ANKARA – Turkey called on the United States to reconsider a decision to partially lift a 33-year-old arms embargo against Cyprus, saying Wednesday that the move disrupts “equality and balance” between the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities on the ethnically divided island nation.
Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said Ankara would continue to take steps to guarantee the security and welfare of the self-declared Turkish Cypriot state and of the Turkish Cypriot people “against such positions that increase the risk of confrontation in the region."
Oktay said that Turkey and the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state are "aware of the games that are being played against them.”
The embargo, imposed in 1987, was designed to prevent an arms race that would hinder U.N.-facilitated reunification efforts for Cyprus. It was directed against the southern, Greek Cypriot part of the island, where Cyprus' internationally recognized government is seated.
Cyprus split in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkey, the only nation to recognize a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence in the island's north, maintains more than 35,000 troops there.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. decision harms efforts to reunify Cyprus, “poisons” regional stability and goes against the “spirit of alliance” between the U.S. and Turkey.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo informed Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades in a telephone call late Tuesday that the U.S. was partially lifting the arms embargo against Cyprus for one year — with the option of renewal — to let it procure non-lethal equipment.
The move came at a time of increased friction between Turkey and its eastern Mediterranean neighbors, Greece and Cyprus, over offshore energy explorations rights. Warships from the two NATO allies have been shadowing each other in recent weeks as Turkish survey vessels and drill ships continue to prospect for hydrocarbons in waters where Greece and Cyprus claim exclusive economic rights.
“It’s been a long time coming," Pompeo said during a media briefing on Wednesday. “We’ve been working on this for an awfully long time. We know that this decision was announced in light of heightened tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, but we thought it was the right thing."
Turkey meanwhile, denied as a “figment of imagination” a German newspaper report that claimed that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had ordered the Turkish military to sink a Greek warship or to down Greek jet but that Turkish generals refused.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy also slammed a Greek government spokesman who claimed that the report “highlights who is causing instability” in the region. He called the words of the spokesman in Athens, Stelios Petsas, another example of Greece's “provocative” policies.
Pompeo said U.S. President Donald Trump has urged both Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to pull back and talk things out.
"We’re urging everyone to stand down, to reduce tensions and begin to have diplomatic discussions about the conflicts ... in the eastern Mediterranean," Pompeo said. “It is not useful to increase military tension in the region. Only negative things can flow from that."
On Wednesday, Greece carried out a bond auction as part of efforts to boost cash reserves for additional support to pandemic-hit businesses as well as defense spending to face the crisis with Turkey.
Cyprus government spokesman Kyriakos Koushos told The Associated Press that the Trump administration’s action with the arms embargo was less about bolstering the country militarily than underscoring the significant role that Washington attributes to Cyprus in helping to strengthen regional security and stability.
U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus Judith Garber said the lifting of the embargo strengthens the U.S.-Cyprus security partnership while boosting regional security. She said Washington informed Turkey of the embargo lifting late Tuesday and urged that “there not be an over-reaction to this decision.”
Garber said the aim of the embargo lifting is to make Cyprus a “more capable partner” in dealing with challenges like terrorism, weapons trafficking and maritime security without having to sell the the country lethal weapons.
The ambassador said Washington waived a requirement for Cyprus to cease offering refueling and other port services to Russian warships, but that it would continue to “encourage" Cypriot government authorities to deny those services.
Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia, Cyprus.