Britain’s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said on Tuesday the UK was “stepping up not stepping back”, and accelerating efforts to stop the Islamic State and that Cyprus had a role to play in this coalition.
Fallon, who was on a one-day visit met his Cypriot counterpart Christoforos Fokaides at an army base in Larnaca for a working lunch following his arrival at the British military base of Akrotiri.
Amid scorching heat in an aircraft hangar in Akrotiri, Fallon spoke to British bases troops earlier about “strength of resolve” and patience in the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS), or Daesh.
Since RAF Akrotiri began its campaigns over Iraq and Syria, in September 2014 and December 2015 respectively, 2,913 missions have been flown and a total of 948 strikes carried out over both countries.
“They’ve not operated at this sustained operational tempo in a single theatre of conflict for a quarter of a century. Only the US is doing more,” Fallon said.
The campaigns from the island have caused some concern that Cyprus could become a target of ISIS. Asked to address these concerns, in exclusive comments to the Cyprus Mail at Akrotiri, Fallon said: “All the democracies are targets for Daesh. We were all targets long before our strikes began. We’ve seen this kind of terrorism now for several years. We’ve seen extreme forms of it, in France, in Germany, we’ve had it on our own streets so we are all vulnerable and we’re all playing our part. The fight against Daesh involves us all. Daesh are engaged in a war against our way of life.”
Cyprus also has a role to play, Fallon said after his meeting with Fokaides “providing essential aid to those caught up in the conflict, while providing essential support for UK operations”.
“We’re stepping up not stepping back, accelerating our efforts to stop Daesh,” Fallon said.
There is “more cooperation between us than we have ever seen before” he told the Cyprus Mail.
“We are grateful for the cooperation Cyprus is showing, since without it, it would be much harder to sustain this level of activity. Critically, our campaign is delivering success,” he said, adding that the Islamic State was on the backfoot, had lost 40 per cent of the Caliphate “losing land, losing money, losing the fight”. Fallon also said that the civil war in Syria would not end “until Assad gives up and accepts that he can’t be part of Syria’s future”.
Commenting on the instability in Turkey since the attempted coup on July 15 and increasing tensions between Ankara and Washington, which has a key military base at Incirlik, and how this might raise the profile of the British bases in the region in the fight against ISIS should those relations worsen, Fallon told the Cyprus Mail he had spoken to his Turkish opposite number since the coup. “They have assured us that they’re still committed to the overall fight against Daesh, against Islamic State, to sealing the border and stemming the flow of foreign fighters. That remains a priority for Turkey. That has not changed,” the British minister said.
On whether he thought Britain, as a guarantor power in Cyprus, would agree that EU and UN guarantees for a future settlement would be sufficient given the instability of Turkey and the possibility of a settlement being reached, Fallon was non-committal.
“We’ve said we will do what is needed to help secure a settlement here and to back a settlement here and we’ve been encouraging a settlement,” he said. “I think it’s too early to judge the effect of the coup that’s been suppressed in Turkey and we’re continuing to encourage both sides here towards a settlement but in the end that is a matter for them.”
He was also hesitant to comment on how the creation of an EU army – which the UK opposes and which Cyprus would likely become part of – might affect the status of the British bases on the island, saying: “Well there isn’t an EU army at the moment. European countries cooperate together as we cooperate in NATO, as we cooperate under the United Nations, and we cooperate in missions all around the world. There is no EU army at the moment and there is opposition to an EU army, to having forces put under the command of Brussels so that’s a very long way off.”
Fallon also wanted to assure the people on the bases that even though Britain was leaving the EU it was not leaving Europe and would still have relationships “with our key friends inside Europe and that includes the Republic of Cyprus”. They had “nothing to fear” from the Brexit “and we’re determined to find ways to ensure it won’t affect either your work or residence.
“We will be still trading with these countries, other countries in Europe, but above all we will be still committed to security, partly through our membership of NATO, but also through our key partnerships and one of those is our growing partnership with the Republic of Cyprus,” he added.
During the statement he made later, Fallon referred to a visit earlier this year by Fokaides to the UK – the first ever official visit by a Cypriot defence minister – during which a bilateral programme of defence co-operation between the two countries was formalised.
Fallon said the two ministers had on Tuesday discussed progress in various fields such as maritime safety, air defence, intelligence and the fight against terrorism.
Britain was not abandoning European security but was increasing its commitment to tackling illegal immigration and building up its partnership with Cyprus. He said that the UK would soon welcome the first Cypriot officer at the Royal College of Defence, that the two countries would participate in joint exercises especially in search and rescue operations, and British aircraft would continue to contribute to humanitarian challenges, such as the recent fires in Troodos.
“Our countries face common threats that are growing in diversity, in multiplicity and size,” he said, adding that Britain was determined to keep pulling out all the stops in “this fight against evil”.
“Ours is a partnership to be proud of. Yet our goal today has been about making sure, in the midst of challenging times, that it continues to go from strength to strength,” Fallon said. He also referred to the modernisation of the Cypriot national guard and said Britain stood ready to help or advise.
In his comments, Fokaides said that he stressed to Fallon the need “to promote partnerships with countries and governments that remain committed in the fight against terrorism, respect international treaties and maintain predictable policies. Policies that promote stability and avoid tensions.
“I also reiterated our vision for a mutual beneficial cooperation between all countries in the region, transforming the Eastern Mediterranean from a zone of conflict and instability, to a region of prosperity and growth, taking advantage of the enormous energy potentials and bringing to an end long-lasting conflicts and problems,” he said.
The Cypriot minister said he also had the opportunity to discuss the initiatives undertaken by Cyprus “in this volatile region” such as promoting regional security and cooperation with countries like Israel, Egypt and others. The Cyprus issue was also on the agenda.
Fokaides also said that the Cyprus-UK relationship would be further strengthened with the appointment of a defence attaché in London. “The sovereign decision of the British people to exit the EU will not cause any harm to our relationship which will continue to develop on the same track,” he said.