Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Egypt was a blatant fence-mender. He said the Egyptian interim coalition’s democratic roadmap was “being carried out to the best of our conceptions,” and added that the aid suspension was not to be seen as “punishment” for what the U.S. administration previously called a “coup.” Announcing his desire to restore all elements of military aid, Kerry waxed positively poetic at a news conference with interim Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy. “And then we will march together hand in hand into the future with Egypt playing the vital role it has played traditionally” (in the Arab world).
Fahmy was polite, if a bit more reserved; it was he, after all, who called U.S.-Egyptian relations “turbulent” and “unsettled” only a month ago. He also said before Kerry arrived that that Egypt would look “beyond the United States” to meet its security needs.” Egypt would develop “multiple choices, multiple options” including military relationships.
The clear implication is that Egypt will turn to Russia, which Anwar Sadat ousted from the region some 40 years ago. One source reports that the Russians have already solicited an advanced naval base in Egypt.
On the surface, it would make sense. There has long been discomfort among the Arabs about U.S. interest in promoting “democracy” and individual civil rights in societies to which those are alien. But beginning with the current administration, America’s regional reputation has taken a beating: abandoning long-time U.S. partner Hosni Mubarak and conflicted behavior over the ouster of Mohammed Morsi; participating in the ouster of Moammar Gaddafi, which resulted in al-Qaeda-related militias expanding their influence in Libya and setting off the war in Mali; shifting positions on Bashar Assad and the unenforced “red line” on chemical weapons in Syria; negotiations with Iran; and, oddly, the administration’s spikey relations with Israel (Conservative Arab thinking is, “If the Americans would abandon Israel, for whom would they go to the mat? Certainly not us.” And they’re right.)
As a counterpoint, Vladimir Putin is advancing Russia as a dependable ally. Russia sells arms regardless of the nature of a regime. Moscow provides unswerving political support for its friends at the United Nations. Russia isn’t trying to “fix” other people’s governments and make them more open or tolerant.
No. All those things the Russians do, they do for Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah — the bitter, mortal enemies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf States. Russian steadfastness is not a counterpoint to American vacillation; it is support for the Shiite side of the great Islamic war. It is also a losing hand when 85% of Muslims are Sunni.
Support for Assad makes Russia partly responsible for more than 120,000 largely Sunni deaths in Syria. Having supplied large parts of Syria’s chemical arsenal, Russia is partly responsible for Syrian government use of chemical weapons. Support for Assad at the UN meant the Security Council was unable even to decry the war, much less punish the use of chemical weapons. Russian protection ensures that Bashar Assad, the heterodox Shiite mass murderer, remains in power.
Syria is Russia’s albatross.
From Putin’s perspective, it makes sense to back the Shiites. Russia’s Muslims and those in the neighboring “Stans” are Sunni. Russia’s internal wars in Chechnya and Dagestan were brutal on a scale that Assad is only beginning to approach. The first Chechen war (1994-96) was nationalist, squelched at great cost by the Russian military. But when Umar Ibn al-Khatib arrived in Chechnya in 1997 and became the leader of foreign mujahideen, he changed the focus. The Saudi Al-Khatib called the Chechen war “not just a Chechen matter but an Islamic matter, like Afghanistan.” The second Chechen war, the “Islamic matter,” lasted from 1999-2009. It simmers still with Saudi money and Saudi interest.
Putin was hoping a quick, brutal Syrian campaign against the rebels (like Hafez Assad’s 1982 massacre of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama) would dash Sunni hopes of a caliphate and discourage jihadists in Russia itself. It didn’t happen that way and Russia’s worst nightmare is on the march — Chechen, European, and Arab Sunni fighters are in Syria, obtaining weapons, training, and new associations with al-Qaeda, Salafist, and other Sunni jihadist organizations. Internal migration is bringing Muslims to traditionally Slavic parts of Russia and ethnic tensions have exploded. In a new book, Russian specialist Ilan Berman posits not “explosion,” but possible “implosion,” in some measure driven by rising Muslim and declining Slavic populations.
Saudi Prince Faisal al-Turki, in an interview in the Washington Post, decried the ineffectual nature of the American administration, but asked whether Russia could fill the gap, replied, “I don’t think Russia will ever fill the gap. [Russia’s support of Syria] is costing the Russians the rest of the Muslim world. They are fighting on the wrong side.”
It is better to be the “ineffectual” United States than to be Russia “fighting on the wrong side.” The U.S. has more room to maneuver. This may be what prompted Secretary Kerry’s hasty and flowery addition of Cairo to his itinerary, but Arab skepticism about American intentions will not be overcome with mere words.