Hezbollah’s threat to retaliate against Cyprus if it helps Israel attack Lebanon has highlighted the Mediterranean island’s delicate geopolitical position, analysts say.

Cypriots were taken by surprise when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah mentioned them in a June 19 speech, saying Cyprus would be considered “part of the war” if Israel used Cypriot airports and bases in an attack on Lebanon.

“The Cypriot government should be careful,” he said.

For many, the announcement was a shock.

President Nikos Christodoulides told reporters: “Cyprus is not involved, in any way, in the military conflicts,” in response to Nasrallah’s comments.

“I don’t understand it,” said Angelina Pliaka, a lawyer in the capital Nicosia. “We have no involvement, and we don’t support Israel.”

Cyprus’s position

The prospect of war between Israel and Hezbollah has inched closer throughout Israel’s devastating eight-month war on Gaza as the Lebanese group exchanged fire with Israel in a bid to divert Israel’s resources from its Gaza campaign.

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Analysts have long warned that a full-blown war between Israel and Hezbollah would drag in countries and players across the region.

Yet despite rising region-wide tensions since a Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7, Hezbollah had not directly threatened Cyprus, which has close ties to Israel but has also served as a staging post for aid deliveries into Gaza.

Nasrallah’s threat highlighted Nicosia’s position as a United States ally and European Union member within range of Hezbollah’s missiles, as well as a country where many are increasingly concerned about the arrival of desperate people seeking refuge from nearby warzones.

The Hezbollah threat is “a stark reminder to the people of Cyprus where the country is located and how easily situations can be derailed,” Harry Tzimitras, director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Cyprus Centre, told Al Jazeera.

Cyprus, known more for its beaches than its proximity to warzones, is the most easterly state in the EU and lies just 160km (100 miles) from the coast of Lebanon.

people lie on the ground at a protest with Palestinian flags
A protester lies on the ground to mark a moment of silence during a demonstration in Nicosia on April 7, 2024, to mark six months of Israel’s war on Gaza [Etienne Torbey/AFP]

In recent years, it has sought to use that position to act as the EU’s bridge into the Middle East, building close ties with Israel and Egypt while maintaining channels of communication with Iran.

“Cyprus has been quite close to Israel since 2010-11,” Tzimitras said.

“In particular, the Netanyahu governments have been capitalising on Cyprus becoming a close ally in political, financial, energy and military terms, as well as a friendly country, in their relations with the EU.”

Despite these ties, Cyprus has tried to keep its distance from the conflicts in Gaza and on the Israel-Lebanon border.

Christodoulides had also pointed to the humanitarian corridor, saying: “Our country is absolutely not involved in any way, and is not part of the problem.”

An EU state under threat

The Cypriot government was “caught off guard”, James Ker-Lindsay, a research associate at the London School of Economics and a specialist on Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean, said.

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“The big takeaway is that Hezbollah is making threats against an EU member state. There will be discussions in Europe about how to respond, and calls on Iran to dial it down.”

In his June 19 speech, Nasrallah pointed out that Israeli forces had conducted exercises – to simulate invading Lebanon – in Cyprus two years ago because the island’s hilly terrain resembles southern Lebanon.

In a speech shortly after those exercises in 2022, he made no mention of those drills.

Hezbollah’s threat “likely relates” more to the British bases in Cyprus than anything else, Jack Watling, senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said.

Cyprus was a British colony until 1960 and when it won its independence, the United Kingdom retained two sprawling military bases there.

They were vital in an exodus of British citizens from Lebanon during Israel’s war with Hezbollah in 2006.

Its air force used one of the bases, RAF Akrotiri, in the invasions of Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, as well as in air strikes against ISIL (ISIS) in Iraq in 2014.

people hold protest signs in front of police in yellow vests
Peace protesters face police standing guard in front of the RAF Akrotiri base near Limassol, as they rally against its alleged use to supply Israel’s war on Gaza, a claim denied by Britain, on January 14, 2024 [Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP]

In January, the RAF used the base to launch strikes against the Houthis in Yemen in an attempt to deter the group from attacking ships they deemed Israel-related.

Investigative media outlet Declassified UK reported in May that Britain’s military sent 60 flights to Israel since it began bombing Gaza in October, mostly from Akrotiri.

London’s Ministry of Defence has refused to reveal what those flights were carrying.

Declassified UK also said the base was secretly being used by the US to transport weapons to Israel.

The British government has also refused to say whether its Cyprus bases are being used to facilitate bombing Gaza, or whether Israeli fighter jets have landed there.

However, for Hezbollah, Watling said, the UK bases are the most significant strategic threat emanating from Cyprus.

“I would interpret (Nasrallah’s statement) as Hezbollah trying to encourage the UK and US to pressure Israel not to escalate,” he said.

“Given that Hezbollah has ballistic missiles, it’s a plausible threat.”

The refugee question

That is not the only geopolitical headache facing Cyprus.

Cyprus refugees
Syrian refugees arrive on a Cyprus coastguard boat in the region of Protaras, on January 14, 2020 [Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters]

Cyprus has moved away from its traditional warm ties with Russia in the wake of the war on Ukraine and firmly placed its lot with the West.

Yet that shift may prove to have come at a cost – as a military escalation is not the only way Hezbollah could threaten Cyprus.

Just a few hours boat ride from war-torn Syria, the island has the highest ratio of asylum seekers to population in the EU.

In May, Nasrallah had called on the Lebanese government to “open the sea” so Syrians could make their way to Cyprus.

“Cyprus had been preparing for the possibility of a Lebanese migrant wave if things were to go sour in Lebanon. It has seen significant migrations from Lebanon twice before,” Tzimitras said.

“It would be extremely pressed if it were to host more people the way things are now with migration on the island.”

Nicoletta Georgiadou, a lawyer based in Nicosia, agreed that Cypriots are less concerned about a military escalation against their island than a wave of refugee arrivals.

“If that threat became real, it wouldn’t be through war, but they would fill Cyprus with Syrian and Lebanese refugees,” she said.

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