Cairo (CNSNews.com) – Egypt has conceded, after months of denials, that the downing of a Russian aircraft in the Sinai last autumn was a terrorist attack, raising speculation that Egypt may cooperate with Russia in its anti-terror intervention in Syria.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said last week that the terrorists who brought down Metrojet Flight 9268 on October 31 – killing all 224 passengers and crew – had “wanted to hit tourism, and to hit relations with Russia.”
It was the first acknowledgement from Cairo that terrorists were behind Russia’s worst ever aviation disaster, for which a Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility at the time.
Talk on the street of possible anti-terror collaboration between Egypt and Russia has swirled since early 2015 but the Egyptian government played it down, stressing that bilateral relations were limited to “military, technological and financial co-operation.”
At the same time Egypt, unlike most other Arab states, has come out in support of the Russian airstrikes in Syria.
Any Egyptian-Russian military collaboration against terrorists in Syria would likely cause tensions with Saudi Arabia, a key financial supporter of the Sisi government.
Egypt could arguably carry out airstrikes in Syria on its own, as it did in February 2015 when it targeted ISIS camps in Libya after the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts. (Egypt also contributed last year to the Saudi-led military intervention against Houthi rebels in Yemen.)
However, no Egyptian political party or leading figure has yet called for military intervention in Syria, largely because of fears that any Egyptian military involvement in Syria would boost terrorist groups in the Sinai peninsula.
“Egypt won’t use illogical force in Syria,” said Nabil Fahmy, who served as Egypt’s foreign minister from 2013-2014.
Known for his antagonism towards radical Islam, Sisi is deeply concerned about ISIS’ operations in Sinai, and has been promising Egyptians since before his election as president that he would keep the terrorist group from operating within the country’s borders. Adding to concerns, several Egyptian jihadi groups, including Ansar Bait al-Maqdis and Ansar Al-Shari, have also voiced support for ISIS.
The complex nature of the Syrian civil war poses ongoing challenges for Sisi, particularly with Saudi Arabia’s recent indication that it may become more actively involved in the conflict.
Saudi Arabia has supported Egypt since Sisi came to power, providing military and financial aid, and as a result, Egypt has generally complied with requests from the Sunni kingdom.
But Egypt is not eager to see the Saudis getting more involved in Syria, since Saudi Arabia supports the removal of the Assad regime. By contrast Egypt, like Russia, wants to see ISIS defeated but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army remain in control.
“Military intervention in Syria hasn’t worked since the beginning of the civil war,” said Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.
“Egypt recognizes how deep and dangerous is the Syrian situation,” said Rakha Ahmed Hassan, a former assistant foreign minister. “Egypt works on peace between Syrians and wants to keep peace on the Syrian land and unity among Syrians.”
Egypt has long called for a political settlement to the Syrian civil war, and is supporting the U.S.- and Russia-brokered “cessation of hostilities” that began at the weekend.
Some politicians in Egypt believe the government’s stated support for Russia’s actions in Syria may be an attempt to gain support from Moscow after the Flight 9268 incident, especially in restoring tourism.
Over the months since the downing, Russia’s suspension of all of EgyptAir flights to and from Russian caused great damage to tourism, a crucial earner for Egypt.
Egypt is also looking to Russia to help with building nuclear plants for power-generation. The two governments signed a deal last November which includes a Russian loan to cover the construction costs, to be repaid by Egypt over 35 years.
Sisi said on state television at the time that Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, had long dreamed of having “a peaceful nuclear program to produce electricity.”
“This dream was there for many years and today, God willing, we are taking the first step to make it happen.”