AHI Afternoon Briefing on Capitol Hill in Commemoration of the 33 Year Anniversary of the Cyprus Problem
WASHINGTON, DC—On July 24, 2007, AHI hosted an Afternoon Briefing in Commemoration of the 33 Year Anniversary of the Cyprus Problem on Capitol Hill with two speakers: CDR Peter G. Stamatopoulos, SC, USN on “The Role of Cyprus in the Assisted Departures of American Citizens from Lebanon in July of 2006” and AHI President Gene Rossides on “Cyprus: An Important Partner for U.S. Strategic Interests in the Region.”
“The Role of Cyprus in the Assisted Departure of American Citizens from Lebanon”
24 July, 2007, Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2105
Commander Peter G. Stamatopoulos
Thank you very much Mr. Rossides for that kind introduction. It’s good to see you all here today. Thank you Nick Larigakis and the American Hellenic Institute for inviting me to speak with you today, and also to the staffers and citizens who were able to take time out of their busy schedules to discuss Cyprus’s important role in the evacuation of American citizens from Lebanon, as well thousands of others because there were many more than just U.S. citizens evacuated from Lebanon during the summer of 2006.
Today, I’m going to give you Pete Stamatopoulos’ perspective, not the views of the Department of Defense, just my perspective on the assisted departure operation. We will talk a little bit about the operation, commonly referred to as a non-combatant evacuation, and also about important role Cyprus played in facilitating the operation. With that, we’ll begin and leave time at the end for your questions.
For those of you that did not know, Assisted Departure Operations, also called Non-Combatant Evacuation Orders "NEO", are in direct support of the Department of State. As a matter of fact, the US ambassador is the senior authority for the evacuation, not the military. The military however, plays a key role in the operation mainly providing command and control, security, and logistics support necessary to evacuate thousands of people—including transportation, health services, food, water, shelter, engineering and technical support among other things.
Wherever we have American embassies around the globe we have what are called Emergency Action Plans. These plans are developed collaboratively by the US Embassy and Military, and are specifically designed to be executed if a situation arises where you would need to evacuate US citizens (or friends of the US) from a country. Anytime the military is called in to evacuate citizens, whether in response to a humanitarian crisis caused by an insecurity or a natural disaster, these operations are extremely complicated as you can imagine. The military services, particularly the Navy / Marine Corps Team, train regularly to respond to these types of contingencies.
NEO operations are not uncommon to American service members. If you look back throughout recent history, our military has been asked to evacuate civilians from many areas around the globe including Indonesia following the 2005 Tsunami which devastated that country. Other NEO operations around the world included Liberia (1993, 2004), Tanzania (1998), Kenya (1998), Panama (1989), and Saigon (1975). Although these NEO operations happenend for different reasons, one thing they all had in common was they were extremely complicated and there was a lot of uncertainty that surrounded the events. You never know how many people will need assistance, or what type of problems you will encounter along the way. It seems almost always you find yourself working with people you’ve never worked with before in places you’ve never been to. As you can imagine, some populations are easier to work with than others, in part due to differences in language, culture and expectations. There are also many places in the world that are not very hospitable to operate from—this was not the case with Cyprus.
We were very fortunate to have the cooperation of the Republic of Cyprus. Literally, she opened up her arms to America and the European Community. Cypriot citizens displayed a gargantuan effort in assisting the departure of nearly 15,000 American citizens out of Lebanon to safe haven in Cyprus. It was a year ago this July, at the height of Cyprus’ tourist season, this very small country of approximately 780,000 citizens stopped what they were doing and opened up their skies, their seas, and their homes, to assist tens of thousands of people in need.
As I mentioned it was one year ago this month, July 12th, the Lebanon war kicked off, as a result of Lebanese Hezbollah paramilitary organizations firing Katyusha rockets and mortars into Israeli border towns and villages. They were doing this to divert attention from another team of paramilitary forces which infiltrated behind Israeli lines to attack a security patrol killing 3 Israeli Defense Soldiers and kidnapping two. To this day, we don’t know the fate of the two soldiers who were kidnapped.
Israel responded decisively with air strikes and artillery barrages aimed at Hezbollah targets throughout Lebanon. Consequently, a substantial amount of Lebanese infrastructure was destroyed, including the Rafik Hariri International Airport, which deemed Beirut Embassy’s Emergency Action Plan useless. That Emergency Action Plan relied heavily on commercial airlift to evacuate citizens; however, since the airport had sustained significant bomb damage it could not be used. Further complicating the situation, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had established a naval blockade and systematically took out about 400 miles of roads and more than 70 bridges leading out of Lebanon which effectively cut her off from the rest of the world. These factors, including the destruction of major infrastructure such as fuel depots, electricity plants and water facilities increased the complexity and uncertainty of the assisted departure operation.
Combat operations intensified over the next few days. Lebanese Hezbollah fired some 4,000 Katyusha rockets into Israel. Israel responded with air combat missions, a land campaign in southern Lebanon, and a naval bombardment from Israeli ships into southern Lebanon during the conflict. I paint this picture to depict the complexity of the battle space and the risks civilians were exposed to—a naval blockade and a coordinated air/ground campaign. So, when the international community arrived off the coast of Lebanon to evacuate their citizens, it was a very difficult and tense situation requiring a great deal of coordination, cooperation and caution. In addition to all the risks imposed by intense combat between Lebanese Hezbollah and IDF, essential supplies of food, water, and fuel were dwindling in the local economy setting the conditions for a major humanitarian crisis potentially impacting millions of Lebanese and visitors.
Ambassador Felton, the US ambassador in Beirut, was closest to the situation on the ground, and had the best feel for what was going on there. At the onset of the operation, the State Department did not have a good feel for how many American citizens were in Lebanon. There was a lot of uncertainty since it was the summer travel season—estimates ranged anywhere from 5,000 all the way up to 50,000. This is a very large difference in numbers, especially when planning for an evacuation operation.
On July 14th Ambassador Felton requested emergency assistance from the Department of State to help evacuate American citizens and personnel. His request initiated what would become the largest evacuation of American citizens since the Korean War.
Within hours of Ambassador Felton’s request the State Department began coordination efforts with the Republic of Cyprus and the Department of Defense ordered the deployment of 9 ships, 40 aircraft and more than 900 joint forces to Cyprus. Included in the force were about 6,000 sailors and marines who operated from the nine ships off the coast of Cyprus.
At the height of the emergency there were almost 1 million displaced Lebanese who were at risk, and scours of tourists, well over 100,000 by most estimates. As the situation on the ground worsened the US embassy staff desperately tried to notify our citizens an assisted departure was going to take place. Thousands of American citizens many visiting family, friends and relatives had become trapped in the conflict. Unfortunately there were only two ways out of Lebanon—either by land through Syria, or by sea. As you can imagine, going through Syria via land was not a very desirable option for many including US citizens.
The US evacuation effort started on July 16, less than 48 hours after the request for emergency assistance was made. US Marine helicopters flying non-stop from Jordan, and Air Force helicopters from Germany were the first to arrive. This alone was a complicated diplomatic and operational effort requiring numerous country clearances for air corridors and aerial re-fuelings along the flight path. Despite the challenges, it was only a matter of hours before US helicopters flew into the embassy compound in Beirut to reinforce security and begin the evacuation of American citizens. This marked the re-opening of the Beirut Air Bridge, after more than two decades. You may recall when our Beirut embassy was attacked in the 1980s, we initiated an air bridge to deliver food and supplies to our embassy personnel working in Beirut. Our US Air Force flew helicopters from Cyprus to Beirut on a regular basis providing sustainment to the embassy.
At the beginning of the assisted departure operation there were no US Navy ships in the Eastern Mediterranean. They were all deployed in either the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, or the Western Mediterranean, so it took time for them to sail to the operation area. Until the ships were able to arrive we relied on helicopters; however, they could only transport about 200 people per day—and the flight was very arduous requiring up to three aerial refueling during the 280 mile trip from Cyprus to Lebanon and back. Until our Navy ships would arrive, helicopters were only able to provide a limited evacuation capability, so we turned to Cypriot business leaders in the port of Limassol for help. Georgios Solomonides, a local Cypriot shipping agent helped source commercial vessels for hire. That relationship enabled US Transportation Command to expeditiously contract three commercial vessels. This established a commercial sea bridge from Cyprus to Lebanon allowing the evacuation of about 2,500 people a day. Although this was a large increase over our helicopter capacity, it was still inadequate considering we had up to 50,000 potential evacuees.
On the fifth day of the operation US Navy ships arrived and employed a combination of short-range helicopters and amphibious landing craft capable of accessing multiple locations in Lebanon to ferry evacuees to ships prior to sailing to Cyprus. These helicopters also made round-robin trips to Cyprus. Within 11 days approximately 14,000 citizens had been safely transported to Cyprus. By the end of August nearly 15,000 American citizens were evacuated from Lebanon.
Even as the world’s most powerful military, we are often limited with by what we can do on our own. We need the cooperation of friendly nations to help us successfully execute operations like this—especially of this magnitude. Without a doubt Cyprus played a pivotal role in the success of this operation. She enabled the US and the international community to respond to the crisis in a timely manner. As I said before Cyprus really made a gargantuan effort at the height of her tourist season, dropping everything to help people in need.
American citizens arrived in Cyprus at one of four safe-haven locations in Larnaca, Limassol, Pathos, and Akrotiri. As people arrived, they were shuttled to the international fair grounds in the Cyprus capital of Nicosia. About 13,500 American citizens passed through the international fair grounds in Nicosia on their way back to the United States. About 8,000 of these citizens used the fairgrounds as a temporary home pending follow-on transportation. Cyprus, and the city of Nicosia were phenomenal. They donated large sums of food, water, medicines, facilities, and an abundance of Cypriot volunteers that helped out with crowd management, and with comforting the evacuees. Grocers and bakeries delivered fresh bread daily to safe haven locations including the fair grounds. There was an incredible amount of outreach on the part of Cypriot citizens. Cyprus transformed its sea ports and airports into some of the busiest passenger and humanitarian cargo areas in recent history. Cyprus wasn’t just a safe-haven to American citizens. She also hosted a UN humanitarian effort consisting of many government non-governmental and private organizations that provided assistance.
There were many Cypriot officials and business owners that provided essential information and support services. Cyprus' business community was very important to our efforts. They had key relationships in the local economy and the know-how to get things done in both Cyprus and Lebanon which was crucial.
In conclusion, we were very fortunate to have Cyprus open her arms to us and assist in this operation. Her geographic proximity to Lebanon coupled with deep water ports and capable airfields facilitated the rapid departure of thousands. Above all, her citizens generosity and enthusiasm to help Americans in need were exemplary. I welcome any questions that you have. Thank you.
Cyprus: An Important Partner for U.S. Strategic Interests in the Region
By Gene Rossides
Why is Cyprus an important and reliable partner for U.S. strategic interests in the region? The answer begins with location, location and location. Cyprus, an island in the Eastern Mediterranean, is 125 plus miles from Lebanon, 100 plus miles to Israel, 250 plus miles to Egypt and 40 miles to Turkey.
Cyprus is a stationary aircraft carrier in the Eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus has three airfields including the British RAF Akrotiri airfield in the so-called “British Sovereign Areas” which is Cyprus territory. The other two airfields are at Larnaca on the east side of Cyprus and at Paphos on the western end of the island.
The RAF Akrotiri airbase was used by the U.S. in 1991 in Operation Desert Storm against Iraq when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, and again in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and up to the present time.
Cyprus has two deep water harbors capable of accommodating the largest U.S. aircraft carriers and amphibious ships.
The listening posts in the Troodos Mountains are the finest in the entire region and cover not only the Middle East but also Russia. During the Cold War these listening posts provided needed information on the Soviet Union’s nuclear activities and other military information and for verifying past or possible future Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) agreements. They remain most important today for U.S. interests. There are listening posts also in the British base areas.
During both the 1991 and 2003 Gulf wars with Iraq, the Cyprus government authorized military overflights which were very important to U.S. efforts.
Cyprus lies adjacent to the commercial shipping lanes in the Eastern Mediterranean including energy shipments through the Suez Canal.
The U.S. Embassy in Cyprus has major responsibilities in the region, beyond representing the U.S. in Cyprus, because of the strategic location of Cyprus.
Cyprus is a major staging area for the region.
Cyprus is a major logistics hub for the region with a modern highway system connecting key cities and transportation nodes.
Cyprus’ government and business leaders understanding of and close ties with the people and the governments in the Middle East and North Africa are of value for U.S. interests and could be of substantially more value.
Most important is the fact that the Greek Cypriots are a European people and strongly pro-West, pro-Europe and yes, pro-American. They may not agree on some of our policies- such as the double standard on the rule of law for Turkey and the appeasement of Turkey- but they are still pro-American.
Cyprus played a critical role in July 2006 in the evacuation of 15,000 Americans from Lebanon after the start of the Lebanon War of 2006. On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah paramilitary forces in Lebanon fired rockets and mortars at Israeli border villages. Another Hezbollah group crossed into Israel, killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others as hostages.
Israel responded swiftly and massively with airstrikes and artillery fire against targets throughout Lebanon which caused substantial damage to civilian infrastructures including Lebanon’s key airport, the Rafic Hariri International Airport at Beirut. In effect Lebanon had been isolated from the rest of the world by the Israeli forces.
The U.S. Ambassador in Beirut requested the U.S. Defense Department’s assistance in the evacuation of 15,000 American citizens. The government of Cyprus and the people of free Cyprus, under the leadership of President Tassos Papadopoulos, played an essential part in the evacuation of upwards of 40,000 tourists from Lebanon including 15,000 Americans.
U.S. Navy Commander Peter Stamatopoulos who commanded a key U.S. unit on Cyprus coordinating the evacuation for the U.S. Navy stated:
Cyprus could play an even more helpful role for U.S. interests in spreading democracy and the rule of law in the region when Turkey’s 43,000 illegal military forces and 160,000 illegal settlers/colonists are removed from the island and the Turkish barbed wire fence across the face of Cyprus is removed and the country reunified.
Turkey’s military is the main obstacle to reunification of Cyprus. The ruling AK party in Turkey won a substantial victory in the elections on July 22, 2007 over the military backed party and other parties. Now let us see whether AK will take steps to achieve a just and workable settlement of the Cyprus problem.
In its own interests the U.S. should apply adequate diplomatic, political and economic pressure on Turkey to get out of Cyprus and let the Greek and Turkish Cypriots negotiate a just and workable constitution.
Call and write to President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and ask them to apply such pressure to the aggressor and occupier, Turkey, to get out of Cyprus in the interests of the U.S.
AHI Afternoon Briefing on Capitol Hill in Commemoration of the 33 Year Anniversary of the Cyprus Problem