Syria conflict: Why Cyprus backs Cameron on UK air strikes
- 28 November 2015
- From the section Europe
UK Prime Minister David Cameron faces dissenting voices domestically in his drive to secure parliamentary support for airstrikes against the militant Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.
A vote by UK MPs is expected within weeks. But little mention is made in that debate of the distant slice of British turf in Cyprus where they would be launched.
Taking off from RAF Akrotiri, on the south coast of Cyprus and 112km (70 miles) west of Syria, would indirectly involve the island in the conflict.
But while most Cypriots regard Britain's two sovereign military bases as an anachronism, Cyprus views IS as a threat and backs Mr Cameron's plans.
"We're in the same strategic boat," says Euripides Evriviades, Cyprus's high commissioner in London.
Tornado bombers have already been conducting combat operations against IS in Iraq since September last year.
Cyprus made clear its support for British military action last week. Ioannis Kasoulides, the French-educated foreign minister, said IS's "abominable" attacks in Paris had only strengthened Cyprus's "determination" to help eliminate the "barbarous" organisation.
Cyprus's Soviet-educated communist former President, Demetris Christofias, once described the British bases as "colonial bloodstains".
Covering 157 sq km of territory, Akrotiri and Dhekelia were retained by Britain when the island won independence in 1960.
Many accuse Britain of a "divide and rule" policy in the 1950s, saying this sowed the seeds of the Cyprus problem.
But Cyprus's long, close and complex relationship with its old colonial master improved remarkably when Mr Christofias was succeeded by Nicos Anastasiades, a London-educated conservative, in early 2013.
He swiftly re-oriented Cyprus's foreign policy, bringing it closer to the West while maintaining good relations with Russia.
Co-operating with its Western allies against IS allows Cyprus to showcase its geo-strategic value as a safe haven and reliable partner on the EU's south-eastern frontier.
"It's all about location, location, location," says Klearchos Kyriakides, a lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire's Cyprus campus.
And Cyprus did not object when Britain offered France the use of RAF Akrotiri last week to help refuel French fighters and serve as a reserve diversion airfield for jets operating from a French aircraft carrier.
"Cyprus's contribution to security and stability in the region, by virtue also of its EU membership, goes far beyond the geographical confines of the country," says High Commissioner Evriviades.
However. there will be no direct French strikes from the British airbase.
Cyprus itself offered France the use of an airbase near Paphos last year for humanitarian and support missions in Iraq. The foreign minister hinted last week that any French request to use the base for military operations in Syria would also be viewed favourably.
Given the fear and loathing of IS in Cyprus, there has been negligible public opposition to the government's support for British military action and little debate about a possible Islamist backlash.
Misgivings do, however, sometimes surface in feedback on newspaper websites. "It's one thing welcoming the British people on our island; it's totally another to allow the UK to play 'Empire' in the 21st Century," said one Cyprus Mail reader.
Under the 1960 arrangements, Britain does not appear to require Cypriot consent on how its bases are used. But "we work on a no-surprise basis and enjoy excellent co-operation with the Republic of Cyprus", says a British bases spokesman.
Acting against popular or political sentiment in Cyprus would be embarrassing for Britain which would run the risk of appearing like a colonial overlord - and of possibly provoking demonstrations.
When British bombers began targeting IS in Iraq from RAF Akrotiri last autumn, it was the first time Cyprus had been used as a strike base since the 1956 Suez crisis, when the island was still a British colony.
Britain's military presence in Cyprus
1956: British and French warplanes launch strikes from RAF Akrotiri to knock out the Egyptian air force during Suez Crisis
1960: Cyprus gains independence but Britain retains 98 sq miles of territory at Akrotiri/Episkopi and Dhekelia
1974: RAF Aktrotiri used to evacuate 10,000 Britons during Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus which splits the island
1975: Vulcan nuclear bombers are withdrawn from RAF Akrotiri
1986: Pro-Libyan militants attack RAF Akrotiri, wounding three people, after US air strikes on Libya from airfields in UK
September 2014: UK Tornados use RAF Akrotiri for first time since Suez crisis for direct military action against IS in Iraq
After independence in 1960, Cyprus opposed Britain's military bases being used in any direct offensive action that might arise against neighbouring Arab countries. The new republic did not want to upset its long-term policy of maintaining cordial relations with Arab states.
But more recently, Cypriot officials reasoned that Iraq itself had requested British airstrikes against IS - and other Gulf Arab states are part of the international coalition against it.
Cyprus has stepped up security at its airports, ports and other public places following the Paris attacks.
The island has not suffered a terrorist attack since 1988 and has never been an easy target. Cyprus enjoys good relations with its Arab neighbours and Israel, and is closely monitored by anti-terrorism experts, stationed at Western and other embassies in Nicosia, who co-operate closely with Cyprus's intelligence services.
Given the UK military presence, the million British holidaymakers that visit Cyprus every year and the tens of thousands of expats and retirees, lecturer Klearchos Kyriakides says: "The British have never really left Cyprus; they are part of the furniture."