Peter Lvov, Ph.D
New Eastern Outlook
Over the last couple of days, Russian President Vladimir Putin conducted a series of visits back-to-back, visiting Syria, Egypt and Turkey in less than 48 hours. In spite of the brief nature of these visits, Russia’s leader managed to hold extensive discussions with the heads of the above mentioned states, while Egypt and Turkey saw a round of full-scale negotiations with representatives of each nation’s respective business leaders, assisted by foreign ministries and ministers of defense. This fact became apparent when the composition of the Russian delegation was revealed, which included Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, several economic ministers, heads of major state corporations, including Rostec, Rosatom and Gazprom.
In Syria, Putin has not just congratulated Russia’s military for its success in destroying ISIS, confirming the intention of the Russian Federation to significantly reduce its military presence in the Syrian Arab Republic, but had a thorough discussion with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad about the prospects of a political settlement in Syria. Indeed, the conflict in Syria won’t automatically end and it is necessary to organize an inter-Syrian dialogue in Damascus, while inviting the representatives of the united opposition. However, the task at hand is anything but simple, given the irreconcilable spirit of the opposition regarding the political fate of Bashar al-Assad and its preasumption that “Assad must go.” But here there lies a legitimate question – why so? After all, it was the army under the president of Syria’s command that, with the support of external allies such as Russia and Iran, succeeded in putting an end to ISIS and preserving the sovereignty of the country, despite attempts made by a handful of regional forces to divide it into enclaves and quasi-states. That is why Putin and al-Assad agreed to carry on their efforts to bring all parties together at a congress on inter-Syrian reconciliation in Sochi in February of 2018, together with Ankara and Tehran. They have also discussed issues related to the restoration of the destroyed infrastructure and the economy of Syria.
Putin’s trip to Cairo had clearly predefined priorities – the development of trade and economic relations, tourism, and military cooperation. But the parties had to discuss the Palestinian problem in light of the recent decision by the US under President Donald Trump to transfer the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing this city as the capital of Israel.
The economic situation in Egypt is fairly complicated these days, aggravated by internal problems associated with the operations run by a handful of terrorist organizations across the Sinai and the Suez Canal zone. The situation is further complicated by the continuous influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical organization supported by Qatar. It is extremely important for Egypt to resume the flow of its tourism industry in order to sustain its economy, which, as of now, is in a state of stagnation. This puts Moscow in an advantageous position over Cairo, but it is difficult to say whether Egypt will deal with a number of issues, including the possibility to station Russian warships in Egyptian ports such as Mersa Matruh, no more than 70 miles away from the border with Libya. Moscow may also be inclined to create an air base in Egypt, a development welcomed by representatives of both states. In addition, it is extremely important for the Russian Federation to use Egypt as a launching pad for its return to Libya, requiring assistance lent to Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar.
And the resumption of tourism in Egypt from Russia is virtually impossible without the resumption of air services between the two states, including charter flights to Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada, tourism that once brought billions of dollars to the Egyptian treasury, accompanied by loans and infrastructure projects, the construction of nuclear power plants and assembly plants, all of which Moscow can bring to the table with its renewed friendship. As for Moscow, a full-fledged and versatile military base, as close as possible to the future theater of military operations in Libya would be a prized possession. The consequences of these talks will determine the future course of Libya’s ongoing conflict. It must be remembered destabilization, followed by military intervention carried out by the US, NATO and Qatar back in 2011 resulted in the destruction of Libya finalized with the brutal murder of the rightful leader of the country – Muammar Gaddafi. At the time, Russia lost at least 25 billion dollars overnight in
lost profits, as a large number of deals with Gazprom, Russian Railways, and Rosoboronexport remained unfulfilled.
It is too early to talk about what kind of an agreement could be reached between Russia and Egypt on all of these issues. Putin announced that Russia was prepared to resume air traffic with Egypt, but Russia’s Transport Minister specified that “this would primarily depend on the Egyptian side.” However, although Egypt is primarily interested in attracting Russian tourists, the problem, in general, remained unchanged. Those who are making decisions are perfectly aware of the who and why behind a Russian airplane explosion over the Sinai back in 2015, as this terrorist attack was staged by local militants enjoying Qatari support.
Egypt must navigate tricky conflicting interests, by supporting Moscow and its interest in restoring stability to Libya, and in exchange , restoring the flow of tourists from Russia, but at the same time avoiding any possibility to step on a toe of Egypt’s most important ally – Saudi Arabia, which finances the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, allowing him to stay afloat and counter the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood associated with Qatar. And there’s little doubt that Riyadh would be pleased with Russia’s arrival in yet another part of the Middle East. But Saudi Arabia may as well look at this situation in a different light, as Qatar has enjoyed a lot of influence in Libya since 2011, and we must not forget that “everything that is bad for Qatar is good for Saudi Arabia.” As for Moscow’s relations with Doha, they don’t seem likely to improve anytime in the foreseeable future, which is evident by a strange deal regarding shares of Rosneft, which first were transferred to Qatar almost free of charge, and then transferred to the Chinese. One can also remember the beginning of the blockade of Qatar by the Persian Gulf monarchies, when Turkey stood up for Doha, but Russia distanced itself from the situation, despite a number of meetings on this issue conducted at the highest levels.
If Saudi Arabia receives guarantees that Moscow’s interests in Libya will not act against the interests of the Kingdom, and at the same time, the stalemate may be resolved. But cooperation can only go so far, since Riyadh has learned from its Syrian experience, where Moscow destroyed its militants. Back then the Turks were even forced to shoot down a Russian bomber and Riyadh amassed a formidable military force in early 2016 in an attempt to demonstrate that it was ready for the invasion of Syria, before both backed down.
So far the results of Putin’s trip to Egypt are yet to become clear. The Egyptians obviously took a pause for a chance to hold discussions with their partners, and therefore there is no final decision on the key issue from the Russian side on the renewal of tourism. There are promises, but there is no decision yet. Apparently, everything will become clear after New Year’s.
Another topic of Putin’s talks in Egypt could be the issue of unhindered passage of Russian transport ships through the Suez Canal to supply the future Russian military base in Sudan. According to several reports, Russia’s military experts have already conducted an evaluation of Sudan with the conclusion that such a base can be built near Port Sudan – the most important port structure of the country. The parameters of the base are not yet known, but it obviously should be able to accommodate military aircraft. The problem is that the distances from Port Sudan to possible conflict areas – in Libya and Sudan itself – are significant: 800 miles to the border with South Sudan and more than 1,200 miles to Libya which is beyond the operational range of the aircraft used in Syria . So one can only deploy Russia’s long-range aviation to such a base. Saudi Arabia has already given its consent to the construction of the Russian base, so it is clear that it does not threaten Saudi interests in the region, which automatically means that same can be said about America’s interests. Moreover, the Saudis have in the immediate vicinity a complex of their own military airfields. On the Red Sea, such a base can only threaten Qatar and its tankers, as there are no other Saudi enemies in the region.
As for the political part of the talks, it went well, given that there is no disagreement between Moscow and Cairo over either the Palestinian issue or Syria. The commitment to the resolutions of the UN Security Council on Palestine and Jerusalem was reaffirmed by both parties. For Abdel Fattah el-Sisi this is especially important, given that the local population can take to the streets at any given moment, protesting steps taken by Washington and Tel-Aviv, and then these protests can quickly become anti-government. In such a situation Saudi Arabia will be unable to assist the Egyptian government.
For Russia, the Russian president’s visit to Egypt was very successful, confirming Moscow’s desire to stay in the region after concluding its operations in Syria.