Cyprus and Greek flags along with Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags are seen near the U.N.-controlled buffer zone in Nicosia, Cyprus July 6, 2017.
Cyprus and Greek flags along with Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags are seen near the U.N.-controlled buffer zone in Nicosia, Cyprus July 6, 2017.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is stepping up his rhetoric over Cyprus in a move seen by analysts as taking on a more assertive approach that could result in a permanent partition of the divided Mediterranean island.

Addressing parliament Tuesday, Erdogan issued a stark warning. "No step can be taken in Cyprus or in the Aegean Sea at the expense of Turkey. Those who do disregard Turkey would put their own existence entirely at risk," Erdogan said to his cheering deputies in the ruling AK Party.

Cyprus is divided between Greek and Turkish Cypriots since a Turkish military invasion in 1974 in response to an Athens-inspired coup. Ankara only recognizes the Turkish Cypriot government.

Tensions over the island are being stirred by the discovery of large offshore natural gas reserves. The find has sparked an exploration rush by international companies. Ankara maintains that both administrations on the island should control the energy exploration. The Greek Cypriots reject such calls, saying it is the only internationally recognized government on the island.

A man reads a Cypriot newspaper with a front page
FILE - A man reads a Cypriot newspaper with a front page carrying a photo montage about Turkey's actions over Cyprus and international companies exploration for gas in the eastern Mediterranean in capital Nicosia, Cyprus, Feb. 13, 2018.

Erdogan has dispatched warships to back Turkish Cypriot claims. Analysts suggest the deployment is likely to be only saber-rattling.

"There is the new deal with France where it will position its warships in Cyprus in Larnaca [Greek Cypriot port]," former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen said. "According to some other reports, there will be U.S. warships escorting the Exxon [an American energy company] exploration, so Turkey will not be able singlehandedly to stop new exploration."

EU membership

Ankara's robust stance over Cyprus is seen by some observers as a sign of a broader shift in policy. "Erdogan has realized the classic Turkish policy to show muscle to show strength," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University. "I don't expect any solution in Cyprus in political terms."

The allure of Turkey joining the European Union has been a powerful impetus for Ankara backing reunification efforts of the island. With the Greek Cypriot side already an EU member and holding a veto over Turkey's membership bid, Brussels says the island has to be reunified if Ankara's bid is to succeed.

Ankara's EU dream is now widely seen as over, with the economy in crisis and growing human rights concerns.

"With Turkey and the EU, there is no talk about EU membership; there are no talks about even a new customs union," Selcen said. "Erdogan insists now that Turkey should have this businesslike transactional relationship with the EU. "

The collapse in Turkey's EU bid is seen as giving Erdogan a freer hand over Cyprus. "With Turkey not becoming a full member in the foreseeable future, why should Erdogan make any concessions on Cyprus to the Greek side?" asked international relations professor Bagci.

FILE - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, left, and
FILE - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci talk at a news conference during a visit in the Turkish Cypriot northern part of the divided city of Nicosia, Cyprus, July 10, 2018.

"In Turkish domestic politics, Tayyip Erdogan was very heavily criticized for making concessions to the Greek side," Bagci added. "So he is now not going to make any more concessions."

Previous reunification efforts

When coming to power as prime minister in 2003, Erdogan invested heavily in seeking a solution to reuniting the divided island. Under intense pressure by Erdogan, the then-Turkish Cypriot president, Rauf Denktas, reluctantly agreed to a U.N.-backed plan to reunite Cyprus. In 2004 simultaneous referendums, the U.N. plan was overwhelmingly backed by Turkish Cypriots but rejected by Greek Cypriots.

Subsequent U.N. efforts to reunite Cyprus have ended in deadlock, the most recent being last year. U.N. Security-General Antonio Guterres is to decide this month what to do to reunite the island.

Analysts say reunification efforts are likely to be further complicated by Erdogan's announcement last month to increase the Turkish military presence on the island. Turkey's military presence, estimated at around 30,000 strong, is a significant obstacle to reunification efforts. Nicosia is calling for a total Turkish withdrawal from the island.

"Not to reduce the military presence but to increase it, is showing muscles. Turkey is going back to the policy of the 1990s," Bagci said. "That is a policy of showing military strength, and not to be open for any solution on the island.

"The Greeks have to realize there is only one solution, the recognition of the north [of the island] as an independent Turkish Cypriot state," Bagci added.

Some observers suggest Erdogan's shift on Cyprus is motivated by his courting of nationalist voters ahead of next year's key local elections.

"The new muscular approach toward Cyprus could be to do with domestic politics rather than foreign policy," said Selcen. "Because we are going toward the local elections, there is this delicate balance between AKP and nationalists, who call for a strong stance against Greek Cypriots."

Turkish local elections are due to be held in March 2019; few observers expect any softening of Erdogan's stance on Cyprus ahead of the crucial polls, declared a priority by the Turkish president. Analysts point out that even after the elections, there remains little incentive for Ankara to back reunification efforts given its EU bid is all but dead, at least for the foreseeable future.