11.27.2016.Syria: Egypt Joins the Fray to Support Russia-Backed Coalition.

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Saudi recalibration: Ostracise Egypt and embrace Turkey


Ahmed al-Burai's picture


Enduring tensions between Cairo and Riyadh could lead to a major relignment of regional powers, pushing Saudi and Turkey closer together

In a Middle East that is increasingly transforming, one has to admit that once solid alliances and strategic relations tend to become vulnerable and rather fluid.

Since 1929, Saudi-Turkish relations have waxed and waned depending on their regional and international orientations. Although there were promising signs earlier this year of flourishing relations between the two countries, it was premature to expect their ties to materialise into a genuine alliance simply because of the blatant incompatibility of their regional standpoints which have reached an apex in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

In fact, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan constantly reiterates that Turkey’s ultimate goal is to anchor Turkish-Saudi strategic ties for the good of the entire region.

From his side, King Salman of Saudi Arabia repeatedly states that Turkey and Saudi Arabia read from the same page when it comes to Syria and that his country decisively backs Turkey’s no-fly zone in the war-torn country.

But in the middle is Egypt, chief impediment to any solid strategic alliance between the two countries – until now.

Split over Egypt

It’s no secret that the Turkish-Saudi divergence peaked right after the bloody military coup in Egypt in July 2013. Saudi Arabia backed the coup regime financially, economically and politically, whereas Turkey fervently opposed the ousting of a democratically elected president.

Since the June coup attempt in Turkey, Erdogan has relentlessly proclaimed his unequivocal stance towards such plots, saying repeatedly that he will never shake hands with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

“Sisi is a putschist just the same as the coup plotters in Turkey because he led the military coup against Mohamed Morsi – the president elected by the people,” Erdogan said during an interview with Al Jazeera immediately after the thwarted attempt in Turkey.

And despite Saudi efforts to mediate reconciliation between Turkey and Egypt, it’s well known that Ankara’s relations with Cairo have remained frosty.

In a goodwill gesture in 2015, Turkey suggested four conditions for any reconciliation with Egypt: Morsi must be freed; the extrajudicial death verdicts issued against political activists must be annulled; all political detainees must be released; and the dictatorial veto against any political activities must be abolished so that a democratic milieu could be reinstated. Conventional wisdom tells us that Sisi will never accept such conditions simply because they’re unattainable.

Despite the challenges, in recent months, there have been two dramatic turning points that should urge Turkey and Saudi Arabia to work hand-in-hand and confront the imminent existential threat that may jeopardise their national interests and regional influence.

The Obama factor

First, the US has turned its back on its Sunni allies in the region. The Obama administration has repeatedly turned down Turkey’s regional initiatives and propositions. The US, Turkey’s primary ally, has utterly overlooked the Russian intervention in Syria and left its ally, Turkey, to deal alone with Russia’s hegemonic interventionist policy.

Furthermore, Washington’s strategy to defeat the Islamic State (IS) group has alienated Turkey, in particular the US alliance with Syrian pro-Kurdish militias. Tensions between Washington and Ankara have risen recently over the former’s support for the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria despite Turkey’s repeated warnings that the group has direct irrevocable ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

American-Saudi relations have also been deeply shaken to the core after the approval of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, (JASTA), the law which allows the families of victims of 9/11 to hold Saudi Arabia liable for its alleged role in the attacks.

Washington’s abandonment of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in the wake of the Arab Spring upset the Saudis who had started to perceive Washington as an undependable ally. In his interview with Obama, Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg revealed that long before he became president, Obama had referred to Saudis as “so-called” allies.

Further, the rapprochement between Washington and Tehran that may materialise after the nuclear deal is Saudi’s worst nightmare and has only made matters worse.

Bluntly, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are no longer optimistic that Obama’s administration will do them any good and Washington’s repositioning leaves them no choice but to pursue alternatives and seek new alliances.

The coming US administration will find itself in an unenviable position when the new president takes over in January 2017 mainly because the ship’s of former US allies may have already set sail.

Egypt’s betrayal

The second dramatic change was Egypt’s ‘painful’ stab in the back. Earlier this month, Egypt voted in favour of a Russian resolution on Syria, one that urged a ceasefire but made no mention of halting bombing on Aleppo. Although it’s not the only deplorable move Egypt has made, it has seriously peeved the Saudis.

Aside from Syria, there have been a host of other issues that have caused tension to mount between Cairo and Riyadh. At the outset of Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, Riyadh had expected Egypt to send ground troops as part of its Operation Decisive Strom, yet Cairo hasn’t done it. Surprisingly, Riyadh continued the flow of billions of dollars and ships of oil anyway and kept Egypt’s ailing economy afloat.

Riyadh was also infuriated when Egyptian officials hosted representatives of the pro-Iranian Houthis in 2015. But it seems it was the Syria vote that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Since the vote, the Saudi Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources and chairman of Aramco, the Saudi state-owned oil company, Khalid Al-Falih, proclaimed that his company will suspend its oil shipments to Egypt.

An Egyptian official immediately announced that Egypt had found other sources to replace the Saudi fuel aid. Coincidently, the Saudi ambassador left Cairo for a three-day trip to Riyadh soon after. Undoubtedly, the ambassador’s departure that comes amid clear tension over Cairo’s votes on the Russian UN resolution on Syria gives clear indications that Saudis dissatisfaction with the Egyptian regime is drastically mounting.

This flurry of events came months after Egypt transferred sovereignty of the strategically placed Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia which fuelled street protests in Egypt

It’s not surprising that Egypt’s bullying regime, as any typical mercenary would, has been maintaining channels of communication with the Iranian regime, Saudi’s primary foe, as a substitute –  or rather as an intimidation strategy – to balance relations with Saudi Arabia.

And Saudi has responded. Just last week, the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Councildesignated the FETO group, led by Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, a “terrorist organisation” underlining their support for the Turkish government’s recent moves against the group.

Such a development signals a radical change in bilateral relations between Turkey and GCC and, overall, the enduring tension between Cairo and Riyadh could definitely lead to an inevitable realignment of regional powers. Expect axes of influence and interests to be recalibrated – and soon.

– Ahmed al-Burai is a lecturer at Istanbul Aydin University. He worked with BBC World Service Trust and LA Times in Gaza. He is currently based in Istanbul and mainly interested in the Middle East issues. You can follow him on Twitter @ahmedalburai1

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shows the way to King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia during the family photo of the 13th Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit at Istanbul Congress Center (ICC) in April 2016 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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27.11.2016 | WORLD

Syria: Egypt Joins the Fray to Support Russia-Backed Coalition

Finally, Egypt has taken a clear stance on Syria. This is an event of great importance to drastically change the situation. Speaking on the Portuguese TV network RTP on November 22, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi publicly affirmed his support for the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In response to the question of whether Egypt will send troops to Syria or not he stated«Our priority is to support our Army in issues such as controlling some parts of Libya and dealing with extremist forces for establishing peace, including in Syria and Iraq».

President al-Sisi restored diplomatic relations with Syria after coming to power in 2013.

Last month, Egypt backed a Russian-backed motion calling for a ceasefire in Syria. Egypt had known the support for the Russian measure would put it at odds with the West and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh responded by suspending oil shipments to the country but the Egyptian government does not give in under pressure. For instance, it has defied the US and Saudi Arabia by refusing to get involved in the Yemen’s conflict.

Citing «well-informed Arab sources», Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir reported that 18 Egyptian pilots arrived at Hamah military airbase in Syria on November 12. The servicemen are part of a special helicopter squadron. A source «close to the Syria file» told the newspaper that a large deployment of Egyptian troops will arrive in Syria in late January to take part in military operations «not limited to air support at Hama airbase».

Last month, Syrian security services chief Ali Mamlouk met with Egyptian officials in his first public foreign visit in five years to discuss Egypt publicly backing the Syrian government. According to Middle East Observer, the first group of 4 high-ranking Egyptian officers from the Egyptian General Staff entered Syria a month ago and was deployed in the Syrian army’s base in Damascus. The military officials visited the armoured division stationed near Daraa and an airbase in Sweida province.

Also last month, Syrian National Security Bureau head Ali Mamlouk visited Cairo to meet Khaled Fawzy, the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service. The two sides agreed to coordinate political positions and strengthen cooperation in «the fight against terror» according to Syria’s Sana news agency.

Egypt’s open support of the Russia-backed coalition in Syria is a game changing event of fundamental importance. In the West, the war in Syria has been widely believed to be a conflict between Sunni and Shia forces – the 1400 old Islam schism. Now the largest Arab Sunni state has taken the side of the Syria’s government to become a coalition ally with Russia. The sectarian interpretation of the conflict is not valid anymore.

The conflict is about fighting terrorists. As the Egyptian president noted he believes that the national army the Syrian government forces are best positioned to combat extremists and restore stability in the war-torn nation.

Recently, Russia and Egypt have intensified their bilateral ties in many areas, including defense cooperation. Joint military exercises were held in Egypt in October. Both countries see eye-to-eye on Libya and many other issues.

There is another event to demonstrate the strengthening of the Russia-supported coalition joined by Egypt. According to Iranian Fars News Agency, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan stated on November 26 that Tehran could allow Russia to use Nojeh airbase near Hamadan for Moscow’s aerial operation against terrorists in Syria. Also, Mr. Dehghan told reporters that purchase of Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets is on the agenda.

The same day, Victor Ozerov, the Russian upper house of parliament’s defense committee chair, said Russia could use Iran’s Hamadan airbase in case the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier moves away from Syria. On August 16, Russian bombers used Iran’s Nojeh to launch attacks on terrorist positions in Syria.

On November 26, Syrian armed forces and allies managed to seize control of Hanano, key district in the northwestern city of Aleppo, which has been a flash point over the past few months. After Aleppo is retaken, the Russia-supported coalition in Syria will control vast swathes of land in the country. With the government of Bashar Assad firmly in power, the post-war settlement no longer seems to be a pipe dream and the US-led coalition will hardly be the one to call the shots.

Russia’s military effort in Syria has become an operation of a much broader scope than it was back in September 2015, when the first Russian aircraft flew its first sortie. The operation has marked Russia’s spectacular return to the Middle East as a major player. New actors, like China, Egypt and others, get involved. Interaction between the coalition members gets closer as illustrated by Russia and Iran.

Egypt’s decision to support the Syria’s government provides a good opportunity to influence the events in the region in a positive way.

In broad terms, the teaming up of large countries indicates that a regional anti-terrorism entity or even a military block independent from the US might emerge at some point in future.

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Egyptian Air Force 078ab

“The small jump needed for Egyptian-Syrian relations to go back to normal” that Syrian Prime Minister Walid al-Muallem spoke of has been achieved apparently. Mohammad Ballout, from Assafir Lebanese Daily, reported that some Egyptian military formations have recently arrived to Syria, signaling an end to the time where Egypt simply stood by, hands crossed, looking at the goings-on in Syria.

It seems that the Egyptians have sent 18 helicopter pilots to the Hamah Airbase, and it is hoped that they will see action in joint Egyptian-Syrian operations.

Four senior Egyptian military figures also joined the unit when it first came to Syria, and two Major Generals have been operating at the Armed Forces Staff Headquarters in Damascus, near the operations room. The two Major Generals have been touring the fronts since they arrived a month ago, and have been reviewing the efforts made at the fronts, most recently the Southern Front at Quneitra.

These new developments are apparently the result of intensive, unannounced, high profile security meetings that began over a year ago between Cairo and Damascus. Arab sources also expect that these developments will go beyond these symbolic operations, and will see Egyptian task forces operating on a large scale in support of the Syrian army.

Moreover, a senior Syrian security official also said that the Egyptians have promised to send forces to Syria, and have schedule post-December 23rd as the Zero-Hour, whereupon Egyptian participation in Syria will escalate. Another official also revealed that after December, a large number of Egyptian forces will also participate in the Syrian operations, and their participation will not be limited to Aerial support.

President Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi had recently revealed in an interview with Portugal’s RTP TV that Egypt will support the Syrian national army, saying that Syria has suffered from a deep crisis for 5 years now, and our position in Egypt is that we respect the will of the Syrian people, and know that reaching a political solution for the Syrian crisis is the best solution. Terrorist groups must also be seriously dealt with and deweaponized. We also stress on the unity of Syrian soil, so that no secession would come about, and on post-war reconstruction.”

Egypt has clearly chosen to distance itself from Saudi Arabia, refusing to participate in KSA’s “Decisive Storm” aggression against Yemen, and now choosing to support the Syrian army against the Gulf Monarchy backed terrorist, which holds deep political implications

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