Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) is greeted in Cairo by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on December 11, 2017.
An upcoming joint naval exercise involving the Egyptian and Russian navies, announced by the Russian Defense Ministry on October 10, is testimony to the fluid and rapidly changing strategic situation in the Eastern Mediterranean arena and the Middle East more generally. According to the Russian statement, the exercise will '"work out joint tasks to protect sea routes from various threats," and will include rocket and artillery fire, and simulated inspections of 'suspicious vessels.'
A number of regional commentators noted that the exercise is clearly intended for the attention of Turkey, with reference to Ankara's recent unilateral moves in the eastern Mediterranean. Relations between the Turkish and Egyptian governments are currently at a nadir, against the background of long standing rivalries. The differences between the two have their origins both in geo-strategic competition, and in rival systems of government.
The Egyptian-Russian naval exercise is clearly intended for the attention of Turkey.
Turkey and Egypt represent polar opposites in terms of regional governance. The choice in the Arab world over the last decade has been (with the partial exception of Tunisia) between monarchs and officers on the one hand, and Islamists on the other. Erdogan's Turkey, while non-Arab itself, has sought to sponsor, support and align with Sunni Islamist movements and Islamist and pro-Islamist governments in Syria, Qatar, Tunisia, the Palestinian territories, Libya and Yemen.
Sisi's Egypt, meanwhile, exemplifies the reaction against movements of this type, in its most powerful and consequential form. It was Sisi's coup on July 3, 2013, which effectively reversed the advance of Sunni political Islam of the previous three years (probably saving Israel's peace agreement with Egypt in doing so), and began the phase of its eclipse. Erdogan has not forgotten this recent history. In his own characteristic style, the Turkish president refers to his Egyptian counterpart as a 'murderer.' The Turkish ambassador to Cairo was withdrawn after the coup.
The links between the Turkish Islamist milieu from which Erdogan emerged, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are deep, and of long standing. The Turkish Islamists were educated in the thoughts of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, and chief ideologue Sayyed Qutb. The comprehensive crushing by the Egyptian military of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood thus remains an open wound for the Turkish Islamists.
This political and ideological background informs and intensifies the concrete, geo-strategic issues on which Cairo and Ankara are opposed. These in turn center around the issue of the exploitation of natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, and Turkey's aggressive moves to mark off large swathes of the area for its exclusive control.
The Turkey-Libya Exclusive Economic Zone
On November 27, 2019, Turkey and Libya signed a maritime boundary agreement marking of a 200 nautical miles area as their Exclusive Economic Zone. The agreement was rejected by Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and the UAE. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias declared it '"illegal, null and void.' On August 6, Egypt and Greece signed their own rival agreement in Cairo, delineating the maritime borders between them.
On September 22, again in Cairo, energy ministers of the members of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum signed a charter establishing this forum as an international organization. The Forum's members include Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and the Palestinian Authority.
But it is not so simple to separate political issues from geo-strategic ones. Turkey backs the Government of National Accord in Libya in order to retain a pliant partner with which it seeks to jointly mark out an ambitious Exclusive Economic Zone in the Mediterranean, and by so doing seek to block the abilities of Egypt, and Israel to export gas to Europe.
But the Libyan Government of National Accord in Tripoli, with which Turkey is partnering, is supported by the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood and a number of militias associated with it. The rival, Tobruk based area of control of General Khalifa Haftar in Tobruk, meanwhile, is actively supported by Egypt. A threatened Egyptian intervention in July 2020 prevented Turkish supported forces from pushing into the oil zones around the towns of Sirte and Jufra, after they thwarted Haftar's attempts to take Tripoli and pushed his fighters back.
In Israel, the rivalries between regional powers are generally held to offer a certain advantage to Jerusalem, in that the power diplomatically closer to Israel (in this case Egypt) is likely to feel the need to cleave closer to its allies in the face of a shared threat. The establishment of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum and its recent formalization as an international organization exemplify this process. Turkey's current regional stances are exemplified by a combination of aggression and inadequate diplomacy. This tends to lead to the formation of broad coalitions against Ankara, of which in the Mediterranean context Israel is a natural component.
The efforts of Moscow to assert itself as a power in the Eastern Mediterranean should sound a cautionary note, however, regarding this generally favorable picture.
Russia is not, of course, an enemy of Israel. But Russia is strategically aligned in the Levant region with Iran, Israel's most implacable enemy. Russian weapons (via Iran and Syria) make up the bulk of the formidable arsenal assembled for service to Iranian goals by Lebanese Hizballah. Russia is also a rival to Israel regarding the matter of gas exports to Europe. All this means that Russian efforts to leverage regional power rivalries to increase its own presence and influence are not a net positive for Jerusalem. From the Israeli point of view, while there is no enmity, the less Russia, the better.
In the case of the East Mediterranean as elsewhere, Russia's involvement comes with the intention of mediating between the sides, and in so doing increasing Russian influence with both of them. This runs counter to the Israeli interest, which is unambiguously in the advance of the Egyptian/Greek/Cypriot/European interest in the East Med., an end to Turkish provocations, and the retreat and frustration of Turkish ambitions.
Moscow is seeking to draw Turkey further from NATO. Its natural interest, therefore, will be 'mediation,' and a soft line towards Turkish ambitions. Moscow recently opposed, for example, a US decision to partially lift a 33 year old arms embargo on Cyprus. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov responded by accusing the US of pursuing the course of 'who is not with us is against us.' The pattern is familiar from the experience of Syria in recent years.
The US still lacks a clear policy towards Turkey and its pattern of destabilization.
The Russian entry into the picture, as elsewhere, is made possible because of the absence of another major power. The EU can issue declarations, but it has no united force to deploy. The power which is absent in the East Mediterranean, and indeed whose absence makes possible both the Turkish aggression and the Russian attempt to 'mediate', is the United States. The US, unfortunately, still lacks a clear policy towards Turkey and its pattern of destabilization.
Russian efforts to draw Egypt closer towards its orbit demonstrate the difficulties of trying to build a regional alliance in the absence of a superpower patron. Countries with widely differing systems of government and histories may unite in the face of an aggressor. But absent a common patron, the evidence suggests that the alliance may be ad hoc and fragile, and its members vulnerable to being diverted.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum.