By Demetrios Nicolaides
WITH the US and the UK preparing and ready to launch missile and air strikes against Syrian government forces in the ongoing civil war, the possibility of increased tensions remains incredibly high. The negligent and belligerent attitude of the UK and the US put’s Cyprus in the cross-hairs. Four US Navy Destroyers have recently been re-deployed deeper in the eastern Mediterranean closer to both Cyprus and the ongoing Syria conflict. Cyprus is a mere 100km from the Syrian coast and the city of Latakia, Assad’s hometown and recently re-captured by government forces.
With two sovereign bases in Cyprus, the UK is also taking steps to increase security and military forces on the island. While the Cypriot Foreign Minister, Ioannis Kasoulides has stated that he does not expect the UK sovereign bases to play a major part in a military strike, it seems naïve to think so.
With these major military installations and other sophisticated and advanced radar systems on the island, coupled with the island’s close proximity to Syria, the possibility that UK forces or installations in Cyprus might be the target of retaliatory strikes is quite high. Recent reports also indicate that additional military reinforcements and strike aircraft have been spotted over Cypriot skies.
The potential for spillover from the conflict into Cyprus has also previously occurred. Recently, in July 2012, Cypriot authorities, acting on information from Israeli intelligence arrested a Lebanese born Swedish citizen, who admitted to being a member of the Shi’a militant group, Hezbollah who had been tasked with surveying Israeli tourist activity in Cyprus, possibly to carry out terrorist attacks against them.
A mere eleven days later, five Israeli tourists were killed in a suicide bombing in Bulgaria. In 2011, a confiscated Iranian shipment of munitions, perceived to be destined for Syria, exploded at the Cypriot Evangelos Florakis Naval base where they had been stored killing 13 sailors and damaging the island’s largest power station, causing rolling blackouts for months.
The costs of the explosion also had a significant impact on the island’s economic activity and contributed to the requirement for an international bailout in March.
The US & UK strike on Syria will surely be tactful and swift to limit the possibility of retaliation. However, when backed into a corner, the Assad government may target UK forces in Cyprus. The Syrian government is reported to posses ballistic missiles include SS-21s which, if fired from the re-captured city of Latakia can easily reach British bases in Dhekelia in the east of Cyprus, as they have a maximum range of 200Km.
As US and UK forces are largely out-of-range of these missiles and with the Iron Dome and other intercept missile systems offering a degree of protection to Israel, Cyprus-based targets may indeed be worthwhile.
In April of this year, it was reported that the Assad government had used the SS-21s against rebel forces on the outskirts of Damascus. Scud missiles are also in the arsenal of Assad, with a much larger range of approximately 650km and thus could easily reach US and UK forces in the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean and Israeli forces.
Due to this large risk, it is certain that these scud missiles will be targeted quickly by the pending Western strikes. While retaliatory missile strikes against UK forces in Cyprus is plausible, it is likely that should such missiles remain, following the US and UK barrage, that the Assad government would prefer to use them against rebel forces.
Regardless of whether retaliatory actions are taken by Assad, the US and UK pending strikes are the wrong course of action and will only serve to increase tensions. More efforts should be given to ending the violence immediately, disarming all belligerent forces and achieve a comprehensive political settlement to end the conflict.
Demetrios Nicolaides is a Limassol-based Conflict Consultant