U.S. commanders in the Mideast are keeping a wary eye on the burgeoning military relationship between Egypt and Russia, which could further expand Moscow’s growing influence in the region.
“Certainly we have seen outreach to Russia lately,” Gen. Joseph Votel, the U.S. Central Command chief, said Wednesday in Washington. “I think that is cause for some concern for us … [and] I don’t know if that is particularly helpful to the things we are trying to accomplish in the region.”
While Egypt has quietly been one of Washington’s most stalwart allies in the region for decades, the relationship began to sour after the crackdown on government dissidents, journalists and others who have criticized President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s regime.
Public opposition by Washington and the international community to Mr. el-Sissi’s actions may “have pushed [Egypt] into the arms of others, and I think we have to pay attention to that,” Gen. Votel said during his speech at an event sponsored by the Foreign Policy Initiative.
Egypt is only the latest U.S. ally to publicly express their efforts to align themselves militarily to Russia. In October, Pakistani officials announced plans to conduct joint military exercises with Russia and begin buying arms from Moscow for the first time in decades.
That same month, outspoken Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced plans to sever military ties with the United States, allying the Asian nation with Russia China.
For his part, Gen. Votel said American commanders were also looking to restart joint military exercises with Egypt, as a way to stabilize the long-standing military relationship with Cairo.
“The military-to-military relationship, like all relationships, has highs and lows. … I think [Egypt] agrees with that,” the four-star general said. “But one thing we are trying to do is get our [joint] exercise program back in place.”
The last time U.S. and Egyptian troops participated in the longstanding Operation Bright Star exercises was back in 2009. The next iteration of the exercise, slated for 2011, was cancelled due to the Egyptian revolution that took place during the Arab Spring movement.
But in recent conversations with senior Egyptian military staff, “we agree that this is something we ought to investigate” how to restart the joint drills, Gen. Votel said.
But strengthening Cairo’s military ties to Russia, not the U.S., has long been a priority for el-Sissi, going back to when the former defense minister and Army commander in chief who led a successful coup ousting former President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, and officially taking the presidency a year later.
Since then, the el-Sissi regime locked in a $3.5 billion weapons deal with Russia in March 2014 and conducted military drills with Russian forces for the first time ever in October, according to a report by the New York-based intelligence firm The Soufan Group.
As a result, el-Sissi has become a vocal proponent of Moscow’s military intervention in Syria. Russian warplanes have decimated the Syrian city of Aleppo, the main hub for rebel forces battling to overthrow embattled President Bashar al-Assad, over the past several weeks.
The relentless strikes on Aleppo by Russian and Syrian forces, who have used internationally-banned cluster bombs and chemical weapons against rebel enclaves, have created a human rights catastrophe condemned by the U.S. and international community.