Forty-five years ago, the U.S. Congress imposed an arms embargo on Cyprus. “Defense articles of United States origin may not be transferred to or used on Cyprus by Turkey or Greece,” the amendment to the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act read. The logic of the arms embargo was two-fold: deny weaponry in order to encourage diplomacy and avoid a regional arms race.
It failed. Not only did the embargo punish Cyprus for Turkey’s invasion more than a decade before, but subsequent diplomacy also went nowhere.
Turkey simply doubled down on its occupation. Today, Turkey uses its military might to occupy portions of Syria and Iraq, threaten Greece, and it pursues ethnic cleansing against Kurds, Yezidis, and Armenians. Egemen Bagis, one of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s closest advisors and today his ambassador in Prague, even threatened to use force against Americans. Over the past two years, Turkey has shredded the status quo on the island with unilateral moves toward Varosha. It has even established a drone base at an airstrip in occupied northern Cyprus from which it can threaten much of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Two years ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo moved to right the wrong and roll back the arms embargo. In practice, however, the Pentagon only chipped away at it, though, providing Cyprus non-lethal goods. As the Biden administration considers the future of the embargo, it is time to do far more and arm Cyprus.
The reasons to do so are multifold:
First, it helps Ukraine. Because of the unilateral American embargo, much of Cyprus’ weaponry today is Soviet or Russian in origin. The country’s National Guard still uses Russian rifles, rocket propelled grenades. It drives Russian tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, and flies Russian helicopters among others. Cypriot artillery is Russian, Yugoslavian, or from elsewhere in the former Eastern bloc. While Israel reportedly is providing its Iron Dome defense to the island, much of Cyprus’ existing air defense is also Russian in origin.
As Western European countries resist the provision of weaponry and equipment to Ukraine because they fear either depleting their stocks or because their rhetorical support for Ukraine’s resistance surpasses their actual willingness to aid Kyiv, Cypriot equipment could be available and because Ukraine also traditionally relies on Russian and East Bloc equipment, would require no retraining.
This, however, would require the United States to replace it. Doing so would fulfill a U.S. national interest. As Erdogan has driven Turkey away from the West, Cyprus has embraced the West fully and without precondition. It deserves Washington’s unflinching support.
Arming Cyprus is also necessary for balance. The Biden administration has endorsed the sale of F-16s and F-16 upgrades to Ankara, largely as a consolation package after Turkey lost the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Any such enhancement to Turkey’s air force is misguided, especially given Erdogan’s recent threats against Greece and Turkey’s revanchism.
For President Joe Biden to endorse an F-16 sale to Turkey without first guaranteeing Greece a qualitative military edge and providing Cyprus upgraded anti-aircraft systems, advanced drones, if not fighter jets would endanger allies and lead Erdogan to believe he had a green light for regional aggression.
None of this would be cheap. The total population of Cyprus is only about 1.3 million. The country simply cannot afford to buy top-shelf weapons systems. The financial bottom line, however, should not be the only consideration. After all, defending the liberal order from revisionist states like Russia and Turkey does not come cheap. Neither President Franklin Delano Roosevelt nor the Congress demanded the Lend Lease Act turn a profit. Nor did the Truman administration insist the Berlin Airlift make a profit. Both understood the value to the United States and the international liberal order far exceeded the immediate investment.
So it is today with Cyprus. The island, at least the two-thirds that Turkey does not occupy, alongside Israel and Greece are the frontline for democracies holding back an axis of autocracy. The United States has committed itself to Israel’s defense and enhanced its security alliance with Greece. The Cypriot arms embargo, while loosened by Pompeo, remains an artifact of the past with profound ramifications in the present day.
It is time to reverse course and provide Cyprus with a first-world military.
Expert Biography: Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor 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).