Russia in Syria: The Egypt angle

Moscow’s strategy will undoubtedly lead to an escalation of the Syrian conflict and its continued spillover at the regional and international levels.

President Sisi and President Putin in Cairo, February 9, 2015  (photo credit: REUTERS)
President Sisi and President Putin in Cairo, February 9, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Russia has long intervened in many regions across the world, prompting numerous conflicts and tensions. The latest chapter unfolded after Moscow sent military reinforcements, weapons, ammunition and soldiers to Syria. Many viewed this step as a culminating moment of Russia’s Middle East policy that began during the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. By providing military support, Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime as it cracks down on the Syrian rebels. This policy also underlines the fact that Iran and Hezbollah have failed to prevent Assad’s crumbling regime from collapsing.
Moscow’s strategy will undoubtedly lead to an escalation of the Syrian conflict and its continued spillover at the regional and international levels.
Escalation of the conflict would have devastating effects and would reshape the regional map. Russia’s response to this potential has triggered various responses from the Syrian opposition forces, such as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (Syrian National Coalition). The coalition condemned direct Russian intervention in Syria and described it as a transition from supporting a criminal regime to direct aggression and occupation.
Colonel Mustafa Farhat, the spokesman for the Free Syrian Army chief of staff, labeled Russian military intervention in Syria as “dangerous” and called on the Gulf countries, Turkey and the international community to play their part in curbing Russia.
However, Russia would not have taken this step in Syria without the cooperation of other countries in the region besides Iran. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, Jordanian King Abdullah and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi crown prince and deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces, have all visited Putin in Moscow. This convergence of interests between some Arab capitals and Moscow resulted from tensions between said capitals and the United States over a number of issues, most notably the Iran nuclear deal and the Syrian crisis.
In the particular case of Russia and Egypt, relations between Egypt and the then USSR have oscillated between cool and warm since the founding of the Republic of Egypt in 1952. The direction of Egyptian- Russian relations has in large part depended on the status of the relationship between Cairo and Washington. Although initially supporting the US, Gamal Abdel Nasser veered toward the USSR Eastern Bloc in response to the World Bank’s refusal to fund the Aswan High Dam under US pressure in 1955.
During Nasser’s rule, the USSR contributed Russian experts to aid in the development of the Aswan High Dam, Helwan Iron and Steel Company, the Aluminum Company of Egypt, Egyptalum in Nag Hammady, the installation of power lines and many other industrial projects. Egyptian military delegations also visited the USSR to provide the Egyptian army with Soviet military expertise.
Under Anwar Sadat’s rule, relations between Cairo and Moscow deteriorated due to Soviets imposing a number of arbitrary conditions on the use of weapons prior to the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Sadat dismissed and repatriated the Russian experts in the country. And while Hosni Mubarak reestablished cordial relations, Mohammed Morsi again cooled relations with Russia in light of Cairo’s stance on the Syrian crisis and Assad’s regime.
Nevertheless, tensions resurfaced between Cairo and Washington following Morsi’s ouster in July 2013, and Sisi resorted to the old strategy of warming to Russia adopted by his predecessors. He has shifted his country’s alignment toward Moscow, which still regards the US and the West as enemies despite the collapse of the USSR. Sisi’s shift may indicate an attempt to diversify the country’s sources of military arms and to reduce its dependence on Washington. The former Egyptian army chief of staff Lieutenant-General Hamdi Wuhiba told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, “We cannot disengage ourselves from the United States or cut our relations with the latter because the majority of weapons used by the Egyptian army are US-made.”
Egypt’s military reliance on the US is underscored by the estimated $1.3 billion in military aid that Egypt receives every year.
BUT MOSCOW has attempted to regain its former position in Egypt, again implementing major development projects such as the joint nuclear plant manufacturer Rosatom’s decision to establish the El-Dabaa nuclear power plant in the northern Matrouh governorate. Moreover, Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia – which had no ties whatsoever to Russia from the 1930s to the 1990s – have begun to shift toward Moscow, despite disagreement over the handling of Syria. This shift demonstrates the regional disappointment with many of these states’ oldest and most powerful ally, the US, after the nuclear deal was signed with Iran.
Meanwhile, European ambivalence to Russia’s increased militarism has emboldened the former empire. The lax attitude of the West when dealing with Moscow over the Ukrainian crisis encouraged Moscow to embrace further aggressive policies toward Europe and other regions in the world that undermine both Western interests and international peace and security.
The strategy Russia has begun to endorse in Syria is doomed to failure, because it will fuel the conflict and deepen its sectarian dimension. This will further encourage jihad in Syria, mirroring the situation in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. Russia itself will be affected by its irresponsible acts, as it already faces problems with the North Caucasus’ Muslims, some of whom are joining the ranks of Islamic State (IS).
Russia is seeking military intervention in Syria under the pretext of fighting terrorism. However, Russia created this environment in the first place by supporting Assad’s regime, which has killed hundreds of thousands of its own people. In the past, Russia had intervened in Afghanistan through irresponsible acts that have given rise to the phenomenon of mujahidin. As a result of the misguided Russian strategy in Afghanistan, several terrorist groups were formed under the banner of jihad, most notably al-Qaida. Therefore, Europe and the US should cooperate more efficiently if they are to put an end to Russia’s recklessness. If they do not, Russia may sweep the world into a new world war, especially since the current global conditions portend violent military clashes on multiple fronts.
The author is an Egyptian writer and analyst of Middle East affairs, working on a master’s degree in political science from the University of Rome.