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US Senator Menendez suggests sanctions to curb Turkish activity in Varosha

Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, a steadfast and longstanding friend of Cyprus, visited the island last week.

In an interview with Phileleftheros, the American Senator expressed his concern about Turkey’s stance and its unreliability as a U.S. ally. He noted that Ankara continues to behave aggressively towards its neighbours and blackmails U.S. allies while imprisoning politicians and journalists, something that poses significant challenges to bilateral ties. Should this behaviour persist, Washington might need to consider taking measures, such as imposing sanctions against Turkey.

At the same time, Menendez reiterated a message to Turkey, stressing its obligation to uphold alliance commitments and respect Cyprus’s territorial integrity to acquire the F-16 fighter jets it desires from the U.S. The ball, according to the American Senator, is in Ankara’s court. He emphasised, “I’ve consistently maintained that President Tayyip Erdogan himself can facilitate the sale by choosing to be a responsible, cooperative partner in the region—one who refrains from menacing allies and neighbours and who respects the basic rights of his people.”

Interview with Xenia Tourki. 

How do you assess the current state of U.S.-Turkey relations? What actions do you think the U.S. should take to encourage Turkey to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Cyprus and Greece?

As long as Turkey continues to behave aggressively towards its neighbours, blackmail our allies when it suits them as in the case of Sweden’s NATO bid and continues to jail opposition politicians and journalists, I would say we have some significant challenges in our relationship.

As it relates to Cyprus’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, the fact is that next year will mark half a century since Turkey first invaded Cyprus.

I have led efforts to bolster Cyprus’ national security and deepen economic engagement with Cyprus as a key democratic partner in the Eastern Mediterranean. My bipartisan Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019 provided an avenue to lift outdated arms export restrictions on Cyprus to allow it to purchase security equipment from the United States. I am heartened that the Biden Administration has acted as a partner in this effort, certifying that Cyprus has met the requirements for exports of defence articles for the last few years. Now I am leading an effort to facilitate longer-term defense planning in these sales by allowing the State Department to issue its certification for three years instead of just one.

My Greece Defence and Interparliamentary Partnership Act created a complementary component to the 3+1 Group for engagement among parliamentarians to meet and build on our shared priorities. This year I met with legislators from Cyprus, Greece, and Israel where we committed to continued cooperation in economic growth, energy security, maritime security, and overall stability. As we democracies work together in the region to bolster our economic potential, we will prove that democracy delivers and that the Republic of Cyprus delivers.

Finally, I think that we should use the appropriate balance of carrots and sticks when it comes to incentivising Turkey’s respect for Cyprus’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. Turkey has expressed an interest in re-vitalising its EU accession process, for example. President Christodoulides and Prime Minister Mitsotakis had it exactly right when they said further integrating Turkey into Euro-Atlantic institutions should be “gradual” and if necessary “reversible.” Not to say that Turkey does not have other issues to address before I expect that they would meet the criteria for EU membership, but respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an EU member should be a baseline requirement. We also must be prepared to go in the other direction. If we see additional Turkish activity in Varosha, we should be looking to sanctions as a tool to deter these types of activities that further destabilise the island.

What kind of ally is Turkey for the US? Is it a country that they can rely on, or an unreliable ally?

At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year, in response to a question I asked, Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded that Turkey is a “challenging ally.” I think that was perhaps too generous of an answer. We have to continue to hold Turkey accountable for its actions that undermine regional stability, undermine broader U.S. and NATO objectives and fundamental human rights within its own borders. As I noted at that hearing in March, we must hold Turkey accountable for its antagonistic actions towards its neighbours including Cyprus including violating exclusive economic zones and airspace, jailing journalists and opposition leaders, for denying religious freedom, notably to members of the Greek Orthodox community, and jailing U.S. embassy staff. A reliable and enduring partner or ally must have a shared commitment to a standard of values and national security priorities.

The discovery of significant energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean has raised new issues in the region. Can and if so, in what way can natural gas be part of the resolution of the region’s differences?

I believe we should explore opportunities across many different types of energy and electricity projects to help play a positive role, including exciting developments like the EuroAfrica Interconnector and the EuroAsia Interconnector. I’m working with the Executive Branch and the governments of Cyprus, Greece, and Israel to move forward on the Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center that I authorised in my Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fueled an urgent recognition across Europe that the continent needs to diversify its energy sources. Cyprus has a critical role to play in the development of Europe’s energy security and I’m encouraged by opportunities for further regional integration.

It seems that there is a kind of vendetta between you and the Turkish President, Tayyip Erdogan. To what extent is this valid?

I have not been shy about my deep dismay at some of President Erdogan’s actions, rhetoric and policies that are simply not what we would expect from a NATO ally. Threatening to fire missiles at another NATO ally, continuing to occupy a critical partner of the United States, and jailing opposition leaders and journalists are simply not acceptable. I will always advocate for fundamental democratic norms and principles and respect for peace and stability.

Is there a possibility for you to agree to Turkey buying the F-16 fighters? What conditions are set by you and your colleagues in Congress for this to happen?

Longstanding concerns about Turkey’s destabilising behavior in the region as well as subversion of democratic principles domestically have fueled my – and my colleagues’ – hesitation about approving the sale of new F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. I have always said that Erdogan himself can help facilitate the sale by making the decision to be a responsible, cooperative partner in the region who does not threaten allies and neighbours and who respects the basic rights of his people.

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Senator Menendez was awarded the Apostle Varnavas gold medal by the Church of Cyprus “for his contribution to the struggle of the Greek Cypriots for justice and liberty,” in Nicosia, August 24, 2023. Photograph by George Christophorou.

Relations between Cyprus and the US have made significant progress, and you have contributed to this as well. How do you envision our relationship regarding political, economic, and defence terms?

The U.S.–Cyprus relationship is at a historic high point. I am proud to have contributed to this deepening friendship and to continue to build ties with Cypriots and Cypriot-Americans who dedicated so much time to building this relationship. Just this past year we’ve seen incredible opportunities for partnership including the establishment of the New Jersey-Cyprus National Guard Partnership, exchanging best practices on disaster relief, and working together to strengthen the transatlantic alliance in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I hope to continue to build on the relationship in other ways as well, including as I work with the Department of Energy on finally establishing a U.S. Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center.

You have been dealing with the Cyprus issue for years. And you are one of the few foreign officials, who place the problem in its proper dimension, as a matter of invasion and continued occupation. In your opinion, how can the Cyprus issue be resolved and is such a solution possible?

Unfortunately, just this week Turkish Cypriot authorities again reminded us that they are intent on threatening and destabilising the UN mission. Obviously, this kind of aggressive behaviour does not benefit the majority of people who are seeking a peaceful resolution. That said, I believe we must reinvigorate a substantive and direct peace process. Before her confirmation, I stressed the importance of engaging on this issue with Ambassador Fisher and I believe she and her team are working hard on finding a durable solution. In the short term, we need to keep building trust between communities, including through deepening economic ties, fostering exchange programs, and proposing new confidence-building measures the Republic’s leadership suggested in May 2022. In the long term, we need to explore all tools to pressure Turkey to stop discouraging Turkish Cypriots from engaging in a meaningful way.

You have many Cypriot friends, and one of your close friends is Tasos Zambas, a refugee and a representative of the diaspora, who wants to return to his occupied home. How much has the anxiety and anticipation of a refugee’s right to return affected you?

I am proud to call Tasos a close friend and continue to learn and gain deeply meaningful insight from his experiences and perspectives. I think part of the reason that Tasos and I understand each other so well is that my parents fled an oppressive regime in Cuba. He and I are both so grateful to the United States for welcoming our families and providing us with a safe place where we can continue to honour our families’ cultures and traditions. But that does not mean that we do not long to be able to visit a reunified Cyprus or a democratic Cuba. I am inspired by Tasos’ bravery, composure, and commitment to fighting for a better future for the people of Cyprus. I will always stand with him in fighting for what is right.

(Photographs by George Christophorou)

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