(CNSNews.com) – Egypt will hold joint military exercises along the Mediterranean coast with Russia this week, in a further sign of a rift between President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and fellow Sunni leaders who have sided against Russia over its support for the Assad regime.
An Egyptian army spokesman said Wednesday the nine-day Protectors of Friendship 2016 drill in the Al-Alamein area, west of Alexandria, will involve paratroopers from the two militaries.
An earlier Russian statement said the exercise, a first of its kind, would focus on operations to counter terrorists in a desert environment.
(An affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria based in Egypt’s sparsely-populated Sinai Peninsula claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Russian passenger plane last October, killing all 224 passengers and crew. Russia has not resumed commercial flights to Sinai ever since.)
Last year the Egyptian and Russian navies held first-ever joint maneuvers off Alexandria.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria has drawn the condemnation of the Sunni Gulf states which support elements among the rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Russia and Shi’ite Iran are Assad’s key allies in the conflict.
As the turmoil in Syria continues to have a ripple effect across the wider region, Sisi has angered Saudi Arabia, in particular, for breaking Sunni unity over the Syrian crisis.
Last weekend, Egypt backed Russia in the U.N. Security Council when two competing draft resolutions relating to the situation in besieged Aleppo came up for a vote.
Egypt was one of just three countries (China, Venezuela were the others) to vote for a Russian-drafted text that reflected the Kremlin’s approach to the situation in Aleppo. That text failed, as did another, much stronger Aleppo resolution, drafted by France and supported by the U.S. and Britain, but ultimately vetoed by Russia.
Although Egypt did also vote in favor of the French resolution, its support for the Russian one drew strong criticism from Saudi Arabia, whose U.N. ambassador, Abdullah al-Muallami, described the Egyptian stance as “painful.”
Egypt’s position has also roundly slammed in the Saudi media.
Saudi Arabia has been a key financial support of the Sisi government since the former army chief ousted Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood administration in mid-2013.
But differences over Syria may be beginning to have an impact. The Saudi ambassador, Ahmed Al-Qattan, left Cairo on Wednesday for an unscheduled three-day trip which Egyptian media reports speculated was a sign of deepening tension.
Asked about the military exercises between Egypt and Russia at a time of serious U.S.-Russia tensions, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that “sovereign nations are allowed to exercise their militaries.”
“And they’re allowed to do that whether it’s bilateral exercises or multilateral exercises, and I would leave it to the military leaders in Egypt and Russia to describe the parameters of this exercise,” he added.
Kirby acknowledged that the U.S. and Egypt have good diplomatic and defense ties.
“But that doesn’t mean that they’re precluded from exploring training opportunities with other sovereign states.”
Egypt is a key recipient of U.S. foreign aid. The administration’s FY 2017 budget request includes $1.45 billion for Egypt, the vast majority of it ($1.3 billion) in foreign military financing funds.