End of the 50-Year Occupation

Greece and Cyprus should link Turkey F-16s to ending occupation

Michael Rubin

US President Joe Biden has made official the quid pro quo for the deal struck for Turkey to lift its hold on Sweden’s NATO membership. The White House sent letters to members of Congress urging that they approve a $20 billion sale of F-16s to Turkey.

“President Biden [and] Secretary [Antony] Blinken have been very clear of our support for modernizing Turkey’s F-16 fleet, which we view as a key investment in NATO interoperability,” a US State Department spokesman explained.

The deal is wrong on a number of levels: Turkey is more likely to use the F-16s to harass its neighbors than support NATO operations. When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers Russian President Vladimir Putin, he sees not a threat to Europe, democracy, or peace but rather a business partner. Erdogan desires to strengthen the Turkish military, but not in the way Biden or NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recognize.

Erdogan’s goal in acquiring American military hardware is not NATO interoperability, but rather reverse engineering in order to bolster Turkey’s own domestic military industries. That his son-in-law Selcuk Bayraktar is chairman of the board and the chief technology officer of the Turkish military manufacturer Baykar is not coincidence. The State Department may accept promises from their Turkish counterparts that they will not deploy onwards the jet fighters as they did in 2020 to support Azerbaijan’s surprise attack on Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians, but those guarantees are meaningless once Turkey mass produces its own warplanes.

While Biden seeks to expedite the F-16 sale to ensure Erdogan actually signs the legislation his rubber-stamp parliament has approved, Greece and Cyprus should take a page from Turkey’s playbook and play diplomatic hardball. There is an opening. First, there is no time frame associated with the F-16 sale. Erdogan can hardly complain: His government took 22 months to endorse Sweden’s NATO accession despite multiple promises to do so in the interim.

Greece and Cyprus both have standing on the matter. Greece has reason to be concerned given Turkey’s frequent violations of Greek airspace and overflights over Greek territory. Erdogan paused those provocations to ingratiate himself with the West in order to receive a financial bailout and to further his quest for more weaponry, but he could easily resume them. Rather than advance NATO interoperability, Biden may set the stage for an intra-NATO war.

Cyprus meanwhile prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of Turkey’s invasion and ethnic cleansing. The United States and Europe reject the legality of Turkey’s action, but do nothing to reverse it.

Both Athens and Nicosia also have leverage. With the expansion of Souda Bay and the American presence at Alexandroupoli, Greece has become a strategic equal to Turkey. Numbers of troops are not everything. Cyprus, meanwhile, has become a strategic asset for humanitarian operations and for Eastern Mediterranean security. When Biden leaves office and his energy envoy Amos Hochstein returns to the private sector, US support will likely pivot back to the EastMed pipeline.

The Greek and Cypriot governments might therefore argue to Congress that, should Biden want approval for the F-16 sale, the United States must calibrate delivery to the withdrawal of Turkish forces from occupied northern Cyprus. Turkey wants 40 fighter jets and stations 40,000 occupation troops on the island. Why not legislate that it can receive 20 F-16 when it withdraws it troops, and the other 20 when it repatriates the 250,000 Turks who have settled on the island, pushing indigenous Cypriot Muslims into the minority in the zone the Turkish Army allegedly established for their protection.

Erdogan believes he is superior because he profits from the crises he creates. Not only NATO’s functioning, but also Eastern Mediterranean security and moral justice demand that Greece and Cyprus prove him wrong. Greek and Cypriot officials may find that if they ask often and loudly enough, Congress might agree.

Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and director of policy analysis at the Middle East Forum

The article was published in ekathimirini.com on 1/30/24.