October 19, 2016

Syrian and Egyptian intelligence chiefs meet in Cairo - a smart play by Putin

In a surprise visit, the director of Syria's National Security Bureau, 'Ali Mamluk, traveled to Cairo to meet with his Egyptian counterpart, Director of General Intelligence Khalid Fawzi. The two met in the Egyptian capital on October 16 during a visit which lasted only a few hours.

Mamluk is a key member of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad's inner circle, and is under European Union sanctions for his alleged actions against Syrian citizens during the protests that led to the civil war.

Of note, the visit also coincided with a joint Russian-Egyptian military exercise involving paratroopers from both countries.

The author and General al-Sisi (2013)

The Russians have been seeking increased influence in Egypt since the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated government of Muhammad al-Mursi in 2013 by the current president of Egypt, former chief of the Egyptian armed forces General 'Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi.

Both Syria and Egypt are involved in military operations against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula, and Syria in the north and eastern part of that country. The common enemy was the ostensible, and plausible, reason for the two senior officials to meet.

Egypt is nominally involved in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, although it has limited its military actions to its own territory and a small operation in Libya. After ISIS killed 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in February 2015, the Egyptian Air Force conducted airstrikes on ISIS targets in Darnah, killing 64 members of the group.

Syrian official media reported that the two intelligence officers "agreed on coordinating stances politically between Syria and Egypt, and boosting coordination for combating terrorism hitting both countries." That is diplo-speak for Syria's claim that Cairo supports the government of Bashar al-Asad.

Mamluk and Fawzi were probably the two best interlocutors for this meeting. Both have enough stature to represent their respective countries/regimes, with an understanding of realpolitik to be able to discuss issues with candor despite awkward situations.

The Syrians chose to publicize the meeting of the two officers in a bid to portray Egyptian President al-Sisi as a supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. The topic was raised at the meeting - the Syrians want all the support they can muster for the continuation of the al-Asad regime in any future Russian-backed political settlement of the civil war in Syria.

The Egyptian media opted to not report the meeting. I suspect that originally the meeting was supposed to be kept in confidence. Mamluk traveled to and from the meeting in a Syrian Air Force TU-134 jet painted in SyrianAir (the flag carrier airline of Syria) colors*.

Egypt is in a tough position, and is trying to walk a fine line between Russia and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian president has received a lot of backing and support from Saudi Arabia, but earlier this month, Egypt was one of only four countries who voted for a Russian-sponsored United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria.** This vote came after Russia had vetoed a Saudi-supported French resolution aimed at halting the Russian and Syrian bombing of Aleppo. Saudi Arabia retaliated by halting the shipment of subsidized oil products to Egypt.

Egypt has recently strengthened its relationship with the Russian Federation. Much of that was due to the Obama Administration's decision to halt planned deliveries of additional AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships and spare parts following the removal of Mursi.

Vladimir Putin, sensing an opening, dispatched his Minister of Defense to Cairo and offered the Egyptians a lucrative arms package. The Egyptians, in need of weapons to continue fighting Islamists on the Libyan border and in the Sinai Peninsula, accepted. For the first time in decades, thanks to the American short-sighted knee-jerk reaction, Russia has regained a foothold in its former client state.

'Ali Mamluk's visit to Cairo undoubtedly was approved - and possibly instigated - by the Russians. Putin's main objective in Syria is the survival of the regime of Bashar al-Asad, preferably through a diplomatic/political solution, but by force of (Russian) arms if required. Egypt is a key player in the region - its public support for the al-Asad government plays right into Putin's plans.

Well played, Mr. Putin, well played.


* I have flown on this same aircraft (YK-AYB) in 1994 as the guest of then Minister of Foreign Affairs Faruq Shara' and Ambassador to the U.S. Walid Mu'alim (now the foreign minister).

** Arabic linguist humor: After the Security Council voted down the Russian draft, the United Kingdom ambassador scolded his Russian counterpart, "This text...it's a sham, just as Russia’s hollow commitment to a political process in Syria is a sham." Al-Sham (pronounced A-SHAM) is the Arabic word for Damascus, Syria or the Levant, depending on context. See also, What's in a name? - the Syrian-Iranian car company.