Geostrategic Seismology: Realignment

While much of the world’s media was largely pre-occupied with news of an apparent deal brokered to halt Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons this past weekend, news of the disruption of another interesting meeting, this one involving a prospective arms deal in which Russia would provide weaponry to the Egyptian government, was overshadowed. 

On Sunday, DefenseNews.com published an article that claims an arms deal reportedly brokered between Russia and Egypt that would have purportedly procured Egypt with ‘…billions of dollars in new weapons, a move to offset the suspension of some US arms to Cairo…’ perhaps will not be finalized.  The article reports that a Russian delegation was essentially stood-up at a planned meeting with Egyptian representatives on November 19 and the Russian delegation left after waiting 90 minutes. The article claims that British or American influence is suspected in the interruption of the planned meeting. Some interesting assessments can be made given the news of these reported incidents.

‘Since the Egyptian military has been supplied by US equipment since 1979, a transition to Russian hardware would require a significant investment.’ (November 24 DefenseNews.com). The Saudis’ reported willingness to pay for the weapons purchase has inspired analysts to wonder if the Saudis are signaling an end of the American-Saudi alliance. Following this change in Saudi policy, one could observe the event further as an indicator of a nascent American effort to redeem Iran and return the country to the community of nations while weaning it off of its sanctions and nurturing the birth of a new alliance, this one with the United States.

Two key takeaways:

  • Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan’s planned visit this week to Moscow is best observed in the context of strained U.S.-Saudi relations and a Russian foreign policy that has become much more assertive internationally in recent months. Relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have been stressed since the Obama Administration decided not to order punitive military strikes after chemical weapons were believed used against Syrian civilians in the Ghouta agricultural area of Damascus on August 21, 2013. Syria, under pressure from the Kremlin, agreed to allow its chemical program and its stockpile of chemical weapons to be dismantled by international inspectors. DefenseNews.com also states that the Saudis offered to pay for the Russian weapons. This is an indicator a shifting dynamic of alliances in the Middle East, especially as the Obama Administration trumpets its newly brokered deal with the Iranian regime to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  Russian-Saudi cooperation on facilitating a weapons deal to Egypt after ‘the US suspended some military aid to Cairo in early October and held back deliveries of Lockheed Martin F-16s, General Dynamics Abrams tanks and Boeing Harpoon anti-ship missiles’ (November 24 DefenseNews.com) is perhaps an early indicator that the Russian government recognized an opportunity and sought to exacerbate the growing fissure between the U.S. and the Saudis. Recent diplomatic efforts by Russian President Vladamir Putin’s government to ensure the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus are also good background in understanding Russia’s willingness to assert itself as a more powerful actor in north Africa and the wider Middle Eastern and Central Asian regions.
  • The war raging in Syria, pitting Shi’a forces affiliated with Hezbollah and the Alawite Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad as proxies of Iran against the Sunni forces affiliated with numerous international terror groups to include al-Qaeda subordinates such as the al-Nusrah Front and funded by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, is a protracted battle that continues to impact the region.  As this conflict has gone on, instability has been spread to neighboring states such as Lebanon and Jordan as refugees stream across their borders. This has had great impact upon relationships between states in the Levant and beyond. It has been a catalyst for the shifting of decades-old alliances and has generated a nascent realigning of regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia seemingly away from their Great Power patrons, the United States and Russia. Russia, having spent considerable diplomatic capital in ensuring the continued rule of Assad in Damascus after the threat of U.S. strikes following the chemical weapons event of August 21, has had nominal talks with Saudi officials. The regime in Tehran agreed on November 24th to halt nuclear enrichment, allow international inspectors access to nuclear facilities in the country, quit its pursuit of heavy water, and de-link centrifuge networks essential for achieving the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade U-235. If this trend continues, these past few months could represent the most powerful tectonic shift in Middle Eastern alliances in half a century.

During the height of the Egyptian turmoil in Tahrir Square this past August, many American legislators and political pundits called for the Obama Administration to immediately halt all foreign aid to the Egyptian military after it took control of the Egyptian government and cracked down violently on protest groups in Cairo, to include the Muslim Brotherhood. Here at Foreign Intrigue, we argued that it was unwise to give up what leverage the U.S. maintained in the region, most specifically in the wake of tumult in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. We cautioned that calls by Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and others to pull aid as an incentive for the Egyptian military to halt the violent public crackdown on dissenting groups in Tahrir was myopic and did not appropriately take into account that whatever waning influence the U.S. had left in the region would be quickly eroded without the carrot of foreign aid. Additionally, we advised that the aid the U.S. provides Egypt is intended to keep a semblance of stability in areas such as the Sinai Peninsula where Egypt and Israel had nurtured a fragile peace for three decades. Further, we advised that that the elimination of aid to Egypt would effectively alter the tenuous co-existence between the two nations and propel the Sinai, one of the world’s key trade routes, into an era of conflict and instability. This instability could destabilize world markets and inspire economic uncertainty. In pulling foreign aid and demanding that the Egyptian government halt its crackdown, the U.S. would be ostensibly giving up its remaining leverage to influence and shape a conflict-ridden region from the Maghreb to the Levant and would be laying down a red carpet for the influence of Russia as it reasserts itself internationally. Russian President Vladamir Putin’s nimble use of international diplomacy throughout the Syrian-U.S. crisis in September has been described by Leon Aron in Foreign Affairs Magazine as a methodical act representative of the Putin Doctrine, the Russian president’s strategic vision of a more muscular role for Russia in the international system.

Why are the foundations of these relationships shifting? Consider that Saudi Arabia and Iran view one another as competitors for the role of regional hegemon. Each country produces an exceptionally high amount of oil for the world market. Sunni Saudi Arabia, in its support for the opposition seeking to topple the Shi’a regime of al-Assad in Damascus is seeking to tip the balance of power in the Levant towards its own interests, mitigate the rise of Iran by removing important Shi’a proxies in the Alawite government of al-Assad in Damascus and Hezbollah while reducing the Shi’a influence in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia’s willingness to pay for the proposed U.S. strikes on al-Assad in September signaled a fervent motivation to take full advantage of an opportunity to affect the balance of power in the region. In also agreeing to pay for weapons for the Egyptian military, the Saudis would also be ensuring the survival of a strong governing body, however lacking in popular legitimacy among Egyptians to stabilize the Suez Canal and keep a semblance of peace with Israel to allow for movement of energy resources sold to the West, while pulling the Egyptian government away from the influence of the U.S. after the U.S. refused to strike al-Assad in Syria. Russia’s willingness to fill the void in Egypt and supply large numbers of heavy weaponry (to include tanks and aircraft) would serve to create a lasting client state in Egypt that had been such a loyal purchaser of Soviet arms during the Cold War and would produce another important alliance for the internationally assertive Russian government.  The overall strategies of the key global and regional powers lead to a number of assessments. Kerry Patton, Jack Murphy, and Brandon Webb assert in their new book The Syria Report: The West’s Destruction of Syria to Gain Control Over Iran that the proxy war in Syria is essentially one move in an effort to encircle Iran. There is much to be said for this theory. By observing the behavior of the other key regional powers and the ways in which these governments have recently interacted with one another, we can assess that an incredibly powerful shift in alliances and the balance of power could be on the international horizon. This nuanced geopolitical dance must be analyzed step by step in order to understand the entirety of the number as a whole.  Russia and the United States are positioning themselves to guarantee the security of their respective strategic interests by engaging with long-term enemies while potentially risking disengagement from established allies.

The crises in Egypt and Syria have produced farther-reaching strategic impact than many analysts originally anticipated but the events in these countries are only two parts of a larger conflict and a geo-strategic realignment. As the tectonic plates of North African, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian alliances begin to shift, many other events will likely further substantiate or repudiate preconceived notions of how nations in the regions envision their alignments in the coming decades. The tremors and aftershocks of these plate movements will no doubt have lasting and indelible consequences for the people of the regions, quite possibly vaulting some states to regional hegemonic status while also catastrophically condemning other states to subordinate positions in a new alignment of powers. The current conflicts in Libya, Egypt, and Syria will eventually be among the determining factors in whether the realignments will amount to geopolitical successes or Pyrrhic victories for some states. And the outcome of the overall fight for regional power will likely depend upon how the plates settle.

Eric Jones
Editor-in-Chief and Senior Analyst
Foreign-Intrigue.com

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Eric.Jones@Foreign-Intrigue.com. Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/ForeignIntrigue.