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Kerry says Cyprus could become model for the Middle East

From left, Turkish Cypriot Leader Mustafa Akinci, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades shake hands in Nicosia, Cyprus, on Thursday. (Jonathan Ernst/AP)

Secretary of State John F. Kerry came to this divided island nation Thursday and expressed hopes that peace talks will soon reunify it, serving as a model for other embattled countries in the region.

“In recent months, it has become clear that the ground really is shifting and tangible progress is being made,” Kerry said after meeting with Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders Thursday evening.

“Not only will a just, comprehensive and lasting solution for Cyprus have an enormously positive impact on the island, it will lift up the entire region,” he said.

Kerry did not specifically cite Syria on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, but it was clearly on his mind.

While attending a meeting at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Belgrade, Serbia, earlier in the day, Kerry laid out an optimistic scenario in which Islamic State militants could be defeated quickly if peace talks prove successful. He and other Western diplomats are pushing for negotiations that would form the basis for eventually ushering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.

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“If we get a political transition in place, we empower every nation and every entity to come together — the Syrian army together with the opposition, together with all the surrounding countries, together with Russia, the United States and others — to go and fight Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic name for the Islamic State. “Just imagine how quickly this scourge could be eliminated — in a matter of literally months — if we were able to secure that kind of political resolution.”

Kerry said that it will take ground troops to dislodge the group that has established its own cruel caliphate, but he stipulated that they would be Syrian and other Arab armies, not U.S. or other Western forces.

Although Kerry previously has laid out the broad outlines of the underlying vision, it is the first time he has said he thought it could lead to the demise of the Islamic State in a relatively short time. There are many codicils to this picture, however, including whether Russia and Iran would drop their support for Assad, and whether Assad would willingly step down, and when.

But Cyprus offered a rare source of optimism that even protracted conflicts can end when conditions are right.

The island has been divided since 1974, with Turkish Cypriots living in the north on one side of a Green Line of concrete barriers and concertina wire, and their more affluent Greek neighbors living in the south. Generations of diplomats have sought a resolution to the stalemate, getting nothing but heartbreak in return.

But now diplomats believe that the prospect of a reunified Cyprus is “within reach,” as Kerry put it.

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Turkey, burdened with more than 1 million refugees and a war raging on its border, no longer wants to pay to maintain the small Turkish enclave. Greece, which has its own economic crisis on top of waves of refugees landing on its shores, also is willing to cut ties.

A rich vein of natural gas has been discovered off Cyprus, providing income to a unified government and dividend checks for all citizens.

In 2014, leaders of both sides pledged to end the island’s division and establish two parallel systems under a single federal government with equal power sharing. Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and his Turkish counterpart, Mustafa Akinci, have been meeting weekly while their technical advisers meet almost daily to work out the details.

There are many challenges, including how to structure the debt each side would bring to the union, how to compensate property owners who abandoned their homes when the island was split in two, and how to ensure that the Greeks, who outnumber Turks by 4 or 5 to 1, do not dominate everything.

A referendum could be called as early as this spring and, if approved, set off the melding of two separate systems over the next five to 10 years.

Kerry evoked images of prosperity for a unified Cyprus as a regional energy and commercial hub.

“A united Cyprus will stand as a beacon of hope in a tumultuous part of the world, at a time when people need that beacon,” he told reporters after observing Greek and Turkish Cypriot teenagers shoot hoops together on a basketball court. “And it will be a model for other areas in search of a peaceful, multi­ethnic future. All you have to do is look in any direction from here and you can appreciate how much the world could use an island of peace, harmony and prosperity in the Mediterranean right now.”

Cyprus was the one bright spot on Kerry’s agenda during a swing through Europe this week. In Belgrade, he met for a half-hour with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The two spent the bulk of that time discussing Syria and the rest focusing on Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and concerns that Libya establish a national government that is able to counter Islamic State leaders who are relocating there from Syria.

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