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Ceasefire in Syria: Arab world looking at Russia with hope

Presidents of Russia and Egypt, Vladimir Putin and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Photo: Kremlin press office

All big forces in the Middle East have come to life now that there is no more war in Syria and are actively exploring opportunities to get stronger in the region.

Egypt, who has so far been balancing among the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia, is now facing a “window of opportunities.”

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the two key forces in the present-day Arab world. In recent years, Russia has had lots of problems with Saudi Arabia, but every time Egypt helped. And now that there is ceasefire in Syria, gravity within this triangle may get even stronger.

The key sponsor of the Syrian opposition, the Supreme Commission for Negotiations, has made it clear that inter-ethnic dialogue is the only solution for Syria. The Saudis also said this in the past but they were not very convincing. Now that they see that ceasefire in Syria is possible, their voice has become louder, especially as most of their Arab partners see no alternative to peace - even local and temporary. The war in Syria has shown that the Arab world is weak and split. So, now it is time for the pan-Arab institutions, like the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, to prove their efficiency.

Egypt is one of the most ardent advocates of peace in the Arab world. Its position on Syria is very similar to Russia’s attitude. Unlike most Arab monarchies, the Egyptians do not insist on Assad’s urgent removal as they perfectly know what this may lead to: as a rule, the forces that come to replace such “dictators” prove to be very radical and cruel to their ideological and political opponents. Keeping the example of neighboring Libya in mind, the Egyptians are very rough to anybody trying to cause instability in their country.

Egypt began moving towards Russia in 2013, when the Russians convinced the Syrians to destroy their chemical weapons and thereby saved them from “Libyan scenario.” Since then the two countries have established close military-political contacts and are now even considering the project to deploy Russian ships in Egypt’s Mediterranean waters. And even though this is only a plan, the countries have lots of other stimuli for becoming strategic partners.

The Egyptians were impressed with the Russians’ anti-terror air campaign in Syria.

Since 2013, the sides have achieved the following results in their relations:

- their leaders have begun to trust each other and to exchange visits on a regular basis;

- the sides are developing their economic contacts and the key one is Rosatom’s project to build the first NPP in Egypt;

- the sides have signed a number of big arms contracts;

- they hold military maneuvers on a regular basis.

Last summer, Russia and Egypt held joint anti-terror naval maneuvers. Right afterwards they decided to organize land anti-terror maneuvers. Later the Russians launched their air campaign against ISIL in Syria and by doing that showed to the whole Arab world its commitment to support the Syrian government. That was in line with Egypt’s position on terrorism but then the Egyptians did not dare to oppose the Saudis as they are still strongly dependent on their financial assistance.

But 1.5 months before the ceasefire in Syria, they in Cairo expressed support for Moscow’s actions in Syria. In his interview to DPA in Jan 2016 Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that they believed in Russia’s ability to tell terrorists from other targets and therefore regarded its actions in Syria essential and effective.

The open support shown by the Russians to the Egyptians is encouraging the Saudis, who are beginning to realize that without such an ally, they will not be able to do anything outside their peninsula. Without Egypt, any of their military-political projects is doomed to failure. This is why they were so ardent to their attempts to involve Egypt in their anti-terror coalition and, particularly, in an anti-ISIL campaign in al-Raqqah. But the Egyptians rejected the offer as “illogical.” Their Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry made it clear to partners in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies that military intervention in Syria was ineffective.

By saying military intervention, Shoukry meant land operations rather than air strikes. Formally, the Egyptians are involved in the US-led coalition but they are not going to send large air forces to Syria or Iraq or to be in the vanguard of the land operation against Daesh in Syria led by Saudi Arabia.

The ceasefire in Syria was a good pretext for them to refuse and here they should be grateful to the Russians. The Egyptians’ ambition to get a higher status in the Middle East may urge them to seek external partners. 

So, one day we may well see them fighting jointly with the Russians against ISIL in Latakia. This will be a big geopolitical victory for the Russians. For the Egyptians this is more dangerous as they may strong disapproval from the Americans and the Saudis. But the prospect of regional security will remain attractive for all of Russia’s Middle East partners.

The only thing the Saudis can offer the Egyptians is financial support, the only thing the Egyptians can get from the Americans is weapons. It was the Americans who pushed them into an internal political crisis. And were it not for the Russians’ support, they might have a different future.

Shortly before the ceasefire in Syria, Moscow hosted two forums of Arab politicians and experts: the Valdai Club’s Middle East Conference (Feb 25-26) and the 3rd meeting of the Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum (Feb 26). Both forums discussed Russia’s wish to build its contacts with its Arab partners on the basis of mutual interests and security guarantees.

Russia is conducting a multi-vector policy in the Middle East. Its only target is terrorists. With all other forces it is ready to negotiate - even with those trying to stab it in the back (as was the case with Turkey).

Russia advocates a system of regional security and guarantees against unilateral internationally unsanctioned use of force and external attempts to changes elites in the region. This is where it sees common grounds with Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

(1) On June 6-13, Russia and Egypt conducted Friendship Bridge 2015 joint naval exercise. The sides learned how to jointly maneuver round-the-clock, to transfers cargoes from a ship to a ship, to deliver a cargo on the board of a ship by means of a helicopter, to protect themselves from air strikes, to inspect suspicious ships, to rebuff sea attacks.

EADaily’s Middle East Bureau

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