By Ertan Karpazli
Whoever still thinks the war in Syria is about toppling Bashar al-Assad’s regime or annihilating ISIS militants is surely mistaken. From the onset, this war has been about one thing only: control over the Eastern Mediterranean. With the recent Russian intervention in Syria, what began as a revolution in 2011 against dictatorship has evolved into an international conflict. The ultimate victor of this long, brutal war will not only become the new authority in the region, but the heart that pumps the blood around the entire world.
Meanwhile, amidst the chaos of the Middle East lies Cyprus, a small hub of hope on the fault line of eastern and western civilisations. Located just 50 miles away from the Syrian coast at its nearest point, the people of Cyprus are inching ever closer to a peace deal, defying the momentum surrounding them that increasingly pits Christians and Muslims against one another. Tragically, however, as Turkish and Greek Cypriots envision a newfound intercommunal utopia, their neighbours in Syria suffer a different fate. While the discovery of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean fuels peace talks in Cyprus, it is also fuelling conflict across the sea.
It is no coincidence that war has broken out in Syria not long after the Eastern Mediterranean was found to be rich in natural gas reserves. It is also no coincidence that the EU is now looking to diversify its gas imports away from Russia. The discovery of gas in the region has triggered a new Cold War, with Russia fighting for its survival via its monopoly over Europe’s gas supply and its sea trade routes to the Atlantic. Ukraine’s pro-EU revolution in February 2014 threatened to significantly limit Russia’s access to the Black Sea, hence Moscow’s annexation of Crimea to secure its naval base in Sevastopol. NATO’s build up in the Baltic nations also challenges Russia’s access to the Danish straits. Likewise, if Assad falls in Syria, Russia may lose its only Mediterranean naval repair base at the port of Tartus.
By defending the Assad regime, Russia is also fighting to reassert its relevance to the European gas market. Russia is working in cohesion with Iran, which has sent Quds Force commanders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and mobilised its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah to bolster Assad. With the lifting of sanctions on Tehran in light of this summer’s P5+1 nuclear agreement, Iran hopes to combine its own gas reserves with those in the Eastern Mediterranean via a pipeline running through Iraq and Syria. From there, it will be possible to supply the European market via Turkey or an underwater pipeline to Greece.
Throughout history, Cyprus has been the crown jewel of Eastern Mediterranean. The island has long played a key role in the never-ending struggle for dominance in the Middle-East. Some of the first settlers on the island were Phoenicians, a Semitic-Canaanite people who ruled over the Levant. Before the Hellenisation of Cyprus in the fourth century BCE, the island had been ruled by the ancient Assyrian and Persian empires. Under the Umayyads, Cyprus was part of the Sham governorate, which also included Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and south-eastern Turkey. Today, the Eastern Mediterranean gas bonanza is allowing Cyprus to rediscover its local geography as old alliances take shape once again.
However, nothing has reminded Cyprus more of its proximity to this volatile region than the Syrian war, which has left it torn between the conflicting interests of Russia and the West. In January 2012, Cyprus defied an EU arms embargo on Syria by allowing a Russian weapons shipment depart from Limassol. This came just months after Russia granted Cyprus a vital €2.5 billion bailout. A year later, an economic crisis forced the Cypriot government to purge the bank accounts of the well-off to avoid a default. With as much as half or a third of bank deposits coming from Russian tax evaders, the purge put off Russian investors and strained relations between the two nations. Nevertheless, Russian president Vladimir Putin understood the strategic importance of Cyprus and maintained ties, eventually signing a deal with Cypriot counterpart Nicos Anastasiades earlier in 2015 to allow Russian navy vessels access to Cypriot ports.
In recent years, Russia has also been strengthening its ties with other countries in the region, including Israel, Egypt and Greece. A Russian victory in Syria therefore could result in the birth of a new axis of power in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Western influence has been waning. In such an event, Cyprus may join this new Russian-led bloc, which could even outmatch the power of the EU. This would particularly place British military bases and CIA listening posts in Cyprus at risk.
Furthermore, the emergence of this axis would threaten the territorial integrity of NATO member Turkey, which would find itself on the frontline against enemy regimes. Under pressure from its neighbours, Turkey may be forced to swallow its pride and defect from NATO, or it could opt to resist and thus be torn apart by a civil conflict of its own between the Western-backed government and Russian-Iranian proxies operating in the country.
Indeed, should NATO find themselves on the back foot against growing Russian influence in the region, proxy wars would almost certainly develop in Turkey and Greece, which would have major ramifications on Cyprus. Especially if Turkish and Greek Cypriots find themselves attached to opposing sides, as they did before the incidents of 1974, the consequences for the island could be disastrous.
Natural gas may be fuelling the Cyprus peace process today, but it must not be forgotten that this gas has been discovered in the midst of a ring of fire. All it takes is a spark for it to ignite the entire region, where it does not even require 40 seconds to destroy 40 years of peace efforts. So, as the people of Cyprus continue to make amends for their mistakes in the past, they should also make preparations to prevent the same mistakes being repeated in the future.
Ertan Karpazli is a British-born Turkish Cypriot journalist based in Istanbul and is a senior editor at TRT World. Tweets @ErtanKarpasya