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Setting red lines

​Setting red lines is really not a good idea. When one sets a red line, he proclaims that some options are off the table. He specifies how much he is willing to go in relation to a contested issue, effectively showing off all of his cards at once. Sometimes red lines are genuine, other times they are symbolic or a product of political maneuvering. Proclaiming something as non-negotiable is costly and should be done only with full awareness of the potential cost.

Red lines are maybe useful when discussing the terms of the negotiations; that is, the conditions and the format of the negotiations, especially when there is room for getting once’s own prior to the actual diplomatic process. Otherwise, red lines render one vulnerable to the label of the aggressor; you become the person to blame for the deadlock in the negotiations, which is exactly the perception that must be avoided as it usually comes with dire consequences that in the end diminish the negotiating power of your side.

But in some cases certain issues are indeed non-negotiable — they are genuine red lines. Even so, why let the other side know how far you are willing to go, how much you are willing to give in before you call it quits? Would you stop anywhere before the absolute red line of the other side if you know in advance that you can get more? I wouldn’t.

Red lines are nonetheless considered in any negotiation in order to set the framework, the timeline, and in order to manage the expectations of the different parties (and of the markets). The golden rule in setting red lines is the same that applies in child-rearing. You do not promise  something that you cannot deliver and you do not make a threat that you are not willing to follow through.

Setting red lines requires two main parameters. First, it requires to have the ability to stick to it no matter what. If you move past your red line then you lose all your credibility and you will likely be obliterated against a seasoned negotiator. Second, red lines must be set on issues that are genuinely non-negotiable and on issues that actually matter. The latter is particularly important because red lines don’t come cheap. Red lines are typically set on substantial rather than secondary issues. And in order to set a red line, that is to remove something from the table, you need to hand over something else that is also substantial. It therefore better be worth it.

Let us now consider the current round of negotiations for the solution to the Cyprus problem between the president of the Republic of Cyprus, Mr. Nicos Anastasiades, and the representative of the Turkish Cypriot community, Mr. Mustafa Akıncı, in relation to the issue of security and guarantees. Both leaders have rushed to set their red lines. Anastasiades, both himself and through Athens, has proclaimed that the Greek Cypriots (GC) cannot accept a solution that involves Turkey as a guarantor state — a view that has been revised accordingly in the course of the negotiations. Akıncı, for his part, proclaimed that there cannot be a solution without some sort of Turkish guarantees — again, a view that has been subject to revisions and qualifications.

The two leaders, who both claim that they genuinely want to find a solution to this on-going problem, are setting themselves up to fail. They have both created great expectations among their respective sides. Given that the expectations they set are mutually exclusive, the only way to meet them and not disappoint their sides is with the failure of the negotiations.

Nonetheless, the issue of guarantees is an easy problem to solve. For the Greek Cypriot side, the reality is that Turkey is a regional superpower with the largest army in the area. No matter its legal status in relation to the negotiated constitution, Turkey will still be able to intervene or invade the island. This is a geopolitical fact. The only guarantees that Greek Cypriots can realistically expect to achieve is that any such invasion will be condemned in international law as illegal. More or less the same thing that happened post-1974, which was exactly what enabled the Republic to maintain its status. There’s nothing more to get. Either with or without a formal guarantee status for Turkey the fact that it is a neighbouring regional superpower remains.

A good portion of Turkish Cypriots (TCs) on the other hand feel that the role of Turkey as a guarantor power is essential to their security and to the viability of their community, fearing that they will be assimilated by the dominant Greek Cypriot majority. Ignore for a minute the elephant in the room that is the authoritarianism of Erdoğan, which is in itself is a real threat to the viability of the Turkish Cypriot community in Cyprus. It doesn’t take much to understand why some TCs may think that Turkey is necessary for their protection. Note, though, that attitudes amongst the TCs in relation to guarantees have shifted since 2004 — now TCs are more likely to consider abandoning the system of guarantees.

In either case, we have the one side saying that they do not want guarantees and we have the other side saying that they do. The middle solution is rather straightforward: have Turkey as a guarantor power along with the EU and the rest, and make it clear that any action on behalf of the guarantors would require the agreement of the United Nations Security Council, essentially making it unrealistic and thus illegal for any of them to invade. This results in a win-win situation. The Greek Cypriots get the maximum that they can get and the Turkish Cypriots get the emotional satisfaction that Turkey is protecting them.

For make no mistake, this issue is nothing more than a matter of emotions: whether Turkey is a guarantor or not is irrelevant to its ability to intervene. Neither does it change the fact that Erdoğan is a loose cannon. And this is exactly why the Greek Cypriots are wrong to set this emotional and symbolic issue as a red line; because they will have to exchange it with something substantial.

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