Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Troubles in the Mediterranean and Russia's 'Balancing Role'.

Vladimir Putin's visit to Cairo is about more than just proving he is not isolated over Ukraine and to strengthen bilateral trade ties between Egypt and Russia. This is not the view, however, of analysts who are convinced that the visit, a time when Putin's face is on posters across Cairo, is about showing front.

As a result of the meeting, Putin and Sisi declared that there would be the creation of a free-trade zone between the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, a Russian industrial zone near the Suez Canal, and Russian aid provided towards the construction of a nuclear power plant. Possible billion dollar arms deals were discussed.

According to Ben Judah apparently “It’s also a way of undermining the US, since Cairo is piece of America’s imperium". But, of course, Egypt is not really part of the US imperium at all any more than Israel is. After the coup of 2013 when the US froze its aid, Egypt had other suitors willing to step in, including China.

For Putin to draw Egypt closer to the Eurasian Union, which includes former Soviet states such as Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, made it the first non-former Soviet country to establish links to the bloc. This is intended as a counter measure to the West's attempt to draw Ukraine away from it in 2013 and towards the EU ( and even NATO).

True, both Putin and Sisi want to make it very clear that they have independent foreign policies. However, that is obvious enough anyway. But Egypt and Israel are hostile to President Obama for a number of other important reasons. One was their hostility to the West's indulgence of Qatari regional policies in the Arab Spring of 2011.

Trouble in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean: Geopolitics and Energy.

It was Qatari influenced Britain and France to spearhead the NATO military intervention in Libya to finish off Gaddafi's regime and side with the rebel forces in 2011. The West also for that reason were prepared to blindly have confidence in Qatar's strategy to back the Muslim Brotherhood in both Syria and Egypt.

This was contrary to what Israel wished and the Egyptian army which controls the 'deep state' and economy in Egypt. Both powers wanted to retain close ties so as to guarantee energy cooperation and the security of the borders with Israel and Gaza as well as existing and planned gas pipeline infrastructure.

Britain and France had wanted to draw closer to Qatar's regional policy because the gas rich emirate was providing welcome investment in Paris and London as well as increasingly lucrative markets for state-of-the-art weaponry and military training programmes. Britain even planned to have a military base there.

Britain wanted to align more with Qatar in particular because, as North Sea gas depleted, the gas rich emirate was selected as the best source of the increased energy import needs. That would prevent it in future having in any way to depend on its old Great Power rival Russia which was reasserting itself in the Eastern Mediterranean.

As quite clear in the Suez Crisis of 1956 or even as far back as the Crimean War, which ended a century before in 1856, Britain has harboured suspicions about Russia's attempts to gain favour in Cairo. It was fear of Russian influence over the strategic gateway to Asia that led to Britain gaining control over both Cyprus and Egypt by 1879.

Just as these tensions were occasioned in the nineteenth century by the decline of the Ottoman Empire and, in the twentieth, by the decline of British imperial power and continued post-Ottoman wars-overlain by Cold War ideological rivalries-so too in the twenty-first they are being occasioned by the decline of US power.

The key year signalling a shift in US priorities away from the Middle East to East Asia and the growth of expenditure on US naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region was 2011. That was the year Obama 'pivoted east' and had managed to withdraw US troops from Iraq. Since then it has wanted to extricate itself from entanglements in the region.

Britain and France have tried somewhat to take up the posture having their old power status back. That was clear in their role in setting up the Friends of Syria Group which met to demand 'Assad must go' and to build up a Western led alliance of states from the Maghreb to the Near East promoting democracy.

After the debacle of the Iraq War in 2003 and its chaotic aftermath, the West by 2011 had hoped to try to buy some goodwill in the Middle East. It wanted to be seen to be on the right side of history in aligning behind Qatar and Turkey's backing for Sunni 'moderate' Islamist forces. But these hopes rapidly receded.

By the summer of 2013 this initiative had fizzled out. Growing enmities and resentments opened up between Qatar and other members such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE over their rival backing of various forces contending for power in Syria and in post-liberated Libya; the Egyptian coup ensured a final bloody end to this grand design.

Troubles in the Southern Mediterranean over Libya; Egypt vs Turkey and Qatar.

In fact by 2014 Libya had farcically, yet tragically, developed into full scale civil conflict. The bloodbath is akin to that going on in Syria with Qatar and Turkey out for revenge for the coup by aligning with Islamist forces opposed to those remnants of Gaddafi's state supported by Egypt and the UAE.

Egypt's General Sisi wants to portray himself as in continuity with Colonel Nasser so as to get legitimacy in his confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood both at home and across the border in Libya. There he supports former Gaddafi military strongman, Khalifa Hifter, as a more 'secular' Arab bulwark against Operation Dawn militias.

Turkey's President Erdogan detests General Sisi and even refused to recognise him as a head of state calling his coup 'the murder of democracy in Egypt'. At the UN Egypt has retorted that Erdogan is 'keen to provoke chaos to sow divisions in the Middle East region through its support for groups and terrorist organizations".

Turkey is alleged to be supporting not only Islamist militias in Libya but even ISIS in Syria. Turkey, in being sympathetic to Hamas in Gaza, has been accused of backing terrorists as Israel's Netanyahu has insinuated effectively that this is no different from backing ISIS: 'Hamas is ISIS and ISIS in Hamas'.

Egypt and Turkey are at loggerheads over which power is going to inherit the mantle of successor state to the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan's pretensions in this direction are clear. General Sisi appears to be embarking too on a 'neo-Khedivial' policy of repositioning Egypt as the major east-west transit hub with his New Suez Canal project.

Russia's position on Libya was that NATO's intervention was illegitimate and certainly that it was disastrous. Putin is bound to try to exploit the France and Britain's role in having effectively help destroy Libyan statehood while proving unable to meaningfully assist the Libyans in founding a functioning new state.

As with Libya, Western meddling in the internal affairs of Arab states is opposed as a force for instability while Russia poses as a force prepared to aid 'legitimate' leaders. In Libya that means taking no side in the proxy conflict but adopting a 'wait-and-see' stance; this means being ready to welcome a strong state able to contain Islamist forces.

Russia came out in favour of Sisi just as the Soviet Union once did for Nasser in the 1950s. Both Russia and China were prepared to secure arms deals with Cairo after the coup if the US was not. Russia had every interest in the Muslim Brotherhood being crushed because it had backed Assad in his struggle against them in Syria.

Trouble in the Eastern Mediterranean-Cyprus and Syria.

The visit to Cairo comes on the day it was announced-only to be played down later by Nicosia-that Russia could have access to Cyprus as a host for a military base. Cyprus in not in NATO and has shown a willingness to tilt east towards Russia so as to offset increasing Turkish hostility over the issue of its gas reserves.

Russia has sought to reassert its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean as a balancing power between two rival power blocs that have developed since 2009-2011 with the discovery of vast offshore hydrocarbon resources. On the one side is Turkey and Qatar; on the other Greece-Cyprus-Israel and energy starved Egypt.

The discovery of Israeli gas ( Tamar/Leviathan) and reserves south of Cyprus ( Aphrodite) led to plans to build an energy pipeline infrastructure that would link all the states to the east and south. One reason Turkey and Qatar supported Morsi's government in Egypt and Gaza was it would thwart Israel's energy plans.

For a start Turkey had wanted a gas pipeline from Qatar's Persian Gulf gas fields so they backed Sunni militants in Syria. Russia backed Assad in Damascus while at the same time developing better diplomatic and trade ties with Israel. That suited Netanyahu who wanted the war to absorb both Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs.

Russia benefitted because through encouraging these energy ties in the Eastern Mediterranean it could draw in Cyprus and Greece so as to gain influence within the EU. Russia has reverted to its nineteenth century policy of expanding its influence from the Black Sea down through to the Bosphorus.

To that extent Putin's annexation of Crimea is part of a wider attempt to restore Russia to the status of the Tsarist empire. That is an affront to Britain in particular which still retains a base in Cyprus and which is concerned over Russian military activities amid the Ukraine crisis not least in its tradition sphere of influence.

Foreign Minister Hammond fulminated about Putin being a “mid-20th century tyrant” and "outrageous and outdated". But also British High Commissioner to Cyprus, Damian Roberick Todd made a series of warnings to Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades about the offer to host Russia bases which Anastasiades called 'baseless' words.

Russia is exploiting the break up of old Cold War alliances into new rival blocs that cut across them because of the geopolitics of energy and older animosities over Cyprus that date back to the latter part of the nineteenth century and the slow break up of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey, on the other hand, under Erdogan has other ideas.

Having tried to promote Sunni Islamist forces as an alternative to secular strongmen and against Israeli-Egyptian domination of the Mediterranean gas reserves, Erdogan is showing ambiguity towards the West accusing the EU of "Islamophobia" and supporting Israel despite it being a 'terrorist' state in the 2014 Gaza War.

Tensions in Cyprus could rise further if Erdogan is further humiliated by the EU powers turning towards Cypriot gas as a way to provide an alternative to Russian gas. So Russia remains an important power in the Eastern Mediterranean not despite but because of the Ukrainian crisis which is disrupting supplies to the Balkans.

Troubles in the Eastern Mediterranean-Syria as 'the Ukraine of the Mediterranean'.

The Cairo visit was not just about weapons deals, the egos of Sisi and Putin as 'strong men' and trying to annoy Washington. It is meant also to show the obvious fact Russia is an Eastern Mediterranean power with influence in the region. That was quite evidently shown when Putin's diplomacy prevented a war on Assad as recently as 2013.

It was Putin's diplomacy in fact which reined in the aggression of Britain and France in particular for air strikes on Syria, some of which would have come from the Aktotiri airbase in Cyprus. It is conveniently forgotten in 2015 that had that gone ahead, the problem of ISIS in Syria and Iraq could have been far worse.

More to the point, the Ukraine conflict broke out partly because Washington was looking for revenge and a way to humiliate Putin after his diplomacy stopped the war to remove Assad. So all these crises are interconnected in part by geopolitical struggles over oil and gas reserves and energy pipeline routes. It's a 'game of chess'.

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