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Top Russian security officials tour Egypt, Gulf to discuss Syria, Libya

Over the space of a week, top officials in the Russian security apparatus toured Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt with some intriguing proposals on Syria and Libya.
Nikolai Patrushev (R), Secretary of the Security Council of Russia (R) listens during the first meeting of national security secretaries of Afghanistan, China, Iran, India and Russia, in the Iranian capital Tehran on September 26, 2018. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)        (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

On Jan. 31, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev paid a visit to Abu Dhabi to meet with the United Arab Emirates' national security adviser, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The two exchanged views on the situation in North Africa and the Middle East, with special emphasis placed on developments in Libya and Syria.

On Jan. 29, Patrushev took part in bilateral consultations on security issues in Cairo with his Egyptian counterparts. The talks revolved around the situation in North Africa and the Middle East, counterterrorism and issues related to what are termed "color revolutions” — particularly the upheaval taking place in Sudan. Moreover, the agenda included military and military-technical cooperation, as well as joint efforts in law enforcement. Patrushev was later received by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The talks in Egypt and the UAE followed the visit to Saudi Arabia of Sergey Naryshkin, director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. The Russian intelligence chief met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also the country's defense minister, on Jan. 21 and conducted talks with Khalid bin Ali bin Abdullah al-Humaidan, director general of General Intelligence Directorate. The parties focused on enhancing interagency cooperation in fighting international terrorism and effectively settling regional conflicts. Further details of the visit have not been revealed.

Thus, regardless of the Russian-Turkish joint efforts in Syria, one can speak about intensified contacts between Russian security services charged with supervising the settlement of Middle Eastern conflicts among other matters, with the troika of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, a powerhouse in the Middle East and in the Islamic world, currently at loggerheads with Turkey and Qatar over regional influence.

While striving to preserve high-level cooperation with Turkey on Syria, Moscow is still seeking to obtain alternative leverage on Ankara on the Syrian track, not least with the help of the trio of Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have been engaged for a relatively long period in northern Syria by supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated alliance hostile to Turkey. Military and political representatives of the three states are widely reported to have visited the city of Manbij in December and Kobani in November, where consultations were held with SDF representatives. The deployment of military units from these states to northern Syria may be under consideration.

However, it is believed that the SDF troops would be unable to counter a Turkish offensive, and that the presence of Gulf and Egyptian troops would not be enough to avert such a military operation. The military representatives of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt may more likely offer guarantees to the SDF in its interaction with Damascus, that is, to preserve the military and political autonomy of the Kurdish-Arab alliance after the Assad regime takes over SDF-controlled territories.

The UAE and Egypt — and at a later stage possibly Saudi Arabia — are willing to further normalize relations with Syria and pave the way for its return to the Arab League. In exchange, they seek to safeguard their own interests and want some guarantees. This primarily concerns limiting the Iranian presence in Syria and its influence on decision-making in Damascus. Preserving both the SDF as a special autonomous part of the Syrian army and self-governance in northern Syria may provide the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia with a certain guarantee that these territories will not house Iranian military facilities and that such a zone free from Tehran-backed forces could expand in the future. Northern Syria, with no Iranian presence on the ground, offers prospects for investments in Syria from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh and could determine their willingness to allocate additional funds to the reconstruction of Raqqa in case it is retaken by Damascus.

In this context, one can say that there are many points of convergence between Moscow and the aforementioned trio of the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, including their opposition to greater Turkish influence in northern Syria aimed at preventing the creation of a Turkish buffer zone and countering Iran's presence in the country. At the same time, Russia will seek to maintain its relations with Turkey and Iran, suggesting that the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt should announce initiatives originating in Moscow that can be supported by Damascus against Turkish and Iranian interests in Syria.

Libya was the second item on the Cairo and Abu Dhabi agendas for Patrushev. It is noteworthy that the Russian Security Council has long been involved in formulating Russian strategy on Libya, which is evidenced, among others, by the meetings between between Patrushev and Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter. The Libyan dossier appears to be part of the Russian-UAE-Egyptian-Saudi portfolio of settling Middle Eastern conflicts. Specifically, in exchange for the UAE, Egyptian and Saudi readiness to promote Russia’s interests in Syria, including Assad’s re-legitimation, Moscow may step up efforts to back Hifter, a protege of the Emirates, Egypt and partly of the Saudis. Against this background, the revealing fact is that Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is allegedly in charge of the Russian private military contractor Wagner group, attended the November talks between Patrushev and Hifter in Moscow. Now some reports suggest the mercenaries are allegedly willing to train the Libyan National Army (LNA) and to potentially engage in the offensive launched by Hifter-led forces in the southwestern region of Fezzan, in Sabha. Should the military campaign end in success, Libya's eastern leader would be able to gain control over El Sharara, the biggest oilfield in the west, and then tighten the noose around the Government of National Accord in the country's northwestern region of Tripolitania. The task of protecting LNA-controlled oilfields might subsequently be assigned to Russian military contractors. 

Finally, in the UAE and in Egypt, Patrushev discussed the issue of countering what have been called “color revolutions” — above all, the ongoing developments in Sudan. The interests of Russia, Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are on the same page as far as bolstering Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s position is concerned and all are prepared to continue to support him. Sudan remains a key member of the anti-Houthi coalition in Yemen, with its troops, the biggest foreign military unit on the ground, carrying the greatest burden in heavy fighting against the Houthis. A collapse of the Bashir regime and a Sudanese withdrawal from Yemen would seriously dent the coalition headed by the Emirates and the Saudis.

As for Russia, Moscow is developing military and political ties with Khartoum, which includes possibly using Sudanese ports for Russian naval vessels as well as Russian private security firms training the Sudanese military; Moscow recently acknowledged that these contractors are at work in Sudan. Consequently, one should expect Russia and the trio of the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to further coordinate their efforts in supporting the Sudanese regime. Moscow will be ready to continue giving its helping hand in the form of its military advisers and private military contractors, while Abu Dhabi and Riyadh will keep providing Sudan with necessary funding.

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