THE BLOG
01/08/2016 01:45 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2017

Don't Waste World's Best Chance for Peace

Over the past two months the Republic of Cyprus has hosted a parade of foreign leaders -- German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Secretary of State John Kerry -- each declaring support for reunification negotiations that will end the 41-year division of Cyprus. With the Middle East in shambles, and no real prospect for Israeli-Palestinian peace in the next year, the prospect of resolving the second longest standing issue before the UN Security Council must be tantalizing to all diplomats. But get past the encouraging rhetoric and delve into the details of the Cyprus negotiations, and one starts to suspect that world leaders desperate for peace in a volatile region and a generation of Cypriots yearning to reunify their home as they ride into the twilight, may all be pushing so hard for a deal -- any deal -- to be reached that they have lost sight of how to negotiate a sustainable deal.

The 41-year history of Cyprus since Turkey's invasion in 1974 and subsequent occupation of the northern part of the island features several diplomatic efforts and promising initiatives that came short. The general consensus among diplomats and Cypriot leaders is that Cyprus is to be reunified in a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation (that is, a federal state with two sub-federal entities -- one administered by Greek-Cypriots, the other by Turkish-Cypriots). One of the failed initiatives to reunify Cyprus that many consider a "near miss" was the 2004 Annan Plan that was overwhelmingly defeated when put to a referendum. More than 10 years later, there is little analysis -- either by diplomats or by the media covering Cyprus -- as to exactly why the Annan Plan failed. Perhaps they don't know why, or maybe they are just hoping that "this time is different". Yet any plan for reunification is going to be put to referendum once again, and the disregard for the failures of 2004 do not inspire hope that a different result will ensue.

The most puzzling aspect of the present Cyprus negotiations is that Turkey is being treated as a facilitator of peace when it remains the biggest obstacle. Turkey has made many positive statements and declared its commitment to resolving Cyprus. Moreover, its occupation forces on Cyprus have made some minor moves in association with crossings of the Green Line (the line of occupation) and allowing access to sites so the search for 1,500 Cypriots missing for four decades can continue. What Turkey has not done is make any concessions regarding its presence on Cyprus -- either now or in the future. A 2004 exit poll showed that 75% of those who voted against the Annan Plan listed "security" issues as their reason for voting "No". Despite this, security issues are being pushed to the final stages of negotiations. If one wished to set any future referendum on a course to failure, they would allow Turkey to continue to claim a right to intervene in Cyprus. Just as it did in previous failed negotiations, that is exactly what is happening in Cyprus.

The stakes are much higher today than in 2004 when it comes to Cyprus, and that is why the mistakes of the Annan Plan must be avoided. Cyprus is an EU member with a veto not only within the Union but over cooperation between NATO and the EU. A proposed pipeline enabling natural gas sales from Israel to Turkey would have to traverse the Exclusive Economic Zone of Cyprus. All of this needs a sustainable solution and a stable Republic of Cyprus resulting from that solution. We should all be thankful for the "near miss" of 2004 -- it would've introduced the instability of the Bosnian or Iraqi federations into the wrong place at the wrong time. The main outside facilitators of the Cyprus peace process -- the UN, the US and the EU -- need to show that they've learned from the failures of 2004. The stars may be aligning for Cyprus to be reunified, but if not enough attention is paid to the sustainability of any deal, a historic opportunity for peace will be wasted. As the Obama Administration enters its final year, taking the island of stability that is Cyprus and making the latest volatile flashpoint cannot be the legacy the President wishes to leave in the Eastern Mediterranean.