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Making sense of the rapidly changing Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi visit Russia's Moskva missile cruiser on Aug. 12, 2014. Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi visit Russia's Moskva missile cruiser on Aug. 12, 2014. Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office.

By Sean Savage/

With old alliances being frayed and new threats emerging, making sense of the rapidly changing Middle East is increasingly difficult for even seasoned observers and analysts.

Disgruntled by President Barack Obama’s foreign policy in the region, some long-time American allies such as Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have begun openly criticizing the U.S. approach to issues like the Gaza conflict, with some even pivoting towards Russia. At the same time, the civil wars in Syria and Libya as well as instability in Iraq have proven to be fertile breeding ground for new and more brutal terrorist organizations, forcing regional and international actors into new alliances to meet this common threat.

While the world was focused on Israel and Gaza or the threat of the Islamic State terror group over the past month, new Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi quietly made his first visit to Moscow on Aug. 12.

“Moscow recognizes Egypt as one of the central regional powers in the [Middle East], where Russia will try to strengthen its presence in the near future,” Dr. Olena Bagno-Moldavsky, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel, told

It is no secret that the U.S.-Egypt relationship has been strained in recent years. An extremely valued American ally since the 1979 Camp David Peace Accords, Egypt has received more than $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid, second to only Israel. But the U.S. supported the early ouster of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, which angered other regional U.S. allies—like Saudi Arabia—who felt that the U.S. abandoned its long-time partner too quickly.

Adding to the complications, the U.S. also backed the Muslim Brotherhood government under former president Mohamed Morsi, who was elected in Egypt’s first democratic election. When Morsi was ousted in a popular military coup in July 2013 led by El-Sisi, then the defense minister, the U.S. temporarily suspended some of its military aid to Egypt over concerns related to democracy and human rights.

Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his dealings with Ukraine, has shown that he has little concern for issues relating to democracy and human rights. Like Putin, El-Sisi is a nationalist leader who values stability, especially in light of the growing threat of political Islam from the Muslim Brotherhood and other jihadist groups.

Besides the countries’ shared political philosophies, Egypt is a big market for Russia in terms of trade and regional politics, said Bagno-Moldavsky of INSS.

“Egypt is a desirable customer of Russia’s military complex (the contracts with Russia will be actualized with the financial support of Egypt by the Saudi Arabia), cooperation can be potentially fruitful in the energy sector and civil engineering,” Bagno-Moldavsky said.

Despite El-Sisi’s trip to Moscow, U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf in a press conference after he visit, called the U.S.-Egypt relationship “strong and strategic,” downplaying any significant rift.

“Egypt is free to have relationships with whoever it wants,” Harf said.

Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes told that he believes Egypt’s gesture towards Moscow is a result of the U.S. position regarding Hamas-backing nations Qatar and Turkey in recent Israel-Hamas cease-fire negotiations.

“El-Sisi is again signaling his anger at the U.S. government for cozying up to the Turkey-Qatar joint venture,” Pipes said.

Indeed, Egypt, along with other U.S. regional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, openly criticized U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for holding Israel-Hamas cease-fire talks with Qatar and Turkey in late July, but not including them.

At the same time, Qatar has been actively undermining its fellow Arab states by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt and Saudi Arabia have declared to be a terrorist organization, as well as its Palestinian offshoot Hamas.

Pipes, however, cautioned not to read too much into Egypt’s newfound love for Putin, saying he believes it comes more out of anger towards the U.S. and is not a major geopolitical shift back to the Cold War days.

“This is not the 1950s. It’s an Axis of Pique, not one of grand strategy,” Pipes said.

Over the past several years, the Middle East has been traditionally divided into two camps in what Pipes referred to as the “Middle East Cold War.” Pipes said this conflict has pitted the “resistance bloc and its allies” of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, who are tacitly supported by Russia, against the “status quo” countries of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and others—even auxiliary members like the Palestinian Authority and Israel—who are largely aligned with the U.S.

But more recently, another faction has emerged that has challenged this dynamic.

“In the past two years, a third, smaller faction has emerged: the Turkish-Qatari-Muslim Brotherhood one,” Pipes said. “This comes as a considerable surprise because the Saudis for decades supported the Muslim Brotherhood. But, apparently, when the crunch came and they had to decide between Islamism and method of rule, they chose the latter.”

Meanwhile, in Libya, the weak government there was recently aided in its fight against al-Qaeda-linked terror groups by secret airstrikes launched by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, who have stepped up their fight against Islamic radicals. Even the U.S. was caught by surprise by these airstrikes, reports indicate.

Similarly, Israel has seen tensions with the U.S. rise in the wake of the failures of the American-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This recently came to a head when the Obama administration, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal, tightened oversight of arms transfers to Israel amid Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.

Adding to the complications, both Qatar and Turkey are longtime allies of the U.S., which has its largest Mideast airbase—Al-Udeid Air Base—in Qatar, while Turkey is a valued member of NATO. Before a cease-fire was reached Tuesday, Israel saw both countries as actively undermining efforts to end the Gaza conflict.

Embattled Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, meanwhile, has seen his fortunes rise once again as the new threat from the Islamic State poses a greater risk to regional and international security.

With the U.S. launching airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State and considering hitting Islamic State targets in Syria, Assad has expressed his willingness to coordinate attacks on the terror group with the U.S.

But Pipes cautioned against such moves, arguing that the U.S. should remain focused on helping its allies.

“The outside world is best off when the monsters fight each other,” he said. “We should limit ourselves to humanitarian concerns and to helping our very few allies in the region—mainly Israel, but also now the Kurds.”

Considering all the regional changes, many have criticized the U.S. for its lack of engagement and for allowing these problems to fester, but Pipes said America is not solely to blame.

“Like most developments in the Middle East, this is indigenous, with influences from the outside, to be sure, but driven by local passions,” he said.

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