British Sovereign Base Area, Cyprus. 25 October. 150 miles from Beirut, 197 miles from Damascus, 206 miles from Tel Aviv, 1030 miles from Tehran, 241 miles from the Suez Canal, 566 miles from Athens, 336 miles from Ankara and some 388 miles from the narrow channel that connects Russia’s Fleet from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Britain’s military bases on Cyprus enjoy an unrivalled strategic view of the Middle East and beyond. Indeed, they are amongst the most strategic of strategic assets the world over and about to become more so.
Sitting in the cockpit of a British Typhoon fighter at RAF Akrotiri with a UN-supporting American U2 spy plane close by the importance of Britain’s continued strategic presence in the eastern Mediterranean was all too clear to me. On a radar screen I could see all air and ship movements in the region. Indeed, the strategic importance of Cyprus to future humanitarian operations and strategic stability in a region undergoing the most profound of political transformations was reinforced through my chats here with the British Ambassador to Beirut.
Cyprus also poses a real strategic challenge for Britain. There is much talk these days of ‘grand strategy’ – the organisation of large means in pursuit of large ends. However, my friend and colleague Professor Paul Cornish at the University of Exeter makes a critical point; it is not so much grand strategy that Britain needs as much as the ability to think and act grand strategically – to organise large means in pursuit of large ends. To that I would add the vital British need to see strategic partnerships and the assets they provide as such and thereafter preserve and develop them. That means an end to London’s endemic short-termism.
Both Cyprus and British strategy will be tested in the years to come. As the Americans pivot to Asia-Pacific (as they must) they will look to Britain and the other European allies to be credible actors in the promotion of peace and stability in Europe’s dangerous strategic neighbourhoods – North Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Britain's bases on Cyprus cover all three neighbourhoods.
Of course the Americans will maintain a presence in the region not least because Israel is as much US domestic policy as foreign policy. However, America today is a bit like Britain in 1925 when Cyprus became a Crown Dependency – apparently strong on paper but wracked by financial challenges and spread far too thinly the world over.
The world’s future stability is dependent on a strong America and Britain must be seen to invest in assets such a Cyprus as proof of that. This is something EU leaders might wish to ponder as they manufacture a crisis over US spying simply to prevent David Cameron raising the issue of EU reform.
Given the twenty-first century context the strategic partnership with Cyprus is not some vestige of imperial past. Cyprus is a vital British strategic partner and fellow EU member-state. London must understand the importance of that partnership and continue to maintain its commitment to the security and well-being of all the Cypriot people as agreed in the 1960 treaties of London and Zurich. It was therefore good to see London playing an under-stated yet critical role in the recent financial crisis. Britain also has a vital continuing role in helping Cyprus, Greece and Turkey come to a new understanding so that EU and NATO allies and partners can work together for peace and stability in the region.
Britain’s bases also need to be brought into the twenty-first century. Sitting in the delightful garden of Flagstaff House, residence of the Commander, British Forces Cyprus gazing down on the azure blue eastern Mediterranean there was a sense of genteel decline about both the house and the bases. British bases have played a critical role in support of operations in Afghanistan but will need to be modernised for the coming test. Part of that means a Britain willing to up its presence in both Cyprus and the region. The recent visit of HMS Dragon, a brand new, state-of-the-art British destroyer was a good start, together with the potent presence of RAF Typhoons. Critically, Britain needs to reinvest in the bases as a strategic hub.
The friction-full, hyper-competitive world that will become all too apparent in the aftermath of Afghanistan will see big power contest big power, the state contest the anti-state and much of that competition will take place on Cyprus’s doorstep. Indeed, the Syria tragedy demonstrates all too graphically a Middle East once again the crucible of contest and change.
The British bases on Cyprus are vital to British, European and Alliance strategic interests and a critical pillar of stability in an inherently unstable region. Cyprus is a vital twenty-first century strategic hinge at the threshold of European, regional and world security. Just look at a map!