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View from abroad: In the eye of the storm

Updated November 16, 2015

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I WAS watching the news about the Russian jetliner that came down over Egypt’s Sinai desert with my brother Navaid last week, and remarked that I thought this seemed like a terrorist attack. This was before the British and US governments revealed that their intelligence agencies suspected a bomb to have caused the tragedy.

Obviously, I had no access to any inside information, but had based my speculation on the fact that the plane had crashed in broad daylight in good weather without sending out a distress signal. Another fact that contributed to my guess was that the Sinai is home to an Islamic militant group, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, or Supporters of Jerusalem. Last year, members of this group swore an oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called caliph, and leader of the self-styled Islamic State. The Ansar has since renamed itself ISIL-Sinai Province.

Before and since, it has launched a number of audacious attacks against Egyptian security forces in the Sinai and elsewhere. Its sympathisers are well entrenched in various organs of the Egyptian state, and it also taps into the frustration and fury of many young Muslim Brotherhood members who feel disenfranchised in General Sisi’s Egypt.

While IS claimed credit for the downing of the Russian plane immediately, it was circumspect about the method, stating that it would reveal all in due course. Clearly, it wants to conceal the identity of its local agents who planted the bomb. To me, it seems probable that a baggage handler at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport sneaked an explosive device into the plane’s hold. However, we cannot discount the possibility of a Chechen militant carrying a bomb in his or her suitcase.

In both cases, the primary target would seem to be Russia. Its recent robust military intervention in Syria on the side of President Bashar al-Assad has raised hackles among Sunni terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Al Nusra, to name only two. And of course Saudi Arabia and Turkey are furious at the lifeline Moscow has thrown their sworn enemy, Bashar al-Assad.

The secondary target is the Egyptian military leadership for its overthrow of an elected president. By staging a coup against the Muslim Brotherhood and banning the party, General Sisi and his military junta have effectively prevented millions of Egyptians from participating in the electoral process. As a result, the army chief was elected by 97pc of those who voted. Some young Brotherhood supporters have gone underground.

As it is, the political turmoil and government-inspired violence against its opponents has kept many tourists away. Recently, a party of Mexican tourists was killed in an air strike in the Sinai when security forces mistook them for terrorists or smugglers. This latest terror attack that took 224 lives will obviously deter tourists from the beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh for some time to come. Already, most countries have slapped bans on their airlines operating to and from this desert airport.

Egypt is heavily dependent on foreign tourists to generate employment in a labour-intensive sector. Last year, revenue from tourism was $7.7 billion, and this year, around 12 million tourists were expected. Tourism Minister Khaled Ramy said a few months ago that he expected Egypt to earn $26 billion by 2020. He might have to revise this optimistic projection downwards now. At its peak before the coup, 12pc of the Egyptian workforce, or close to three million people, were employed in tourism which generated 11pc of GDP. Given this dependence, we should not have been surprised at the Egyptian government’s vehement denial about the terrorist nature of the attack on the Russian jetliner.

And how will this incident impact on Russia’s Syrian policy? Putin, too, was initially in denial about the possibility of IS involvement when the news of the jetliner crash first came in. But he, too, has now halted all flights to Sharm el-Sheikh. The political fallout for him will come from the many Russians opposed to his intervention in Syria. But Putin remains very popular for his muscular foreign policy: witness his high poll ratings in the aftermath of his actions in Ukraine. So it is unlikely that he will be swayed from his current path because of an IS terrorist attack.

By demonstrating its reach and its capability to bring a jetliner down, the Islamic State has demonstrated yet again that it is a highly potent force. Despite the many countries ranged against it, it has lost none of its effectiveness or its viciousness. But one thing this outrage in the Sinai might trigger is an increase in the intensity of the aerial campaign against it by Russian jets. We may even see airborne assaults carried out by Russian special forces.

Thus far, the Russian bombing campaign has mostly targeted rebels from outfits like the Free Syrian Army and Al Nusra, as well as other groups threatening Syrian positions along the coast. This narrow focus has mostly let IS off the hook. This might well change now, and we are likely to see a more lethal campaign against Baghdadi’s gang of killers.

Meanwhile, Russia has circulated a paper in the UN Security Council calling for constitutional changes in Syria, followed by elections 18 months from now. Clearly, this does not address the chaos and bloodletting destroying the country. Nevertheless, it does underline the fact that only a political solution will solve the crisis, not armed action. Although there is a degree of cooperation between Russia and the US over targets to prevent an accidental clash between their aircraft, restoring pace would need far greater understanding between their goals and tactics.

But while Russia can act alone and persuade its Syrian and Iranian allies to come on board, this is not true for the US and its partners in Ankara and Riyadh. As long as this divergence continues, little progress is likely.

Twitter: @irfan_husain

Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2015

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