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Northern Cyprus has become a Terror Safe-Haven

Fifty years ago next month, Turkish troops poured into Cyprus and seized one-third of the island. Contrary to Turkish propaganda, the Turkish Army’s seizure of one-third the island was not to protect Cypriot Muslims. Any threat to them had passed and all sides to the Cyprus conflict were negotiating in Geneva. Rather, the Turkish move was a naked land grab, no different than Germany invading Czechoslovakia or Russia invading Ukraine.


Fifty years ago next month, Turkish troops poured into Cyprus and seized one-third of the island. Contrary to Turkish propaganda, the Turkish Army’s seizure of one-third the island was not to protect Cypriot Muslims. Any threat to them had passed and all sides to the Cyprus conflict were negotiating in Geneva. Rather, the Turkish move was a naked land grab, no different than Germany invading Czechoslovakia or Russia invading Ukraine.

National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, however, was willing to give Turkey a free pass. Turkey was one of only two NATO countries that bordered the Soviet Union and its army was among NATO’s largest. “There is no American reason why the Turks should not have one-third of Cyprus,” Kissinger told President Gerald Ford. “The Turkish tactics are right — grab what they want and then negotiate on the basis of possession.” It was cynicism under the guise of sophistication. What Kissinger failed to recognize is that the world was not static, and countries deemed less important in his day could later become critical allies while those he considered pivotal states could become liabilities.

While the UN has maintained a peacekeeping force on the island for six decades and UN-appointed mediators have sought to negotiate a resolution to the island’s division for the last five decades, a solution is no closer now than it was after the Turkish army swarmed across northern Cyprus in 1974. Some Turks cite the Cypriot rejection of the 2004 Annan Plan to excuse Turkey’s continued occupation of one-third of another country, but the Cypriot rejection of Annan’s plan was wise. It was appeasement, plain and simple. While UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan described his plan as a comprehensive peace accord, it neither called for the complete withdrawal of Turkish forces nor were there enforcement mechanisms if Turkey and its proxies failed to uphold their end of the bargain. Indeed, under Annan’s plan Turkey even retained a right to intervene militarily in the future.

While UN efforts to roll back Turkey’s occupation have been a farce, successive U.S. administrations continue to accept to the status quo. UN-brokered talks allow the United States and the European Union to pretend they remain committed to a solution, even as they understand UN efforts go nowhere. Meanwhile, settlers from Turkey continue to pour into the occupied zone, marginalizing the Cypriots whom Turkey claims to protect.

While Kissinger and his acolytes might have considered the occupation of northern Cyprus as a minor problem low on the totem pole of crises to address, such acquiescence now poses a national security threat. Simply put, the status quo is no longer tenable. Not only does Turkey now push for a permanent division of the island, but northern Cyprus has now become a terror safe-haven and money laundering hub that presents a grave and growing threat to U.S. and European security.

There are four reasons why the United States can no longer afford to tolerate Turkey’s irredentism and occupation.

First, as illiberal rulers like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Nicolas Maduro challenge borders across the globe, blessing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proposal to divide Cyprus permanently would set a precedent that would threaten the liberal order. Recognizing Turkey’s conquest of Cyprus, even 50 years later, would mean accepting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Donbas. It would signal Maduro that time will reward any invasion of Guyana’s Essequibo region, and it would likewise justify both Pakistan’s occupation of Kashmir and China’s encroachment into India. An independent state in Northern Cyprus would be no different than Russia’s puppet Donetsk People’s Republic in Ukraine. It would simply be an interim entity awaiting annexation. Indeed, in March 2024, Erdogan showed his cards when he lamented that had the Turkish Army gone further in its invasion, all of Cyprus would be a Turkish state today.

Second, as Turkey completes its transition from trusted ally to terror sponsor and rogue regime, its presence in northern Cyprus is destabilizing. In 2011, Erdogan advisor Egemen Bagis, currently Turkey’s ambassador to the Czech Republic, warned that Turkey could use its Navy against Americans working in offshore Cypriot gas fields that Turkey claimed on behalf of its Cypriot proxy. Since, then, Turkey has transformed occupied Cyprus’ Lefkoniko Airport (or Geçitkale Air Base as Turkey has styled it) into a drone base from which unmanned Turkish aircraft can threaten shipping across the Eastern Mediterranean or make good on Erdogan’s threats against Israel.

Third, northern Cyprus today is a money laundering hub. Under Erdogan, Turkey has helped Iran and Russia evade sanctions. While Cyprus itself has both tightened financial regulations and increased its transparency to come into conformity with international standards, Turkey has deliberately maintained northern Cyprus as a legal and financial no-man’s land in which anything goes. This has served two purposes: First, Erdogan can feign a crackdown on money laundering and sanctions evasion in Turkey proper in order to claim good standing in the international financial system. Simultaneously, however, Turkey can simply offshore its illegal activities.

Fourth, the Turkish-occupied zone in Cyprus today increasingly becomes a terror safe haven. School teachers in northern Cyprus report that half the students in their classes today speak nothing but Arabic or Persian. Some may be legitimate refugees fleeing from Syria and Iran, but some terrorists hide within the refugee population. Cypriot intelligence has already disrupted a number of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps plots aimed at Israel and Jewish interests in Cyprus. What happens in Cyprus does not stay in Cyprus, however, as terror cells might try to cross the green line in order to access Cyprus and the European Union. Certainly, the U.S. should understand the lesson both of pre-September 2001 Afghanistan and the premature withdrawal from Iraq: When vacuums exist, extremists and terror groups fill them. That Turkey quietly aided both the Taliban and the Islamic State should raise alarm as it exploits a lawless zone much closer to Europe, Israel, and the Suez Canal.

What should the United States and Europe then do?

First, it is time to stop pandering and discount Turkish diplomatic bluster. Turkey occupies Cyprus. Refusing to call Cyprus occupied is not sophisticated; it is stupid. The United States and Europe should calibrate their policy to reality rather than wishful thinking. Accordingly, the Unites States and Europe should sanction northern Cyprus and Ankara for violations of religious freedom. Do not be fooled by Russian proposals to build a Russian Orthodox Church in the occupied zone. Cypriots need freedom of worship, not a Kremlin proxy operating under the guise of religion.

Second, the United States and Europe should cease bestowing any legitimacy to the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Both should shut down all TNRC offices, and they should deny their airspace to any airline that serves airports in the occupied zone. Likewise, both the United States and any European state should require all Cypriots to receive visas on Cypriot passports rather than Turkish passports or documents issued by the occupation authorities.

Third, the United States should calibrate any assistance to Turkey to its withdraw of forces and settlers from Cyprus. President Joe Biden’s provision of F-16s to Turkey is a legacy-defining mistake, akin to Donald Rumsfeld’s handshake with Saddam Hussein during the Reagan administration.

Fourth, the United States and Europe should sanction any property sales in northern Cyprus under money laundering provisions. There is little regulation in northern Cyprus, making it a destination of choice for those evading sanctions or seeking to avoid tax havens. Purchase of property by Turkish settlers, Syrians, and Iranians impede resolution of Cyprus’ division. Washington should use its leverage with Jerusalem to compel a crackdown on Israeli investment in the region for the same reasons and because they are targets for kidnapping and murder.

Finally, it is essential not to play into Turkey’s hands and reward intransigence or suggest any legitimacy to northern Cyprus. Washington should hold Ankara to account for the occupation, sanctioning as need be. As Turkey courts Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan to recognize northern Cyprus, the White House and State Department should make clear: Those countries must choose between northern Cyprus and the United States. They should seek positive relations with Cyprus and the broader European Union, not fall on Erdogan’s sword in support of a Turkish-occupied money laundering machine.

Fifty years has been long enough. It is time to get serious and play hardball.  

About the Author: Dr. Michael Rubin 

Michael Rubin is director of policy analysis at the Middle East Forum and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Rubin is also a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

Written By

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).