Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

Israel’s Self-Inflicted Wounds

March 19, 2018


New mobile homes being installed in Amichai in February. Credit  Ahmad Gharabli/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As the state of Israel approaches its 70th anniversary, I am filled with pride as I watch the vulnerable Jewish state of my childhood evolve into the strong and prosperous nation it is today.

As president of the World Jewish Congress, I believe that Israel is central to every Jew’s identity, and I feel it is my second home. Yet today I fear for the future of the nation I love.

True, the Israeli Army is stronger than any other army in the Middle East. And yes, Israel’s economic prowess is world renowned: In China, India and Silicon Valley, Israel’s technology, innovation and entrepreneurship are venerated.

But the Jewish democratic state faces two grave threats that I believe could endanger its very existence.

The first threat is the possible demise of the two-state solution. I am conservative and a Republican, and I have supported the Likud party since the 1980s. But the reality is that 13 million people live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And almost half of them are Palestinian.

If current trends continue, Israel will face a stark choice: Grant Palestinians full rights and cease being a Jewish state or rescind their rights and cease being a democracy.

To avoid these unacceptable outcomes, the only path forward is the two-state solution.

President Trump and his team are wholly committed to Middle East peace. Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are now closer to Israel than they have ever been, and contrary to news media reports, senior Palestinian leaders are, they have personally told me, ready to begin direct negotiations immediately.

But some Israelis and Palestinians are pushing initiatives that threaten to derail this opportunity.

Palestinian incitement and intransigence are destructive. But so, too, are annexation plans, pushed by those on the right, and extensive Jewish settlement-building beyond the separation line. Over the last few years, settlements in the West Bank on land that in any deal is likely to become part of a Palestinian state, have continued to grow and expand. Such blinkered Israeli policies are creating an irreversible one-state reality.

The second, two-prong threat is Israel’s capitulation to religious extremists and the growing disaffection of the Jewish diaspora. Most Jews outside of Israel are not accepted in the eyes of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox, who control ritual life and holy places in the state. Seven million of the eight million Jews living in America, Europe, South America, Africa and Australia are Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or secular. Many of them have come to feel, particularly over the last few years, that the nation that they have supported politically, financially and spiritually is turning its back on them.

By submitting to the pressures exerted by a minority in Israel, the Jewish state is alienating a large segment of the Jewish people. The crisis is especially pronounced among the younger generation, which is predominantly secular. An increasing number of Jewish millennials — particularly in the United States — are distancing themselves from Israel because its policies contradict their values. The results are unsurprising: assimilation, alienation and a severe erosion of the global Jewish community’s affinity for the Jewish homeland.

Over the last decade I have visited Jewish communities in over 40 countries. Members in every one of them expressed to me their concern and anxiety about Israel’s future and its relationship to diaspora Jewry.

Many non-Orthodox Jews, myself included, feel that the spread of state-enforced religiosity in Israel is turning a modern, liberal nation into a semi-theocratic one. A vast majority of Jews around the world do not accept the exclusion of women in certain religious practices, strict conversion laws or the ban of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. They are bewildered by the impression that Israel is abandoning the humanistic vision of Theodor Herzl and taking on a character that does not suit its own core values or the spirit of the 21st century.

The leadership of the Jewish world always honors the choices made by the Israeli voter and acts in concert with Israel’s democratically elected government. I’m also keenly aware that Israelis are on the front lines, making sacrifices and risking their own lives every day so that Jews worldwide will survive and thrive. I count myself forever in their debt.

But sometimes loyalty requires a friend to speak out and express an inconvenient truth. And the truth is that the specter of a one-state solution and the growing rift between Israel and the diaspora are endangering the future of the country I love so dearly.

We are at a crossroads. The choices that Israel makes in the coming years will determine the destiny of our one and only Jewish state — and the continued unity of our cherished people.

We must change course. We must push for a two-state solution and find common ground among ourselves so that we can ensure the success of our beloved nation.


Saudi crown prince discusses anti-corruption crackdown, threats posed by Iran, more

March 19, 2018

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

JEDDAH:  Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed has said the anti-corruption crackdown he initiated in the Kingdom was “extremely necessary” because roughly $20 billion of state funds was “disappearing” every year.

In a wide-ranging interview aired by CBS television on “60 Minutes” on Sunday, the crown prince also spoke about the threats posed by Iran and its proxies across the region and the reforms being undertaken in the Kingdom to fight extremism.
The crown prince said that if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon then Saudi Arabia will too.
CBS anchorwoman Norah O’Donnell interviewed the crown prince in Riyadh two weeks ago, shortly before he left for his visit to Egypt and Britain.
O’Donnell earlier said there were “no time restrictions and no preconditions” and that the crown prince spoke candidly.
The crown prince said Saudi Arabia has recovered more than $100 billion so far in its crackdown against corruption.
“The amount exceeds $100 billion, but the real objective was not this amount or any other amount. The idea is not to get money, but to punish the corrupt and send a clear signal that whoever engages in corrupt deals will face the law,” he said.
During the crackdown last November, the Kingdom detained a big number of incumbent and former government ministers, prominent businessmen, and at least 11 princes who were accused of corruption.
The accused were held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel for some time until they either returned what they have been accused of stealing from the government or proved their innocence.
On reports of human rights abuses in the Kingdom, Prince Mohammed assured that “Saudi Arabia believes in many of the principles of human rights.”
“In fact, we believe in the notion of human rights, but ultimately Saudi standards are not the same as American standards. I don’t want to say that we don’t have shortcomings. We certainly do. But naturally, we are working to mend these shortcomings,” he said.

Religious tolerance, women rights
Prince Mohammed said that his country was not always like what it has been in the last 40 years. “We were living a very normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries. Women were driving cars. There were movie theaters in Saudi Arabia. Women worked everywhere. We were just normal people developing like any other country in the world until the events of 1979,” he said.
The widespread perception of the Kingdom as a place with harsh Islamic laws impacted the youth of the country, recalled the crown prince, “After 1979, that’s true. We were victims, especially my generation that suffered from this a great deal.”
“We have extremists who forbid mixing between the two sexes and are unable to differentiate between a man and a woman alone together and their being together in a workplace. Many of those ideas contradict the way of life during the time of the Prophet and the Caliphs. This is the real example and the true model,” he said.
The prince was asked if women were equal to men. “Absolutely. We are all human beings and there is no difference,” he said.
On the issue of women’s dress code and the stipulations of the Sharia, the crown prince said: “Women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men. This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.”
With a ban lifted on women driving in the Kingdom and women getting ready to sit behind the wheel this June, the crown prince was again asked the issue of women and driving in Saudi Arabia. He said: “This is no longer an issue. Today, driving schools have been established and will open soon. In a few months, women will drive in Saudi Arabia. We are finally over that painful period that we cannot justify.” The crown prince also said work is underway to a new initiative to introduce regulations ensuring equal pay for men and women.
Prince Mohammed promised to eradicate any trace of extremist elements in the Kingdom’s educational institutions. “Saudi schools have been invaded by many elements from the Muslim Brotherhood organization, surely to a great extent. Even now, there are some elements left. It will be a short while until they are all eradicated completely,” he said, adding “no country in the world would accept that its educational system be invaded by any radical group.”
Regional security
On regional security, the crown prince said Iran poses a clear and present danger. He likened Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to Hitler, adding that the Iranian mullah’s expansionist plans poses a serious threat to the security of the Middle East.
“He wants to expand. He wants to create his own project in the Middle East very much like Hitler who wanted to expand at the time. Many countries around the world and in Europe did not realize how dangerous Hitler was until what happened, happened. I don’t want to see the same events happening in the Middle East,” he said.
Prince Mohammed said Saudi Arabia has no interest in acquiring a nuclear bomb, but “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
Crown Prince Mohammed, who is also the defense minister, said Iranian ideology had infiltrated parts of neighbor Yemen. “During that time, this militia was conducting military maneuvers right next to our borders and positioning missiles at our borders,” he said, referring to the Houthi militia that is fighting the UN-recognized Yemen government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Houthi militias have launched missiles toward Saudi Arabia’s Makkah region and at the capital, Riyadh. Scores of civilians have also been killed or hurt in these strikes. Most of these missiles have been traced to Iran.
“I can’t imagine that the United States will accept one day to have a militia in Mexico launching missiles on Washington D.C., New York and LA while Americans are watching these missiles and doing nothing,” he added.

He said the catastrophe in Yemen was ’truly very painful’ and hoped the Houthi militia “ceases using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy from the international community. They block humanitarian aid in order to create famine and a humanitarian crisis.”

On the suggestion that what was happening in Yemen was a proxy war, the crown prince said: “Unfortunately, Iran is playing a harmful role. The Iranian regime is based on pure ideology. Many of the Al-Qaeda operatives are protected in Iran and it refuses to surrender them to justice, and continues to refuse to extradite them to the United States. This includes the son of Osama bin Laden, the new leader of Al-Qaeda. He lives in Iran and works out of Iran. He is supported by Iran.”
“Iran is not a rival to Saudi Arabia. Its army is not among the top five armies in the Muslim world. The Saudi economy is larger than the Iranian economy.  Iran is far from being equal to Saudi Arabia,” He said.
Personal wealth
Asked to comment on news reports on his personal wealth, he said: “My personal life is something I’d like to keep to myself and I don’t try to draw attention to it. If some newspapers want to point something out about it, that’s up to them. As far as my private expenses, I’m a rich person and not a poor person. I’m not Gandhi or Mandela. I’m a member of the ruling family that existed for hundreds of years before the founding of Saudi Arabia. We own very large lots of land, and my personal life is the same as it was 10 or 20 years ago. But what I do as a person is to spend part of my personal income on charity. I spend at least 51% on people and 49 on myself.”
The crown prince talked warmly about his father, King Salman’s fondness for history and how he would foster a love of reading in his children’ “He loves history very much. He is an avid reader of history. Each week, he would assign each one of us a book. And at the end of the week, he would ask us about the content of that book. The king always says, “If you read the history of a thousand years, you have the experience of a thousand years,” the crown prince recounted.
When the 32-year-old heir to the throne was posed the prospect of him shaping the Kingdom’s future for the next 50 years, he said “only God knows how long one will live.”
Can anything stop Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? “Only death,” he said.

Qatar, Cut Off From Neighbors, Remains Defiant

March 15, 2018

Refusing to bow to Saudi-led demands, emirate speeds up reforms and builds new alliances

Image may contain: airplane

DOHA, Qatar—It has been nine months since Qatar turned from a peninsula to a de facto island.

By now, the tiny but wealthy emirate has gotten used to this new reality, developing fresh trade routes and alliances that may affect the Middle East’s balance for years to come.


Last June’s sudden decision by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Emirates to cut ties with Qatar over the country’s alleged support for terrorism was meant to be a knockout blow. It included a prohibition on Qataris visiting those neighboring nations, a ban on overflights and port use for Qatari trade, and the closure of the nation’s only land border.

Qatar, however, has managed to withstand this pressure—and the country’s government says it won’t capitulate to its bigger Gulf neighbors.

Qatar has reached out to Turkey for new trade routes. Here, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, left, welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an honor guard review in Doha, Qatar, in November.
Qatar has reached out to Turkey for new trade routes. Here, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, left, welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an honor guard review in Doha, Qatar, in November. PHOTO:YASIN BILBUL, PRESS POOL

“They don’t want us to make our decisions, they want to make decisions for us, they think our decisions are for sale and that we will simply give up and do what they tell us. That will never happen,” said Sheikh Saif bin Ahmed Al-Thani, the director of the emirate’s government communications office and a prominent member of Qatar’s ruling family.

“What happened to us is something that we don’t want to happen to another country,” he said. “It will be very dangerous for the region if aggressive acts like this become the new norm.”

Qatar has responded to the embargo by establishing new trade routes via Turkey and Iran, the two countries that provide an alternative to Saudi Arabia’s airspace and road access.

The Al-Wakrah Stadium, designed by architect Zaha Hadid, as seen in February during construction in advance of the 2022 soccer World Cup outside the Qatari capital.
The Al-Wakrah Stadium, designed by architect Zaha Hadid, as seen in February during construction in advance of the 2022 soccer World Cup outside the Qatari capital. PHOTO: KARIM JAAFAR/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESS

For the Saudis, enmeshed in their own regional effort to contain Iran, this shift by Qatar represents “an own goal,” said Nader Kabbani, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “These trade links sooner rather than later will become stable and normal, and this may affect the geopolitics of the region in the future.”

The U.S.—which maintains a critical military facility in Qatar and is wary of growing Iranian influence in the Gulf—has been trying to mediate this increasingly inconvenient dispute between its allies. President Donald Trump spoke to Qatar’s emir and the crown princes (and de facto rulers) of Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. in late February. All three Gulf leaders are slated to visit him in Washington in coming weeks.

So far, these efforts—as well as mediation by Kuwait and entreaties by European governments to all sides—have proved largely fruitless.

“Right now we have not seen any sign from the blockading countries that they are willing to meet us at the same table to discuss our differences,” Qatar’s Sheikh Saif said.

Indeed, Saudi-led foes of Qatar—whose governments have wheeled out potential pretenders to the Qatari throne in an effort to put pressure on Doha and possibly spark regime change—seem in no mood to compromise.

“It’s not like we think much about Qatar. This can go on for another seven years if need be,” said a senior Saudi official. He also quipped that Qataris—who follow the same Wahhabi school of Islam as Saudi Arabia, albeit in a much more liberal interpretation—are “basically Saudis.”

Key objections that Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and their ally Egypt have about Qatar include the emirate’s friendly relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and coverage by Qatar’s Al Jazeera pan-Arab network that is critical of regional countries.

While Saudi-led sanctions on Qatar have caused pain, they also had the unexpected effect of accelerating some reforms. Since June, the emirate has abolished visa requirements for 80 nationalities, moved to establish permanent-residency rights for foreigners, and is setting up free economic zones. There are even plans for holding elections to a new legislature.

“All of these reforms would have taken a lot longer of it were not for the blockade,” said Yousuf Mohamed al-Jaida, chief executive of the Qatar Financial Centre, a body that hosts some 485 local and foreign companies. “It’s been a blessing in disguise when it comes to business.”

Because of severed air links, multinational companies can no longer fly executives on daytrips to Doha from the Gulf’s regional hub of Dubai, and many Qatari clients prefer dealing with offices that aren’t based in cities they can no longer visit. This has led many international companies to establish branches in Doha, leading to a 70% rise in the number of firms operating under QFC licenses, Mr. al-Jaida said.

It isn’t all good news, of course. One of the reasons why Qatar managed to survive an embargo by its key trading partners and food suppliers was because the country owns Qatar Airways, a passenger airline that seeks to become the world’s second-largest cargo carrier by next year.

With much of its capacity diverted to provide emergency supplies following the June embargo, and several lucrative regional routes lost, Qatar Airways said last week that it will announce “a very large loss” and may need a government bailout in the future.

Still, the way Qatar’s officials see it, it’s an acceptable price for maintaining independence. All the main development projects, including preparations for hosting the 2022 soccer World Cup, remain on schedule or have been accelerated, they say.

The International Monetary Fund, in a March statement on Qatar in which it projected GDP growth of 2.6% this year, said “the direct economic and financial impact of the diplomatic rift between Qatar and some countries in the region is fading.”

“While economic activity was affected, this has been mostly transitory,” it added.

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at


Qatar Airways responds to blockade by Middle Eastern neighbors by adding new routes


Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways, has never shied away from a fight.

When Delta, United and American Airlines accused the Doha-based carrier in 2016 of competing unfairly by accepting subsidies from its oil-rich government owners, Al Baker responded by promising to add dozens of new U.S. destinations.

The new destinations included Atlanta, the biggest hub for Delta Air Lines.

“I like to rub a little salt on the wound of Delta when I announce these flights,” Al Baker joked at a news conference.


 Image result for Akbar Al Baker, Qatar, photos
Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways

Al Baker remains defiant. Last week, he announced that Qatar Airways plans to add 16 international destinations and expand service to eight other cities in response to a blockade launched this summer by several Middle Eastern countries.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt accused the country of Qatar of harboring, funding and championing Islamist terrorists. The countries cut air, sea and land links with Qatar, among other punitive measures.

During a news conference, Al Baker dismissed suggestions that the blockade will hurt his carrier.

“These destinations are not the whole world,” he said in response to a reporter’s questionabout access to neighboring countries. “There are so many other nice places in the world. So, we have not lost anything.”

Over the next two years, he said Qatar will add new flights to airports in Germany, London, Portugal, Estonia, Malta, Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Turkey, Greece and Spain.

“We are very defiant, and Qatar Airways will keep on expanding and keep on raising the flag for my country all over the globe,” Al Baker said.

By adding these routes, Al Baker’s carrier is flying to some destinations already served by airlines from the blockade countries, including Etihad Airways and Emirates Airline, both based in the United Arab Emirates.


Jordan halts free trade accord with Turkey amid increasing geopolitical tension

March 15, 2018

A handout picture released by the Jordanian Royal Palace on August 21, 2017 shows Jordanian King Abdullah II (R) greeting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the royal palace in Amman. (AFP file)
AMMAN/ LONDON: Jordan has suspended a free trade agreement (FTA) with Turkey in a move as much about regional politics as imports and exports, according to a leading academic at the London School of Economics (LSE).
In an interview with Arab News, Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the LSE, said: “What you are seeing now is Jordan’s realignment with its key Arab allies, to send a clear message to Turkey that what Turkey has been doing is unacceptable.”
Turkey, he claimed, had been “intervening” in internal Arab affairs — for instance, offering economic and “military support” for Qatar, which has been boycotted by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE for its alleged support of extremism and links with Iran.
According to Jordan’s state-controlled Petra news agency, Amman’s decision to suspend the FTA with Turkey was taken “in light of the closure of border crossings with neighboring countries and the shrinking of traditional markets for national exports.”
Additionally, Jordan faced “unequal” competition with Turkish products, which Amman alleged receive Turkish government subsidies, leading to negative effects for local producers. Petra reported that the FTA had “further tilted the trade balance in favor of the Turkish side, which had failed to ensure the flow of sufficient investments into Jordan.”
But Gerges told Arab News: “Behind the trade issue, relations with Turkey have reached a really low point.” He mentioned a number of tensions such as Turkey’s military incursions into Syria, the civilian casualties, Turkish support for Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — all these factors had “poisoned” Arab-Turkish relations,” he said.
Gerges claimed that Turkey had hosted hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members, and Turkey had “overwhelmingly supported the Muslim Brotherhood against the Egyptian government of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
He said: “At one point Turkey was very powerful, a very influential state before the Arab Spring uprising. But Turkey has sided fully with the Islamists; this has really angered not just Arab regimes but also big chunks of the Arab populations,” he said.
“What Turkey is trying to do is to fill the vacuum of Arab fragility (post the Arab Spring), and this is unacceptable to key Arab states… in particular Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt.”
Gerges also said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had gone out of his way to take sides, which he said was an example of how Turkey had not recognized “the limits of its influence.”
He added: “Jordan has been trying to walk a tightrope between its close relations with its Arab allies, and Turkey as a non Arab state. And this has now proven to be untenable. “The straw that broke the camel’s back is Turkey’s row with the Gulf over Qatar, which is a huge issue for the Arab states.”
Last year, a group of Turkish servicemen arrived at a base in southern Doha in accordance with an agreement signed between Qatar and Turkey in 2014.
The Turkish military held their first drills at the Tariq bin Ziyad military base in August 2017. It was reported that Ankara deployed yet more troops to Qatar’s Al-Udeid Air Base in December, but in February 2018 Turkey refuted claims that Ankara had sent additional military forces.
The suspension of the FTA comes a month after a visit by the Turkish foreign minister and top officials to Jordan, where they discussed political and economic relations.
Petra said that Jordan was in the process of evaluating all FTAs that may not have resulted in the envisioned benefits to the national economy.
Turkey and the UAE last week clashed in a separate incident when a senior UAE official tweeted that Turkey’s policy toward the Arab states was not reasonable and advised it to respect their sovereignty.
“It is no secret that Arab-Turkish relations aren’t in their best state,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted.
“In order to return to balance, Ankara has to respect Arab sovereignty and deal with its neighbors with wisdom and rationality,” he said.
The two countries were drawn into a different quarrel in December over a retweet by the Emirati foreign minister that Erdogan called an insult.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, UAE minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, shared a tweet at the time that accused Turkish troops of looting the holy city of Madinah a century ago, prompting Erdogan to lash out saying that the minister had been spoiled by oil money.
Turkey then renamed the street in Ankara where the UAE Embassy is located after the Ottoman military commander who Sheikh Abdullah had appeared to criticize.
Last year, Turkey exported goods and products worth $672 million to Jordan, mainly composed of textile and furniture; while Jordan mostly exports fertilizers to Turkey worth of $78 million. Turkey’s direct investments to the country stand at about $300 million.
Currently, Turkey has 24 FTAs with various countries, including Palestine, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Israel, while the FTA with Syria was suspended in 2011 due to the civil war. The FTA with Lebanon awaits the Lebanese parliament’s approval. The FTAs abolish customs duties between the contracting parties.
Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based political analyst and researcher, believes that the Jordanian decision is purely economic and has nothing to do with any political issue; because it is suspended and not canceled.
But Esen Caglar, managing director of Policy Analytics Lab, a think tank and consultancy based in Ankara, said Jordan’s decision to suspend the FTA between the two countries was bad economic policy.
“Jordan is a small economy. It should be a small open economy if it wants to improve the welfare of its citizens and competitiveness of its producers,” Caglar told Arab News.
“The way of protecting its national economy is not by taking such measures, but by increasing competitiveness of its sectors. Jordan also needs to improve its investment environment and make it more predictable and cheaper to do business” he added.
Salameh Darawi, editor of the economic website Al Maqar, told Arab News that the trade deal was not providing the promised Turkish investment in Jordan. “The deal had two parts: One investment in IT and in mining industries, and the other free trade.”
While there is no disagreement that Turkey has not invested in Jordan, there are mixed opinions as to the benefits of the free trade deal. “While the trade balance is in favor of Turkey, it is not clear if subsidized Turkish goods have flooded the local market to the degree that it has hurt local products,” Darawi told Arab News.
Issam Murad, the head of the Amman Chamber of Commerce, however, responded in a statement by saying that “stopping free trade with Turkey will hurt the commercial and service sectors.” The statement further noted that “many investments, deals and agreements were made based on this agreement and all of these commercial entities who worked on the basis of an existence of a valid agreement will be hurt.”



Egypt army says 16 jihadists killed in Sinai operation

March 11, 2018


© EGYPTIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY/AFP | An image grab from a video released by the Egyptian Defence Ministry on February 9, 2018 shows Army spokesman Colonel Tamer al-Rifai announcing the launch of a major operation against the Islamic State (IS) group

CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt’s military said Sunday 16 jihadists, an officer and a soldier were killed in the past four days during a major military operation against Islamic State group jihadists in Sinai.The army launched a sweeping campaign after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is standing in elections for his second term this month, gave them a three-month deadline to crush IS in Sinai.

He issued his ultimatum in November after suspected IS gunmen massacred more than 300 worshippers in a Sinai mosque associated with Sufi Muslim mystics.

Since the military, then led by Sisi, ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, security forces have sought to quell attacks by the Egypt branch of IS.

The jihadists have killed hundreds of soldiers, policemen and civilians, mainly in North Sinai but also elsewhere in Egypt.

They have also killed scores of Christians in church bombings and shootings, as well as bombing a Russian airliner carrying tourists from an Egyptian resort in 2015, killing all 224 people on board.

The military says it has evidence IS has sought to move members to Sinai following its defeats in Iraq and Syria.


Egypt launches unprecedented crackdown on media ahead of Sisi re-election bid

March 10, 2018


© Khaled Desouki, AFP | An election campaign banner erected by supporters of Egyptian President is seen in the capital Cairo on February 26, 2018.

Text by Monique EL-FAIZY 

Latest update : 2018-03-10

Disinformation, militarisation of the press and outright repression: These are the tools of media control in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt as he heads into a virtually uncontested election.

Despite having passed a constitution in 2014 that guaranteed freedom of thought, opinion, artistic and literary creativity, and the press, the Egyptian government has waged an intensifying and increasingly arbitrary battle to exert control over virtually all forms of public expression ever since.

Even more so than previous regimes, Sisi’s government is willing to brook no criticism. No longer content with simply influencing press coverage, state security services have been quietly buying up media properties for more than a year. A recent report said that the top editors of many of the country’s newspapers would be subject to mandatory training at a Cairo military academy, a move that Berlin-based journalist Walid el-Sheikh called part of the “militarisation of media discourse”.

“These steps are unprecedented in the history of Egypt, making Sisi’s oppression worse than that of [former presidents Hosni] Mubarak or even [Gamal Abdel] Nasser,” el-Sheikh said.

In recent days, the government has gone to war with the BBC over a short documentary on forced disappearances and torture, issuing multiple statements saying the broadcast was “flagrantly fraught with lies.” Many reputable NGOs have issued reports about torture in Egypt, which Human Rights Watch dubbed the “calling card” of Egyptian security services.

Controlling the press

The grab for the media began shortly after Sisi deposed Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in June, 2013 and ran along well-worn lines, beginning with the purging of anyone suspected of supporting Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Amid a fervour of nationalism, the news media and the public at large rallied around then general Sisi, and even normally independent and dissenting voices hailed him as the saviour of Egypt. He was swept into the presidency in May 2014 with nearly 97 percent of the vote. Against the backdrop of an expanding Islamist insurgency that was regularly taking the lives of soldiers and security personnel, particularly in the Sinai peninsula, the press was largely patriotic and generally unquestioning of the new president so much so that in October 2014, a group of newspaper editors signed a pledge to limit criticism of the government.

Sisi, for his part, was casting his presidency in Manichean terms. One was either with him or against him, and those who were against him were painted as part of a massive conspiracy against Egypt funded by outsiders and aimed at bringing down the state. The invocation of “foreign hands” is an old trick among Egyptian rulers, who, since the 1952 revolution, have relied on xenophobia and whispers of hostile agendas to shift blame and justify heavy-handed tactics.

“The focus was on media rhetoric, vilifying the Muslim Brotherhood and anyone who stands against the military and Sisi, naming everyone not in that camp as a traitor,” said Nancy Okail, executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “But it was more media propaganda, rather than media punishment, as we are seeing right now.”

The Egyptian press was largely compliant, but the foreign press was trickier to control. After sending several emails to accredited foreign journalists insisting that they were permitted to publish only information provided by the government (the disagreements with the journalists, generally, were over military death counts in Sinai), in 2015 the Egyptian parliament passed an anti-terrorism law that held that journalists could face two years in jail if they reported information about attacks that contradicted government statements. The two-year punishment was later downgraded to a fine.

Around the same time, an organisation called Fact Check Egypt started sending foreign reporters emails critiquing their articles and telling them where, in the eyes of the government, they had gotten their facts wrong.

In February of 2016, Sisi told the nation in a televised address not to “listen to anybody’s words but mine”. By the end of that year, the government had passed a law establishing a Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, whose chairman would be picked by Sisi and which would have increased oversight over the media.

Buying the press

But even that wasn’t enough oversight, it seems. Since the end of 2016, the General Intelligence Service (GIS) has been buying controlling stakes in media companies, first through holding companies, but lately more openly. Former military intelligence officers oversee two satellite channels. And a private equity fund reportedly owned by GIS has become the sole proprietor of a media group that holds the popular ONtv channel, and the widely read Youm7 newspaper and website, among other properties.

“If they weren’t interested in disinformation they would not have bought the media,” Okail said. “They want to control the narrative.”

The campaign to control information didn’t stop with mainstream media. In early 2017 the government hired APCO, an American public affairs consultancy, to launch, which aims to “inform international audiences on the historic, transformative progress taking place in Egypt”. It also instigated a phishing campaign, dubbed Nile Phish, against NGOs. A Twitter site called @Egypt_Speaks denounces people and reports critical of the regime and presents the government’s view.

“In the past they used to have a trolling technique,” Okail said. “Now they have very well trained social media [advisers].”

Even while the government has been putting up propagandistic websites it has been blocking others, including those of independent media and think tanks that publish work critical of the government. At the end last year, 425 websites had reportedly been blocked.

Authorities are ensuring that “their version of the truth is the only truth by making sure there are no local media outlets that can challenge it and, recently, shutting down any online outlets that are telling the story in a different way”, said Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Jailing the press

All along, journalists that run afoul of the official line have been thrown in prison. Egypt is the third largest jailer of journalists in the world, Mansour said, with 20 members of the press currently behind bars. Twelve of those have not been convicted of or sentenced for a crime, and several suffer from serious health conditions.

Egypt is ranked 161st out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

Journalists are jailed for even the most trivial of matters. In one of the more puzzling cases, two local journalists were recently arrested in Alexandria while filming a report on that city’s historic tramway.

Being a friend of the regime is no protection either. Talk-show host Khairy Ramadan is a known loyalist, but after interviewing the wife of a police officer who fretted that she couldn’t make ends meet on her husband’s meagre salary last month, he found himself looking at the four wall of a prison cell. His arrest sparked a furore among pro-government media personalities and he was soon released on bail, but the arrest sent a strong signal that none of them is safe.

“Consistently, by legal measures, by public statements, by direct meetings [the authorities] have made it clear that the handling of security- and military-related issues should be strictly towing the government line,” Mansour said.

The government was similarly twitchy with the international media, pulling out all the stops to denounce a BBC short documentary about torture. Foreign correspondents received multiple emails denouncing the report, a tactic that the State Information Service (SIS) had used in the past to repudiate articles by the New York Times, Reuters and others.

The head of Egypt’s National Information Agency responded by issuing a decision to stop “media cooperation” with the BBC, and the head of SIS called on officials and the elite to refrain from giving the BBC interviews. The government has repeatedly demanded that the BBC apologise.

To repudiate the report, a young woman whose mother had appeared in the documentary saying that her daughter had been “disappeared” nearly a year ago and had not been heard from since, suddenly appeared on a pro-government talk show claiming that she had simply gotten married and had a child and, for various “reasons”, had not been in touch with her mother.

Days after the report aired, Egypt’s prosecutor general ordered prosecutors across the country to begin monitoring media outlets and social media platforms and to press charges against anyone disseminating news that “harms national interests”.

“This is going into a more oppressive direction,” Okail said. “This is not new, it’s just a deeper level of repression and a more sophisticated way of doing it.”

“It is the worst time to be a journalist in Egypt,” Mansour said.

The presidential election will be held from March 26 to March 28, and its outcome is virtually certain.


Why Europe Is Giving Up on Trump’s America

March 8, 2018

PARIS — On Nov. 9, 2016, when we Europeans woke up to the news of Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States, most of us understood that it would have a significant impact on world politics. What we did not realize at the time was how much that event would alter the basic fabric of international relations.

Over the past 16 months, we have been through roughly three stages in dealing with the fact that our first ally, the United States of America, is ruled by such an unorthodox president. We began by betting on human wisdom and political realism: Soon enough, Donald Trump, the nationalist, populist candidate, would wise up and become President Trump. Maverick politicians tend to do this in democratic societies.

Then came the “adults in the room” stage. When it became clear that there was no wising up in the Oval Office, we were led to believe that fortunately, the celebrated checks and balances of the American system were functioning. The toxic Steve Bannon would soon be on his way out. Some experienced, reliable generals were taking over; their advice would prevail. How would official Washington have reacted if generals were appointed to key posts in a French or German government? Not warmly, one suspects. But these being no ordinary times, Europeans went along with the idea.

For those who still bought it, the “adults in the room” theory took a serious beating last month at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of top dogs in foreign and defense policy. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis came, but surprisingly did not take the floor. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, did speak but was very publicly chided a few hours later by a presidential tweet because he “forgot” to say that Russian interference had no impact on Mr. Trump’s election.

Senior European officials admit that however good their cooperation may be with counterparts in the Trump administration, the president’s unpredictability looms too large over decision-making. We have now entered the third stage of the great European disbelief. It could be called the “Angela Merkel was right” stage, in a nod to the German chancellor’s statement after the NATO and Group of 7 meetings last May that “we Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.”

American officials keep trying to reassure their puzzled European interlocutors: “Don’t look at the tweets, look at what we do.” Repeated over and over, it is truly an extraordinary line. Think of representing your administration and telling foreigners every day: Ignore our president. But that’s a pipe dream. This president cannot be ignored because he is already profoundly transforming international relations, well beyond promoting unilateralism at the expense of multilateralism.

Will there be a trade war? Maybe not. Yet last week’s assault from the White House, like a bolt from the blue, is a taste, for Washington’s European and Canadian allies, of how low the trans-Atlantic relationship can go under President Trump. Western partners of the United States cannot expect to be treated any better than China. When Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on ABC on Sunday, “There is a lot of history that needs to be undone,” he was addressing trade relations. To Europeans, this has a deeper meaning. It is post-World War II history that is being undone — the very history that the United States built, the foundation of the Western alliance.

Mr. Trump earlier pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as part of his “America First” doctrine. The TPP is now back, revived by its 11 remaining members — without America. A world where the United States led multilateral trade agreements is ending. But nations still engage in multilateral trade pacts, as the European Union has done with Japan and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc. The United States is just not part of them.

President Trump has also pulled his country out of the Paris accord on climate change. Signatory countries are finding ways to go around this defection by working with more cooperative partners — American cities, states, corporations — just as they’ve done with trade.

The president has allowed Vladimir V. Putin and Xi Jinping, the authoritarian leaders of Russia and China, to take center stage on the global scene. As Mr. Trump was being inaugurated in January 2017, President Xi was wasting no time stepping up, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to pose as the champion of multilateralism and free trade. President Putin had already started his forays into Ukraine and Syria when Mr. Trump was elected; the Russian foray into the democratic processes of Western countries, including the United States, would be exposed soon after. By stubbornly refusing to criticize Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump shortchanges his administration, confuses his allies and weakens the American response.

Mr. Trump is also threatening to overturn one of the biggest diplomatic achievements of recent years, the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, which Europeans are frantically trying to save.

By unilaterally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the president has demonstrated his contempt for international law, reversed half a century of American commitments and, in doing so, badly damaged his country’s credibility in the region.

President Trump has promoted the image of the strongman in world governance. Dictators used to be ashamed. No more. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte can continue boasting about gunning down suspected drug dealers. In a phone call last year, circulated by the Philippine Foreign Ministry and reported by The New York Times, Mr. Trump congratulated Mr. Duterte for his “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”

President Trump has shown how little consideration he has for diplomacy: More than a year after he took office, senior positions are still vacant at the State Department. There are no American ambassadors to Germany, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey or the European Union — not to mention Mr. Trump’s indecently crude disparagement of African nations and Haiti. Diversity, once part of American soft power, has disappeared from images of administration officials. Photos of meetings at the Oval Office are crowded with white males, who also staffed the press briefings in Davos last January.

This list is incomplete. But it’s sufficient to justify skepticism at the mantra “Don’t pay attention to the tweets.”

Mr. Trump: In case you wondered, Europe is paying attention.


Qatar must end support for terror if it wants boycott lifted, UN council told

March 1, 2018

File Photo of Ambassador Obaid Salem Saeed Al Zaabi, Permanent Representative of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the U.N. Geneva. (Reuters)
LONDON: The boycott on Qatar by its Middle East neighbors has been dismissed as a regional issue not worthy of debate at the UN Human Rights Council.
The UAE’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Obaid Salim Al-Zaabi, delivered a statement to the council on Wednesday on behalf of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt. The four countries have maintained a boycott on Qatar since April last year over Doha’s alleged support for terrorism.
Earlier, Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, urged the UN to take action to halt the blockade on the Gulf state.
Al-Zaabi told the council that the Qatari minister’s speech included a lot of “fallacies.”
“(Doha’s) efforts to promote this secondary crisis as a major international issue should not be acknowledged,” the UAE ambassador said.
“We believe this small political crisis between our countries and Qatar should be resolved within the framework of the existing Kuwaiti mediation efforts, led by Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.”
A delegation from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Qatar in November, 2017, and two months later issued a report on the impact of the boycott on human rights.
“The Qataris must choose between being a state that is good to its neighbors and seeks to engage in a positive relationship with its surroundings like the rest of the civilized world, or continue to violate international law and regional conventions involved in the fight against terrorism, its supporters and those financing it,” Al-Zaabi said.


Middle East Nations Eager To Match Iran’s Nuclear Technology, Capability

February 28, 2018

While the Netanyahus drink champagne and Trump tweets, the Russians changed the Mideast’s nuclear calculus – and this time, Israel has no feasible military option. But can Jerusalem really depend on the White House to avert a nuclear arms race?

.A 1956 nuclear test conducted by the United States at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
A 1956 nuclear test conducted by the United States at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photos

While our leaders in Jerusalem were giddily drinking champagne and Washington was proudly trumpeting tweets, the Middle East continued its march towards the nightmare scenario of a region with multiple nuclear actors.

This time, it’s not just about Iran, but about the rapid spread of civil nuclear programs all around us. The various programs reflect legitimate energy needs, but civil nuclear programs in the Middle East have a nasty tendency to morph into military ones, or at least the technological basis for this.

Saudi Arabia already consumes approximately 25% of its total oil production and unless it diversifies its sources of power – astonishingly –  it risks becoming a net importer of oil by the early 2030s. The Saudis thus recently issued tenders for the first two of 16 planned nuclear power reactors.

In addition to energy needs, the Saudi program is also motivated by fear of Iran, along with growing doubts regarding the reliability of the American security guarantee, and a consequent desire to ensure that the kingdom has the infrastructure in place for a military program.

The Saudis are also opposed to the U.S. demand that they forgo the right to enrich uranium, as a condition for the sale of American reactors. This condition is considered essential today to ensure that civil nuclear programs are not misused for military purpose and both Egypt and the UAE accepted it in deals with the U.S. in recent years.

The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran recognizes its right to continue uranium enrichment, albeit at lower levels, thus making it difficult for the U.S. to now demand that the Saudis forgo a similar capability. The U.S. is also concerned that if it insists on this demand the Saudis may turn to other manufacturers, including Russia and China, which impose less stringent conditions for the sale of reactors and ongoing inspection.

It is thus now considering a waiver for the Saudis, but this is likely to lead to similar demands by Egypt and the UAE and to a heightened Iranian threat perception. The result could be a collapse of the nuclear agreement and a regional nuclear arms race.

.Trump receiving the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal from Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh, May 20, 2017.

Trump receiving the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal from Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh, May 20, 2017.MANDEL NGAN/AFP

Russia is using nuclear deals and arms sales to resurrect its standing in the region. It recently concluded a nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia and also signed its first arms deal with it, including advanced anti-aircraft systems, missiles and more.

In December 2017 Russia also signed a deal with Egypt to build and finance four power reactors by 2028, and to establish factories in Egypt to manufacture some of the necessary components. Some observers believe that there are more cost-effective means of producing energy in Egypt and therefore question the deal’s motivations.

Last year, Russia also began supplying advanced fighter aircraft and helicopters to Egypt and tentative agreement was even reached providing, for the first time since the Soviet eviction from Egypt in 1974, for Russian use of Egyptian airbases.

The Egyptian and Saudi slaps in America’s face resounded all the way to Washington.

In 2016 Russia signed a deal with Jordan for two nuclear power reactors, to be completed by 2025. A nuclear research reactor, of South Korean manufacture, became operational in Jordan in 2016.

Rex Tillerson speaks with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan of the UAE during the Gulf Cooperation Council leaders summit in Riyadh
Qatar crisis: UAE behind hack which prompted Gulf state boycott. Pictured: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan of the UAE in Riyadh JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

In the UAE, the first of four South Korean power reactors, to be built by 2020, will become operational this year. In 2017 Russia signed $2 billion in arms deals with the UAE, including advanced air-defense systems and missiles, and it is reportedly considering Sukhoi fighters. Turkey also purchased similar air-defense systems recently and Bahrain, Qatar and Morocco have expressed interest. The Russians have already deployed these systems in Syria.

Israel is being surrounded by civil nuclear programs on all sides. There is no immediate danger and it would take many years, possibly decades, to turn these programs into military ones, but the technological clock may have begun ticking. Moreover, these programs may undermine the relative regional stability gained by the Iran nuclear deal.

In weighing its policies towards these developments, Israel faces a difficult dilemma which does not exist in the case of Iran today, nor Syria, Iraq and Libya in the past.

The countries in question all maintain formal, or de facto peace with Israel, share a desire to contain Iran, are friends of the U.S. and enjoy at least some American commitment to their defense.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session during the Week of Russian Business, organized by the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP), in Moscow, Russia February 9, 2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session during the Week of Russian Business, organized by the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP), in Moscow, Russia February 9, 2018REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

In reality, Israel does not have a military option against them, except in extreme circumstances, and thus Jerusalem is approaching the end of the “Begin Doctrine,” which held that it must act militarily, after exhausting other options, to eliminate nuclear threats.

On this issue, as is the case of the other primary challenges Israel faces today (the Palestinians, Iran, the “northern front”), Israel does not have an effective military option, at a price it is willing to pay, and is increasingly coming up against the limits of military force. The IDF can gain time for decision-makers, but the only true solution to these challenges may lie, if at all, in the diplomatic realm.

Israel should urge the U.S. to insist that the Saudis forgo uranium enrichment. Even at this turning point, when Israel hopes for a breakthrough with Riyadh, it should oppose a decision that may spark a regional nuclear arms race.

A possible compromise, however, that might preserve both Saudi interests and face, may be found in the recent proposal by the noted U.S. nonproliferation expert, Robert Einhorn, to craft a “practical compromise” – limiting the agreement to a period of 15 years. In the future, the U.S. can always demand an extension.

A further possibility would be to urge the administration to pursue a new international norm, among the six countries that manufacture reactors today, to make their sale contingent on the recipient’s willingness to forgo uranium enrichment and to purchase nuclear fuel from the manufacturer throughout the reactor’s lifetime.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his bomb illustrating the red line for Iran's development of a nuclear bomb, at the UN in 2012.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his “bomb” illustrating the red line for Iran’s development of a nuclear bomb, at the UN in 2012.AP

This will not be easily achieved, American competitors will fear the loss of a commercial advantage at a time when a number of deals are in play, but the principle is acceptable to all and a deal is worth the try.

In the longer run, these developments, along with already existing trends, will require that Israel devote considerable thought to its strategic policies. The danger of a Middle East with multiple nuclear players may require that Israel reconsider its policy of ambiguity, seek a defense treaty with the U.S., or even explore what is today still considered a totally fanciful option: regional arms control.

In the meantime, they’re still drinking champagne in Jerusalem.

Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security advisor, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is the author of “Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change” (Oxford University Press, 2018)


Russia is Using Syria as a Military Proving Ground — Battle-Tested Hardware; And Its For Sale — Moscow has tested over 600 new weapons and other military equipment in Syria

February 28, 2018

High-ranking Russian officials claim countries are lining up to purchase battle-tested hardware.

 FEBRUARY 28, 2018 11:27


Russian military jets are seen at Hmeymim air base in Syria

Russian military jets are seen at Hmeymim air base in Syria. (photo credit: REUTERS/VADIM SAVITSKY/RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY VIA REUTERS)

“It’s not an accident that today they are coming to us from many directions to purchase our weapons, including countries that are not our allies,” Vladimir Shamanov declared. “Today, our military industry made our army look in a way we can be proud of.”

According to Mathieu Boulegue, a Research Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the London-based Chatham House think-tank, “many analysts in Moscow view the Syria campaign as a ‘Revolution in Military Affairs,’ which is an American term that derives from the US experience mostly during the First Gulf War. Russia sees Syria as a theater for learning how to use [cutting-edge] technology and command and control techniques in modern warfare.

“They are also getting similar experience in Ukraine,” he elaborated to The Media Line, “and it is impossible to separate between the two campaigns as the lessons gained in both arenas are fed into the same beast.”

The Russian hardware being tested reportedly includes advanced aircraft, cruise missiles and precision-guided munitions in addition to armory, battlefield drones and electronic warfare systems, among many others.

 Image may contain: airplane
Russia’s Su-57 — New stealth fighter

 The comments came on the same day that the head of the powerful defense committee in Russia’s Duma, the lower house of parliament, contended that 200 of the items were next-generation systems.

One prominent example is the introduction into Syria of the Sukhoi Su-34 and Su-35 fighter jets, twelve of the former reportedly having soon thereafter been sold to Algeria. Other countries such as Indonesia, India and Nigeria have likewise expressed interest in the plane since it became battle-tested, allowing for tangible evaluation of its performance.

Similarly, purchase agreements for the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system have been forged with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Overall, Middle East and North African countries from Egypt to Qatar to Bahrain, Morocco and Tunisia are lining up to purchase Russian-made equipment; this, as Moscow has renewed its regional influence through the projection of its military after years of US domination.

In March of last year Russia’s top defense official, Sergei Shoigu, told parliament that ninety percent of the weapons tested up to that point had met the Kremlin’s expectations. Months later, Dmitry Shugayev, head of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, revealed that foreign orders for Russian weapons amount to almost $50 billion. Notably, he claimed that Moscow is poised to acquire about thirty percent of the global military aircraft market, surpassing the US’ share.

“Russia has come up with the ‘Combat-proven Label,’ which is used by officials and businesses to enhance military sales,” Boulegue explained to The Media Line. “It is very hard to quantify how much this will speed up the commercial prospects but it does go hand-in-hand with a very aggressive policy from the state-owned Rosoboronexport. [Other private companies are also] really reaching out to foreign buyers and so far they have had some good returns.

“This also applies to Latin America and Africa,” he concluded, “because a lot of the contracts that have been signed recently could have originated up to five years ago. There is a focus on countries that could buy some of the older models of Russian systems in bulk—those that can be [incorporated] into the militaries of less wealthy nations.”

Nevertheless, the timing and nature of the statements by high-ranking Russian officials suggests that they may also be intended for domestic consumption, amid a growing realization that Moscow may not easily be able to extricate itself from the Syrian quagmire.

“This sounds like propaganda as six hundred weapons is very high,” Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Russia and an expert on its Middle East foreign policy, explained to The Media Line.

In this respect, it is noteworthy that Moscow last week deployed to Syria two fifth-generation Su-57 stealth fighters, Russia’s answer to the US’ F-22 Raptor and F-35. That the jets are non-operational, however, supports the notion that their transfer abroad is at least partially a “show” mimicking strength.

“They are stuck over there and that is why they need excuses,” Magen expounded. “The Russians need to finish this war and they have not been able to arrive at an agreement to end it. Instead,” he continued, “Moscow declared victory [prematurely] and Putin visited Syria. But since then there have been battles and the Russians have suffered casualties. This leads to domestic pressure.”

Indeed Moscow’s beating of the military drums come on the heels of a major clash between Russian “contractors” and US forces on February 7, in which up to 300 mercenaries—employed by the shadowy Wagner PMC (Private Military Company) whose owner is a Putin associate—were killed or injured by American airstrikes and artillery fire during a failed attack on a Kurdish-controlled base in the Deir ez-Zor region.

While Russia publicly denied any involvement in the incident, it is well-known that Moscow has agreed to the deployment to Syria of as many as 2,500 for-hire fighters in order to avoid casualties among its official troops. As such, the Kremlin at the very least has a public relations problem back home, especially given its less-than-satisfactory explanation of the event which was described by US Defense Secretary James Mattis as “perplexing.”

Redirecting the focus to supposed successes in Syria—by hyping its military achievements, real or imagined—might therefore constitute a concerted effort to downplay the loss of its citizens while appealing to a largely nationalistic Russian populace. This, in turn, ties into the second possible explanation for the seemingly coordinated comments; namely, that they come just weeks ahead of the Russian presidential election and it may be that Putin is fending off legitimate criticism of Russia’s entanglement in Syria by rallying the support of his patriotic, if not militaristic, voter base.

The revelations that Russia is effectively using Syria as a testing ground for military hardware also raises moral questions, especially as they come on the background of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Eastern Ghouta.

More than 500 locals have been killed and some 2,500 others wounded over the past week, as Syrian forces allied with Moscow pounded the rebel-held area from the air and ground in the one of the fiercest offensives in the seven-years-long war. An estimated 400,000 civilians remain trapped in area, with rights groups warning of a major humanitarian catastrophe unless aid is allowed to reach the enclave.

Moscow’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad has once again brought into stark focus its paramount role in prolonging the war, to the detriment of an already devastated civilian population. That Russian leaders are concurrently trumpeting Moscow’s advancement of its military-industrial complex by using Syria as a “guinea pig” sheds light on their underlying intentions and priorities.