Egypt’s U-Turn on Iraq and Syria*
By Peter Korzun
The Middle East geopolitical scenarios are going through rapid changes with new factors emerging on the regional chessboard.
Cairo’s foreign policy has been given a new twist. It has been announced recently that Egypt is set to receive one million barrels of petroleum per day from Iraq. Saudi Arabia had informed Egypt that shipments of oil products expected under a $23 billion aid deal were been halted indefinitely, suggesting a deepening rift between the countries. From now on, Egypt will enjoy as much oil as it needs at a lower cost, compared to Saudi pricing.
Egyptian President Al-Sisi rejected the Saudi-backed efforts to overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad. He is also reaching out to former-Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and to his Houthi allies Saudi Arabia is fighting since March 2015. Cairo opened diplomatic channels with the pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah, fighting on the side of President Assad in Syria against the rebel groups supported by Riyadh.
Iraq will provide Egypt with 1 million barrels of Basra light oil each month. The agreement involves extending an oil pipeline from Iraq to Egypt via Jordan. In December, Iraqi petroleum minister Ali al-Luiabi met with the heads of major oil and natural gas companies in Cairo, inviting them to contribute into developing the industry in his country.
Egypt is about to train four Iraqi army units on war against terrorism, in the light of the rapprochement between Egypt and the Iraqi-Iranian axis in the region.
It also mulls sending peacekeeping troops to Syria during the coming days to support the ceasefire agreement under the auspices of Russia, Iran, and Turkey. It has been reported that a unit of Egyptian ground forces might deploy to Syria this month. Last October, 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».
Egypt is a predominantly Sunni nation. Its open support of the Russia-backed coalition in Syria is a game changing event of fundamental importance. It makes the sectarian interpretation of the Syria’s conflict not valid anymore.
Middle East Observer quotes Nziv Net, an Israeli outlet close to intelligence sources, saying that
«Egypt has sent a group of officers to Syria for the first time since the relations have frozen during Morsi’s reign».
Last December, Ibrahim al-Eshaiker al-Jaafari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, called on Egypt to participate in «a strategic project to fight terrorism», which includes Iran.
In September, Egyptian Foreign Minister Samih Shoukry met for the first time with his Iranian counterpart, Jawad Zarif, during their visits to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly.
In October, Egypt backed a Russian-backed motion in the U.N. calling for a ceasefire in Syria. The move angered Saudi Arabia, which suspended oil shipments to Cairo.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi publicly affirmed his support for the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The relations between Russia and Egypt have been on the rise. In February 2015, Egypt signed a breakthrough agreement on establishing a free trade zone with the Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union.
The progress in military cooperation is tangible. Egypt signed arms deals with Russia worth up to $5 billion by 2015 to include 50 MiG-29M combat aircraft, Buk-M2E and Antey-2500 long range air defense systems and about 50Ka-52K helicopters for Egypt’s new Mistral-class assault ships bought in France. The ships will receive the originally planned Russian helicopters and electronics suite.
The two countries signed several agreements for the renovation of military production factories in Egypt. A protocol is signed to grant Egypt access to GLONASS, the Russian global satellite positioning system. In September, Minister of Defense Sedky Sobhy visited Russia to discuss the issues related to long-term close security relationship. Last October, the militaries held a joint exercise.
Egypt is the most populous country in North Africa and the Arab world, the third-most populous in Africa and the fifteenth-most populous in the world. Last year, the country’s population has just reached 92 million. Its policy shift is well-substantiated. Cairo is fighting the Islamic State on the Sinai Peninsula. The fierce fighting there seldom hits media headlines but the IS poses a grave threat to Egypt. IS militants can also strike Egypt from Libya. The IS presence in Libya brings Egypt and Algeria together as the two great nations face the same threat.
The emerging Iran, Iraq, Russia and Turkey alliance may also include Algeria. In response to the growing menace, Algiers is strengthening ties with Moscow. It has recently purchased 14 Su-30MKA fighters and 40 Mi-28 «Night Hunter» attack helicopters from Russia. Last February, Russia and Algeria laid out a roadmap for deepening bilateral economic and military cooperation during Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Algeria.
Russia’s cooperation with Egypt, Algeria and other countries of the Middle East and North Africa reflects Moscow’s growing clout in the region.
With the Astana process making progress, other large and influential actors, such as Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Algeria, may join the emerging Russia, Iran, Turkey coalition to make the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region face tectonic and dramatic changes.