces linked to the Kurdish insurgency from its borders.
In Libya, Turkey provided military support to the country's U.N.-backed government, helping to tip the balance in the conflict against the Benghazi-based forces that controlled the east. Turkey also signed an agreement with the Tripoli-based government delineating the maritime boundaries which triggered protests from Greece and Cyprus.
Christodoulides said Erdogan's recent announcement of a drone base in breakaway northern Cyprus is an example of Turkey's Ottoman policy.
“The main reason for establishing this drone base is to control the Middle East, is to control Israel, it's to control Egypt,” he said. “It's not for Cyprus, actually, because you don't need a drone base in Cyprus in order to see the situation in the island.”
Christodoulides said the Cypriot government vehemently opposes a two-state solution because it will give Turkey full control of “a so-called Turkish Cypriot sovereign state,” which isn't the case today because only Turkey recognises the Turkish Cypriot north, not the international community.
“So, they run with this to control the region, to promote its plan for the eastern Mediterranean,” he said.
The top Cypriot diplomat said that to understand Erdogan's policy in Cyprus it must be seen in the context of what Turkish forces are doing in northern Syria and Iraq, in Libya and in some African countries.
Christodoulides said Cyprus is working to bolster its security with its neighbors, especially Israel and Egypt, but also the United States, recalling that Cyprus signed a statement of intent for security cooperation with the U.S. in 2018 that is “very important.” Also important, he said: that the EU is considering developing “a security wing.”
The Cypriot minister renewed an invitation to Turkey — made last year by the leaders of Cyprus, Egypt and Greece — to become a partner in reaping the potential benefits of offshore gas deposits, while urging Ankara to end its “aggressive” actions in the eastern Mediterranean.
“We don't exclude anybody,” he said. “We want all the neighboring countries to work in order to take advantage of the energy possibilities of our region.”
Christodoulides said all countries in the region have delineated their maritime borders except Turkey, adding that it has refused to enter bilateral relations to determine its border with Cyprus or go to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.
“We want and we're ready to work with Turkey,” he said. “What we're asking from Turkey — just to respect international law, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
He said all other countries in the region understand the benefits of cooperation, “but also the fact that united we will be able to tackle the challenges of the region, to work together.” He pointed as an example to this summer's wildfires in Cyprus, Greece and Israel which saw many countries in the region offer help.
Cyprus' long-term vision, Christodoulides said, is to establish a regional organization for security and cooperation.
“It's the only region in the world that no such organization exists,” he said. “And we believe that all the countries of the region, they can see benefits out of this regional cooperation.”