By Stefanos Evripidou
FOREIGN MINISTER Ioannis Kasoulides yesterday held separate meetings with British, American and French diplomats to discuss developments in Syria, while also discussing with four cabinet ministers preparations for the possible evacuation of foreign nationals from Syria.
With the tide turning eerily towards greater foreign involvement in the Syrian civil war, following the suspected use of chemical weapons, Cyprus has become a focal point for potential evacuations of foreign nationals from the war-torn country, while reports also suggest possible use of British bases on the island in any Western retaliation against the Syrian regime.
Kasoulides yesterday met separately with British High Commissioner Matthew Kidd, US Ambassador John Koenig and French Counsellor (Charge d’Affaires) Eric Millet to discuss the situation in Syria.
According to an official announcement, the meetings are part of the review of recent developments in the region, especially following information regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
The foreign minister also met with the ministers of defence, interior, justice and communications to review preparedness levels for the coordination of services to implement contingency plans in the event of a mass evacuation of foreign nationals from Syria.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Kasoulides stressed there was no immediate threat towards Cyprus, its people or tourism sector in view of possible developments in Syria.
He said the five ministers held a “productive meeting”, and were followed by ministry services who discussed how to better coordinate in the event of new developments in the region.
“All relevant departments and services of the Republic of Cyprus are preparing for every eventuality, in view of possible developments in the region,” the minister told reporters.
“There are agreements for use of the territory of Cyprus to serve citizens of friendly countries to Cyprus. There are specific plans provided by the agreements and Cyprus wants to be ready for every eventuality,” said Kasoulides.
“We take precautionary measures but that does not mean that there is any foreseeable threat to the safety of Cyprus, its population and its tourism.”
Speaking to the Cyprus News Agency before the ministerial meeting, Communication and Works Minister Tasos Mitsopoulos said the ministers would examine implementation of the national emergency plan ‘Estia’, which includes use of Cyprus’ airports and ports for the evacuation of civilians, European citizens and third country nationals from neighbouring countries, including Lebanon and Syria.
The plan was put together after Cyprus was called to temporarily house over 60,000 foreign civilians fleeing Lebanon during the Israeli-Lebanon war in 2006.
Asked about reports in the international press, hinting at use of British bases in Cyprus for possible military operations in Syria, Kasoulides said: “We should get used to the fact that inevitably Cyprus will appear these days on all maps and all international media.”
He added: “I want to assure you that we are following the situation closely. We are in contact with various foreign governments involved and I do not expect that we will find ourselves before any surprises, of course within the limits and capabilities of the sovereign rights of the Cyprus Republic.”
While Cyprus has no direct say over what Britain does with its bases, there is an understanding, which some may argue is set out in treaty, that they will mainly be used for defensive purposes.
Or that in the event of offensive operations, their use is limited to logistics, supplies, refueling or as a listening station.
For any overt action going beyond that, it appears the British government makes an effort to keep it under the radar so as not to upset the Cypriot authorities, as highlighted in US diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks in 2010.
The confidential cables revealed British concerns in 2008 over Cypriot “hypersensitivity” and human rights violations regarding use of RAF Akrotiri airbase for CIA rendition flights or by American U2 spy planes for ‘operational’ intelligence flights over Lebanon, Turkey and northern Iraq.
However, since taking office, President Nicos Anastasiades has made huge efforts to stress his departure from the policies of the previous communist government, which opposed Western involvement in Libya and forged closer ties with Iran and Syria, until 98 containers of Iranian munitions headed for Syria exploded at Mari naval base in 2011, killing 13 sailors and soldiers.
Despite the brutal dilemma presented him by his European allies last March to either agree to the first-ever Eurozone “bail-in” or else watch Cyprus’ two biggest banks close, Anastasiades remains committed to an EU and North Atlantic-orientated foreign policy, including potential membership of NATO’s Partnership for Peace.
Government spokesman Christos Stylianides confirmed as much yesterday, echoing British, French and American statements on the need not to let use of chemical weapons go without consequences.