Chessmaster Putin Goes to Cairo as Trump Ties Himself in Knots

"The West will be wary that Putin doesn’t do a Syria on them and checkmate them in Libya too. Washington may appear to be better placed in Libya, since the US’s NATO allies are stakeholders. But all bets are off when Putin enters the center stage."

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The United States’ self-goal on Jerusalem opens a window of opportunity for Russia to strengthen its standing as the most creative and positive player in the Middle East politics. Within four days of President Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem, President Vladimir Putin is undertaking unscheduled ‘working visits’ to Egypt and Turkey.

On Thursday, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a lengthy statement criticizing the US decision on Jerusalem and affirming that

We believe a fair and lasting solution to the protracted Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be based on international law, including UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions that provide for settling all aspects of the final status of the Palestinian territories, including the highly delicate issue of Jerusalem, through direct Palestinian-Israeli talks. The United States’ new position on Jerusalem can further complicate Palestinian-Israeli relations and the situation in the region… Russia sees East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state and West Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel.

Russia has positioned itself appropriately on the Arab Street. But the Jerusalem issue is not what is taking Putin to Cairo. The Kremlin readout flagged the need for “providing stability and security in the Middle East and North Africa.” Which means Libya, Sinai and Syria and, to an extent, Yemen – in that order, perhaps.

The point is, the ‘Libyan file’ has re-opened. The Islamist State is relocating to Libya after its crushing defeat in Iraq and Syria. Russia and Egypt sense the imperative need to mobilize quickly and confront the extremist groups in Libya. Both are supportive of the Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar who is ensconced in Benghazi, and whom they (rightly) see as a bulwark against violent extremism in Libya.

The power vacuum in Libya and the growing insecurity in western Egypt threaten the stability of Egypt and President Sisi’s prestige is at stake. On the other hand, Egyptian involvement in Libya affects the balance of power in the Middle East. Interestingly, the Gulf monarchies are also involved in the Libyan crisis.

Enter Trump. The Libyan PM Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj visited the White House on December 1 and Trump discussed with him “opportunities for future partnerships” while emphasizing “America’s continued commitment to defeating ISIS and other jihadist terrorists in Libya” and “to work together to advance Libyan stability and unity.”

On a parallel track, French President Emmanuel Macron had also hosted Sarraj in Paris. (Sarraj has an established reputation as the ‘Ashraf Ghani’ of the Maghreb – a politician imposed by Western powers. Keeping Russia out of Libya is a key template of the Western strategy (as is the case in Afghanistan).

But Russia and Egypt have specific interests, too. Libya used to be a Soviet ally and it has a strategic Mediterranean location facing NATO’s southern tier. As for Egypt, the instability in Libya spills over to the Sinai Peninsula, which is already happening. Sisi’s ambition could be to create a sort of Egyptian protectorate in Cyrenaica against extremist groups. No doubt, with 1200 kilometers of shared border with Libya, Egypt’s security concerns are legitimate.

Egypt is also a net importer of energy. Haftar controls the so-called oil crescent in Libya and the Russian oil giant Rosneft is back in Libya. Clearly, the energy platform provides a potentially lucrative 3-way cooperation between Russia, Haftar and Egypt – although secondary to the military and security dimensions.

Prima facie, Moscow is deferring to the UN in key matters and is also engaging Sarraj’s government in Tripoli. Which suggests that Moscow may be positioning itself as a broker between Libya’s rival partners – Sarraj and Haftar, principally – and eventually to manoeuver itself to make up for the financial losses it suffered in 2011 following the regime change, which is estimated to be in excess of $10 billion in railway contracts, construction projects, energy deals and arms sales.

But the West will be wary that Putin doesn’t do a Syria on them and checkmate them in Libya too. The Libyan situation has its specific features but big-power rivalry is accelerating. Washington may appear to be better placed in Libya, since the US’s NATO allies are stakeholders. But all bets are off when Putin enters the center stage.

For an effective Russian role in the military and security sphere to stabilize Libya, Moscow needs a regional partner. Putin enjoys an excellent rapport with Sisi. Washington will be closely monitoring their talks in Cairo on Monday.


Source: Indian Punchline

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