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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Holbrooke Faces Impasse In Cyprus

Unlike some of his colleagues, I am a great admirer of Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian affairs. I like the subtle brutality of his diplomacy, and the self-confidence that goes with it. Without his involvement, it is fair to say, there may never have been a Bosnian peace settlement last month.

Now, however, Holbrooke may be overstretching himself. He announced before Christmas that he was going to make 1996 "the year of the big push in Cyprus" -- that is, broker a settlement to a conflict that has defied all international efforts at a solution for almost 22 years.

If Bosnia was a mess, Cyprus is an ocean-sized swamp. At one level, it is a conflict between the island's Greek and Turkish communities. At another level, it is a stand-off between Greece and Turkey. At a third level, however, it is an issue in which there is a great deal at stake for the European Union, the United States and the Western alliance as a whole. What makes Holbrooke think he can square the Cypriot circle? Possibly, he sees similarities between Cyprus and Bosnia. Both are conflicts where the essential issue is how to persuade rival nationalities to occupy the same small space of land in peace. There has been "ethnic cleansing" in both places -- forced transfers of population, and a deliberate attempt to create "purified" national areas.

But whereas the Bosnian war had raged for only three years before Holbrooke's intervention, the latest troubles in Cyprus extend all the way back to July 1974. Indeed, while Serbs, Croats and Moslems in Bosnia lived in peace for most of the post-1945 period until the collapse of communism, the Greeks and Turks of Cyprus were in a state of confrontation in the '50s and '60s, long before the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974.

Turkish troops went in because the Greek Cypriots, supported by Greece's then military junta, launched a coup with the aim of unifying the island with Greece itself. In 1983, the Turks of northern Cyprus declared an independent state, but no country in the world except Turkey has extended it diplomatic recognition.

Long regarded as a virtually insoluble problem, Cyprus has returned to the center of diplomatic attention because the European Union decided last year to fix a date for membership negotiations with the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government. The talks will likely start in late 1997 or early 1998, but clearly they cannot be successfully concluded while the island remains partitioned, with the northern one-third ruled by a rogue regime backed by Turkey, a major NATO country.

Just how intractable the Cyprus dispute is became clear last week when the EU sent an Italian mediator to the region with new ideas for a settlement. Turkey, to put it in a nutshell, told the EU to get lost.

It is not at all clear how the logjam can be broken. Unlike in Bosnia, the West cannot start bombing the local combatants into taking peace. Turkey's vital strategic importance to the United States, and Greece's membership in the European Union as well as NATO, make it difficult for the Western powers to take sides in the dispute.

The answer must lie in some form of shared sovereignty between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, with only moderate powers for the central government in Nicosia. But how to get there is another matter. If Holbrooke bites into Cyprus, he may find it is a whole lot more than he can chew.