Egypt plane crash could shift Russia’s game plan in Syria
BEIRUT // Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict could intensify after Moscow acknowledged for the first time that a terrorist attack may have caused last month’s crash of a Russian airliner in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
ISIL’s affiliate in the region, Sinai Province, was quick to claim responsibility for downing Metrojet 9268 on October 31, killing all 224 on board. Moscow initially dismissed those claims, but now it is taking more seriously the idea that extremists may have been responsible.
“The Russian plane crash in Egypt may have been the result of a terrorist attack, so all flights to Egypt have been suspended since Friday,” Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Monday.
American and British officials said last week they believed a bomb was behind the crash, while British foreign secretary Philip Hammond said there was a “high probability that ISIS was involved”. On Sunday, a member of the Egyptian team investigating the incident said investigators were “90 per cent sure it was a bomb”.
Although Russia entered the war in Syria under the pretext of fighting ISIL and other extremist groups, Moscow’s month-long bombing campaign has mainly targeted moderate rebels fighting president Bashar Al Assad’s government.
But if it is confirmed that ISIL was behind last month’s plane crash then Russia could be pushed to more firmly confront the group inside Syria. Moscow could also use the incident to further justify an intervention that has been heavily criticised internationally.
“Given that it looks like it was a bomb on the Russian plane, the Kremlin is going to come out stronger on the Syria issue in terms of attacking the caliphate” while continuing attacks against non-ISIL rebel targets, said Theodore Karasik, a UAE-based security analyst with Gulf State Analytics.
Following talks between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Kuwait’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, on Tuesday, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said both nations agreed that fighting ISIL should be a top priority.
A terrorist attack on a Russian target could also bolster support for Moscow’s Syrian campaign at home, said Yury Barmin, a Moscow-based analyst who focuses on Russia’s relationship with the Middle East.
“Among ordinary Russians, it’s not seen as a legitimate campaign. A terrorist attack against a Russian plane sort of legitimises the operation in Syria,” he said.
However, even if ISIL was behind the downing of the jet, some experts believe that Russia will not radically change their strategy in Syria and will continue to mostly attack non-ISIL targets.
“What [Mr Putin’s] trying to do here is create a situation where there is no alternative to Assad other than ISIL and other radicals,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, a specialist on Russia’s Middle East policy with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But, she added, after cultivating an image for himself as a strong guardian of Russians, an attack on a Russian target could put Mr Putin in a tough position.
“There’s an aura of him as a strong leader who stands up to terrorism, who will protect Russia from terrorism,” she said. “And I think that’s another reason why he’s been so hesitant to admit that this could have been a terrorist plot is because it really undercuts his image domestically as a strong leader.”
When it comes to Egyptian-Russian relations – which had grown stronger in recent years as Cairo moved away from Washington’s influence – the aftermath of the plane crash has the potential to either strengthen or weaken ties depending on how it is handled.
Three million Russians visited Egypt last year, representing about one-third of the country’s total visitors and a major revenue source. But on Tuesday the Kremlin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, dealt a severe blow to the country’s struggling tourism industry, saying it would be impossible to radically revise Egypt’s security system in a short space of time and that Moscow’s ban on all flights to the country would last for at least several months.
Despite this, there is also an opportunity for Egypt and Russia to grow closer.
The government of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi has been unable to stamp out an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, which is also home to the country’s most renowned beach resorts, making it a top tourist destination. With Moscow stepping up its arms sales to Egypt in recent years, bilateral military relations have grown warmer and Mr Karasik said it would not surprise him to see Russia assisting the Egyptians in a military operation in the Sinai if ISIL is behind the plane crash.
BLOWBACK FOR RUSSIANS
Meanwhile, the Metrojet crash has contributed to fears that Russia’s recent re-entry into the Middle East after an absence of decades will spark blowback.
“It has made itself a target for Islamist militants,” said Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi, a fellow with the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum who monitors extremist groups in Iraq and Syria. “The Russian intervention has stoked perceptions of a ‘Crusader’ war on Islam and Jabhat Al Nusra has called for revenge attacks in Russia.”
In September, Russia said it believed that 2,500 of its citizens and 7,000 nationals of former Soviet states were fighting alongside ISIL in Syria and Iraq. But Mr Al Tamimi said extremists still at home responding to calls for attacks posed a greater threat to Russia than returning foreign fighters.
//CUT FOR PRINT//Mr Barmin said Moscow knew it would be facing an increased risk of attacks by going into Syria and has been preparing itself to confront potential retaliations at home.
“Clearly when going to Syria they knew that the level of threats would be much higher and they’d need to deal with that. And at that point when they decided to intervene in Syria, they obviously had to ensure that a certain level of safety is guaranteed in Russia,” he said.//END CUT//
* With additional reporting from Agencies