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US seeks major military base on united Cyprus

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US seeks major military base on united Cyprus

Postby eracles » Sat Apr 10, 2004 12:21 pm

US seeks major military base on united Cyprus
By Iason Athanasiadis

ATHENS - It has been more than 50 years since the sophisticated surveillance equipment sitting atop Mount Troodos - the highest point on Cyprus - began scouring the airwaves across the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Tirelessly, the huge dishes and antennas of the secret base have scanned electronic and radio signals, intercepting commercial, diplomatic and military communications wherever the West maintains interests.

"In some American facilities in Nicosia - such as the yard of the United States Embassy in Lefkosia and what you might call the agricultural center on the hill - you see some very weird antennas," said an Athens-based strategic analyst speaking to Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. "They are used for tactical intelligence, monitoring Arab radio broadcasts and then transcribing and translating them for policymakers in Washington."

Now Washington wants to upgrade its half-century intelligence presence on the island into a full-fledged army base when - and if - the Greek and Turkish Cypriots sides agree on reunification. The Pentagon might begin by establishing a "bare-bones" military presence on the eastern Mediterranean island, following the possible reunification of the divided country, according to strategic analysts. That would facilitate US military interventions in the region.

That goal appears distant as both Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders have urged their communities to reject a United Nations reunification plan. Two referendums - one for each community - will be conducted April 24. If either side rejects the plan, then only the Greek Cypriot south will join the European Union on May 1.

The United Kingdom and the United States have had intelligence interests in the strategically placed island ever since the dawn of the Cold War era. Today, the US has incorporated Cyprus into its global Echelon surveillance network as an early-warning post and listening station for communications across the region. Experts interviewed by Asia Times Online said that an intelligence-sharing agreement with Britain and a listening post in the Turkish-occupied north of the island are being used by the US in the war against terrorism.

"Cyprus played a crucial role in the western defense system by acting as an electronic ear for the whole of the Mediterranean," said Marios Evriviades, a former Cypriot diplomat who is now a senior associate at the prestigious Panteion University's Institute of International Relations in Athens.

If the eastern Mediterranean receded in significance after the Cold War - when it was feared that an unopposed Russian advance south would turn the area into a "Red Lake" - the advent of the "war on terrorism" has brought it back onto western policymakers' radars. The ongoing US occupation of Iraq, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) expansion east, terrorist attacks in Turkey and increasing pressure on Syria have all combined to put Cyprus back on the map as a key intelligence and logistics center.

"It's important that Cyprus not fall into hostile hands," a British security analyst said. "It's important to deny Cyprus to hostile powers."

There are high stakes in the region for Washington, not least of which are the energy markets of the Persian Gulf and North Africa, a booming military presence throughout the Caucasus and the ambitious Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Should Cyprus evolve into an island of stability in the region, it could prove to be the ideal position from which to monitor the shifting tectonic plates of international diplomacy.

"The US has embarked on a generational project to promote liberal reforms in the Middle East," said John Sitilides, director of the Washington-based Western Policy Center. "Cyprus will be transformed into a beacon of what it can mean for the whole Middle East."

"I have had strong indications that, following reunification, a whole host of other solutions will follow in the region," he said.

If Cyprus is to serve as an example to underperforming Arab countries, then its entry - or that of its Greek Cypriot south - into the European Union on May 1 could be the event that kick-starts the process.

"Cyprus is a country the size of Switzerland and can rapidly attain its status in the region," said Sitilides. "It could become an offshore financial and services center; Turkish Cypriots could be brought up to speed with the assistance of high-tech giants such as Microsoft and Sun Microsystems; a knowledge economy can be established that spans the eastern Mediterranean and serves the Balkans, Turkey and the Arab world."

The island sits astride key shipping routes and occupies a vital position in the eastern Mediterranean. At its northern tip, it faces the Turkish energy hub of Ceyhan while its southern extremity is just 200 kilometers from Egypt's strategic Suez Canal. Commerce aside, whoever controls Cyprus also has the strategic option of blocking access to Turkish ports, hence Ankara's insistence on keeping troops on the island even beyond unification.

A more permanent presence
Washington hopes that eventual reunification will open opportunities for a military presence, in addition to its well-established intelligence-gathering activities."No one can say with certainty that there has been a deal between Turkey and the USA regarding an American military presence," said a European diplomat in Istanbul, speaking to Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. "The possibility hangs in the atmosphere, it depends upon what turn the negotiations [on reunification] take."

The base would be similar to those the Pentagon is constructing throughout strategic locations in East Africa and Central Asia. A possible move to Cyprus would be in harmony with the current realignment of the US presence in Europe, from Germany to Eastern Europe, while maintaining the focus of military operations on the Middle East.

Both Greek and Turkish media have reported on the development. According to Greece's Daily Times, the White House is studying the possibility of "sending a military force to Cyprus, in the form of a peacekeeping force ... US officials have already proposed this to the Turkish Cypriot side, stressing the island's strategic importance for the superpower's geopolitic interests," wrote the newspaper's diplomatic correspondent, Manos Roussos.

Cyprus would be turned into an "international mandate country" serving the interests of the US and its British ally, claimed the southern Cypriot newspaper, Simerini. It said NATO is particularly interested in getting access to the Gecitkale airport in the north of the island.

Using Cyprus as a logistics base would allow the Pentagon more flexibility in planning interventions in the Middle East and give it firmer control over the oil-rich regions of the Middle East, North Africa and the Caspian Sea, especially at a time when Libya's rehabilitation within the international community is gathering momentum.

In addition, it would allow easier supervision of regional sea-routes and complement the US presence in Djibouti that guards the southern access point to the Suez Canal, by establishing a presence near in the canal's northern exit.

"Cyprus has been useful for medical purposes, supply and reinforcement, food stuffs and so on," said Sitilides. "In the future, British bases could be made available to NATO for missions in the Middle East, but there is no guarantee that the island will remain secure."

In Turkey, a private television channel reported that Washington is keen to secure a presence in northern Cyprus as a means of protecting the Baku-Ceyhan oil corridor. A report on NTV pointed out that a US base on Cyprus would increase US "emergency intervention capabilities" in the Caucasus, Middle East and Central Asia and boost its pre-emptive strike capability as well as guaranteeing it a "security belt" in the area.

The strategic importance of the Turkish port city of Ceyhan - situated about 70km from the northern tip of Cyprus - is set to increase over the coming years as northern Iraqi oil flows out on the Kirkuk-Yumurtalik pipeline and the ambitious Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline comes on-stream. The US already has a base close to the port, in Turkey's Incirlik air base.

Nothing new
A US military base would not be the first time the island played host to an American presence. The so-called UKUSA agreement, dating from the aftermath of World War II, outlines an intelligence agreement among the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

During the Cold War, Cyprus was a key part of the Western defense mechanism against the Soviets. In particular, it was a crucial link in the axis that stretched from West Germany to Turkey in an arc that wrapped around the Soviet Union's southwestern flank. Later, the US got involved when the National Security Agency (NSA) installed an unmanned listening post in the Turkish-occupied north.

"There is something in the northern part but don't ask me what it is," said a Nicosia-based journalist. "At the moment, the biggest intelligence presence on the island is the US and that's not going to change."

"The NSA listening post in Northern Cyprus plays the same role as the one in the southern part," said a strategic analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity. "These were operations that were restarted after the Turkish invasion of 1974. For a long time they [the Americans] pretended that they were not restarting them, but in fact they did. Anyway, the Cypriot government does not have the luxury of arguing with the States today."

Beyond spying, Cyprus has been a launching-pad for most of the past half century's Anglo-American interventions into the Arab world. In the1950s, US involvement in Lebanon and Jordan was initiated from the British bases on the island. The Americans also secured rights to move bomber groups into Cyprus and Turkey in the event of a global war against the Soviets and could launch U-2 spy planes to monitor military developments and the Soviet ballistic missile deterrent.

The British moved all their operations to Cyprus after the loss of their military bases in Suez to Egyptian nationalism and stored nuclear bombs on the island. As British prime minister Anthony Eden put it at the time: "No Cyprus, no certain facilities to protect our supply of oil. No oil, unemployment and hunger in Britain. It is as simple as that."

Given their history, Cypriots find it hard to avoid being suspicious about the renewed interest by US President George W Bush's administration in negotiations over the island's possible reunification and the US push for greater involvement in the talks. Thomas Weston, the US special envoy to Cyprus, has revived Washington's moribund interest in the divided island, shuttling back and forth in recent months and promising "generous" aid to Cyprus "for many, many years", in the event of a solution.

But with the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders urging voters to reject the referendums on reunification, talk of a US base on Cyprus appears be premature.

"Cyprus is going to be a part of Europe first," said Hassan Kaoni, a professor of international relations who sits on Turkey's military-dominated National Security Council. "If and when the Europeans accept to follow American policies in the Middle East, then it can become an important base. This will all be discussed in this summer's NATO meeting in Turkey."
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