- - Monday, October 23, 2017

One of the most significant foreign policy events of the last 50 years is the introduction of Russian forces in the heartland of the Middle East and through this development, a restored cooperation with Egypt. Henry Kissinger noted that the Russian deployment of military forces in Syria is “unprecedented in Russian history presenting a challenge that American Middle East policy has not encountered in at least four decades.”

During the presidency of Anwar Sadat, Russia was asked to leave Egypt and, more significantly, leave interests that were cultivated over several years. At that time, the Russian dream of a perpetual warm water port was undermined. Now however, Russia is ensconced in the Middle East as a tribute to the changing fortunes of world affairs.

In September, Egyptian and Russian paratroopers concluded Protectors of Friendship 2, a joint military exercise on Russian soil. The commander of the Egyptian forces, Major Gen. Nehez Abdel Wahab stressed the importance of the exercise in “maximizing mutual experiences in light of the distinguished military relations between the armed forces of both countries.” This exercise is consistent with emerging military cooperation since 2015, an astonishing development considering the fact that Egypt and Russia opposed one another in Syria over the fate of Bashar Assad.

But it is now apparent Russia is a supporter of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s government and was among the first countries to endorse his presidential bid. Cairo has obviously strengthened its ties to Moscow against the backdrop of strained ties with the Obama administration since the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. When President Trump delivered his Riyadh speech encouraging deepening relations between the U.S. and the Sunni nations of the Middle East, Mr. el-Sissi welcomed the overture, but made it clear Egypt’s foreign policy would not be dictated by others.

One dimension of this open-ended policy is that Egypt has refused to rely on the U.S. as its sole arms supplier. President Obama’s refusal to provide Apache helicopters for Egypt’s war fighting ability in the Sinai led directly to arms deals with Russia and China for about $3 billion.

Mr. Trump has inherited this challenge. On the one hand, he would like to offset Russian influence in the region; on the other he is keen on creating a defense condominium that can serve as a surrogate anti-terror force and as a counterweight to Iranian ambitions. There is a residual suspicion of Russia that is part of its Middle East legacy. However, the Trump administration did not enhance its position by recently cutting aid to Egypt. If anything, Mr. Trump should be restoring the confidence cavalierly squandered by his predecessor. The U.S. and Egypt have long-standing relationships and both nations are eager to maintain the friendship developed over decades. However, foreign policy is based on ephemeral conditions. “What have you done for me lately?” is a common refrain.

The el-Sissi administration has adopted a positive view of Mr. Trump, but recently diplomatic signals, particularly a cut in aid, have not been helpful. Russia is eager to pounce, producing diplomatic and military carrots that undermine U.S.-Egyptian ties. As a result of a Russian alliance with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its success in defeating ISIS in Raqqa and Mosul (strongholds of the Islamic State), Russian President Vladimir Putin has a foot in the moderate Egyptian camp and the camp of radical Iranian forces. This could turn out to be an embarrassment for the Russian leader if Mr. el-Sissi comes to understand Mr. Putin’s willful deception.

Russian ambitions are transparent. But it is incumbent on the U.S. State Department to convey the real motives of the Russians and Iranians to Egyptian and Sunni leaders that was so well expressed at the Riyadh meeting by Mr. Trump. Moreover, the Trump administration should extend itself in offering arms to the Egyptian military fighting the war against al Qaeda and ISIS in the Sinai and use its diplomatic influence to admonish the Egyptians about Russian influence in the Middle East.

• Herbert London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.

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