Cyprus Gaffe Highlights Deeper Policy Flaw: Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland did not distinguish herself when, at a press conference in Cyprus during a tour through Europe, she spoke about a forthcoming meeting with Ersin Tatar, the leader of the Turkish-occupied northern portion of the country. “I’m going to go up to the north and spend a little time with President Tatar,” she said before someone in the audience queried her legitimization of the occupation by calling Tatar “president.” “I guess it was a mistake,” she said after confirming with her aides off-podium.
Put aside the projection to Cypriots that she visited without knowing the situation; those aware of the issues arising from an almost 50-year occupation need not clumsily page through notes.
The real problem is that the State Department believes it appropriate to speak in any way to Tatar. Tatar is a puppet of Turkey, no different than Philippe Pétain in Vichy France or Vidkun Quisling in World War II-era Norway were puppets of Germany. Tatar is an illegitimate ruler, empowered not by Cypriots, but by Turkish settlers. As such, he is the figurehead of the cultural genocide that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan conducts on the island as he tries to radicalize Cyprus’ traditionally moderate Muslim minority. If Turkey and its proxies really sought a diplomatic solution to the island’s partition, there would have been a resolution decades ago. The reality is northern Cyprus engages in diplomacy insincerely, as a tactic to delay resolution while they alter demography.
A broader problem, however, is that the State Department remains blind to such tactics. Rogue regimes commonly use proxies in order to advance their policy goals while avoiding accountability for their actions. To talk to Tatar replicates the same mistake which Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and both the Trump and Biden administrations made when negotiating with the Taliban and treating them as functionally different than Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency which directed, funded, and controlled them. It would also be no different than talking to Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, and believing him to be independent of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as some European diplomats and American progressives do. Likewise, it would be as illogical as treating Denis Pushilin, the leader of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” as anything more than a Kremlin placeholder.
If President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken truly want to revive American diplomacy, it is not additional money that the State Department needs but an end to pro forma stupidity. If the United States is to remain a superpower, it should not distract itself with proxies of hostile powers, but should hold their controllers accountable.
A rule-of-thumb should be if any politician cannot make an agreement without the approval of a regime in a foreign capital, then he is not worth engaging. Diplomacy with proxies has a high cost both by enabling aggressors to distract and delay and by legitimizing occupiers. Certainly, everyone in the State Department agrees that direct talks with leaders in Donetsk would not only be pointless, but they would actually do real harm by bestowing legitimacy on an illegitimate regime.
There is no difference between Donetsk and northern Cyprus. The United States should sanction northern Cypriot Quislings just as they do Ukrainian ones, not legitimize them. If the United States wants peace in Cyprus, it must understand northern Cyprus is a distraction.
The path to peace lies with maximum pressure on Ankara until the return of all Turkish settlers to Turkey proper and the dismantlement of any vestige of Europe’s longest occupation.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, co-author, and co-editor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).