Why are there still British military bases in Cyprus?

The continued division of Cyprus suits Britain’s geopolitical interests, as well as those of world powers that see the Mediterranean island as a useful pawn in a longstanding game of chess. Darren Loucaides reports from a country that wants to determine its own future.

The view along Dhekelia Road is not particularly pretty. Glimpses of sea roll past the window, but Larnaca’s towering hotels are in the way. I’m keeping a keen eye out in spite of this – because any minute, I’m going to enter another sovereign territory.

As it happens, I don’t notice that I have left the Republic of Cyprus. There is no discernible border, nothing to indicate entering another country, except that the stretch of coast is more rugged and unspoilt.

Then the local bus plunges through a gateway: tall, metal fences spring up on either side. A sign informs that the Prince of Wales Royal Regiment 2nd Battalion is stationed here. Another says that photography is strictly forbidden. Two rifle-toting soldiers stand guard outside an unmarked building.

This is Dhekelia, one of two UK Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus.

The bus passes out of the fenced area, and comes to a halt near a residential estate. According to Google Maps, this and a power station opposite are part of the Republic of Cyprus, while the road dividing them belongs to the United Kingdom.

In 10 minutes, the bus will head back to Larnaca. ‘What can I say?’ the bus driver shrugs when I ask what he makes of Dhekelia. ‘If you want to see nice things, better to stay in Larnaca. Nothing to see here.’

A thorny issue

On 12 January, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson flew to Geneva to attend talks between Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots aimed at resolving one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when a Greek-inspired coup triggered a Turkish invasion and the subsequent separation of Cyprus’s two largest ethnic groups. As Johnson arrived, an agreement seemed within touching distance; officials spoke in terms of weeks, even days.

The one major sticking point was security. Up to 40,000 Turkish troops are thought to be in northern Cyprus, which only Turkey recognizes as a state. Turkish-Cypriots cite security concerns if the troops leave, and the talks stalled over the thorny issue.

Yet even if the two sides manage to agree on the departure of Turkish troops, another foreign military presence will still be in Cyprus. And it’s going nowhere.

Cyprus became a British protectorate in 1912; by 1922, it was a crown colony. It gained independence in 1960, on the proviso that Britain maintained its military territories. Today, the two UK Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) occupy nearly three per cent of Cyprus. The Akrotiri base, at the island’s southern tip, is the largest, at more than 250 square kilometres.

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‘The British military presence here is an anachronism,’ says strategy consultant Aris Petasis. When we meet in his office in Nicosia, Europe’s last divided capital, he stresses the strength of Cypriot feeling against the bases. ‘It’s a throwback to the colonial era.’

For Yiannakis Matsis, former president of Cyprus’s biggest party, the conservative DISY, ‘it’s the point from which our tragedy starts’. Matsis was once a member of the organization EOKA, which in the 1950s sought (by violent means) to expel Britain from Cyprus and unite it with Greece.

Half a century on, Britain is still here. The Foreign Office has offered to relinquish half the SBA territory if an agreement is reached. But there is no question of leaving altogether.

There are numerous British Overseas Territories around the globe, and the UK is hardly the only country in possession of military bases abroad. What makes the Cyprus bases unique is that they are British sovereign territories located on the soil of another sovereign country. Arguably, the only other territory with a comparable status is the US base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.

The roots can be traced back to the Treaty of Establishment and of Guarantee in 1960, which granted Cyprus independence while enshrining British territorial sovereignty. Cyprus was just too important for Britain to relinquish entirely, and the Suez Crisis of 1956 had left Cyprus as the most important military outpost in the region. As the Cold War intensified, the Royal Air Force base at Akrotiri became the biggest British base of its kind, tasked with defending NATO’s southern flank.

Yet the Cold War is long gone. So why are British bases still on Cyprus?

In the view of ex-diplomat William Mallinson, Cyprus’s ongoing strategic value has to be seen in the context of centuries-old paranoia over Russia. Fears of Soviet influence in Cyprus partly explain why Britain went for sovereign territories in the first place, rather than negotiating a deal for just bases. ‘They didn’t trust the Cypriots,’ Mallinson says. ‘Didn’t trust the communist party in Cyprus in particular.’

Indeed, Greek-Cypriot leaders have long courted Russian interests on the island; as recently as 2015, President Nicos Anastasiades agreed that Russia’s navy could use Cypriot ports. Moreover, Cypriots are surprisingly pro-Russian. ‘The overwhelming majority of Cypriots would oppose membership of NATO,’ points out Harry Tzimitras, director of PRIO (Peace Research Institute Oslo) Cyprus Centre.

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Maintaining Cyprus as a bulwark against Russia is doubly important since the Ukraine and Crimea crises, as well as the Syrian civil war. Nicos Katsourides, ex-member of parliament and former spokesperson for Cyprus’s communist party AKEL, is sure that the British bases are being used to monitor Russian movements in Syria. Although his party is seen as pro-Russian, Katsourides thinks that the proximity of Russian forces is ‘a real danger, not only for us, but for world peace. You have here the British bases, which are also NATO bases, and at Latakia [in Syria] you have the Russian bases. Confrontation is only 65 kilometres’ distance.’

Apart from tracking Russia, numerous military operations in Libya, Iraq and Syria have been staged from the bases. Wikileaks revelations also point to their use in tracking Hizbullah militants in Lebanon. Clearly, the bases continue to serve important strategic goals. Yet these are the goals of a mighty global superpower, not a country with a shrinking defence budget.

‘It’s a misnomer to talk about British bases. These are US military bases,’ says Petasis. Mallinson adds that there is ‘total co-operation’ between the US and UK over the bases, believing that the US is even paying Britain to run them: ‘It will be hidden – it will be in some other budget so it looks as if we are paying,’ he says.

British administrations have previously tried to pull out of Cyprus. As the country faced financial difficulties in the 1960s and 1970s, the defence bill was slashed, but while bases elsewhere were wound up, the US wouldn’t let Britain leave Cyprus. Due to the Treaty of Establishment and of Guarantee, there was no way for Britain to hand over the bases to the US, so it agreed to stay.

Despite this, the US doubted British resolve. So, according to Mallinson and others, the Secretary of State at the time, Henry Kissinger, embraced the idea of taksim, or the partition of Cyprus. Taksim had been floated since at least 1964 as the best way of preserving strategic military interest on the island; in 1974, when Turkey invaded, partition became a reality. Today, it is believed that the US has secret bases in northern Cyprus.

‘Remember that Kissinger does not use the word “Cyprus”, he uses the term “real estate”,’ says Petasis. ‘We are not people to him.’

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Walking along the perimeter of the UN buffer zone that divides Nicosia is an eerie experience. Once-busy streets are blocked off. Inside the buffer zone, buildings are abandoned or ruined. The partition of Cyprus in 1974 may have made sense from a strategic point of view, but on the ground there is a divided island that cannot heal. Cypriots yearn for a solution to the Cyprus Problem. It’s partly this yearning that prevents challenges to Britain.

‘There is concern… that the British could torpedo a settlement,’ says Andreas Stergiou, historian, political scientist and professor at the University of Thessaly. Britain has done this in the past, he believes. 
Mallinson points a finger at the US: ‘[Cypriots] know that if they really shout about the bases, the Americans can subtly encourage Turkey to do a bit of the old sabre rattling,’ he says. ‘And the Greek government is almost certainly telling Cyprus not to do anything, because they are worried about [Turkish military] flights over the islands.’

Katsourides claims that AKEL’s goal is to resolve the Cyprus Problem first, then deal with Britain. ‘It’s a precondition to all parts: “Don’t talk about bases if you want to solve the problem”,’ he says.

The risk is that the issue will never be resolved, especially if it is enshrined in yet another agreement. The sovereign bases were reaffirmed as part of Cyprus’s Treaty of Accession to the EU in 2003. Brexit could complicate things further, feels Tzimitras; he foresees the need for bilateral renegotiations between Cyprus and Britain, which ‘might be a slightly uncomfortable discussion, because it would immediately bring into light other complicated situations like, say, Gibraltar’.

In all likelihood, the bases will remain. Cyprus will continue to be a vital square on the chessboard, grappled over by world powers.

Matsis believes that Cyprus can only be united when foreign powers stop meddling: ‘If we were left free to discuss the future of Cyprus with the Turkish-Cypriots, we could find the solution in a matter of days.’

But this small island in the eastern Mediterranean is not going to be left alone. You can partly thank Britain for that.

Darren Loucaides is a journalist based in Barcelona and London writing mainly about politics and travel.