By K. P. Fabian*
Apart from the horrible loss of innocent lives, the crash of a Russian aircraft carrying tourists returning from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on October 31, 2015, killing all 224 on board, has wide ranging political consequences and implications, directly impinging on the mindless and seemingly endless carnage in Syria.
Within hours of the crash, the Sinai Province of the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility categorically stating that it had brought down the plane “in response to Russian airstrikes that killed hundreds of Muslims on Syrian land.” This claim of responsibility was discredited in the Western media with “experts” pointing out that the IS had no such missile which could hit a plane at 30,000 feet. They did not want to think of any other way the IS could have brought down the plane. The experts changed their view only after the flight recorder showed that the last recording was of a big sound, similar to that of an explosion.
The United States (US) might have, not entirely unpardonably, derived some well-concealed malicious pleasure from the crash. It was the first to share with the United Kingdom (UK) two pertinent intelligence findings. One, there was a big heat flash in the sky before the plane split and came crashing down. Two, there was “chatter” among the IS operatives just before and after the crash. Further, two or three days before the crash, they had told each other to expect ‘something big to happen.’ The obvious conclusion was that there was a bomb inside the plane that went off.
Though Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi was due to land in London for a state visit within hours, the UK announced on November 05 the suspension of flights to Sharm el-Sheikh adding that special planes with security equipment and staff would be sent to evacuate the 20,000 and odd UK tourists at the Egyptian resort. The clear message was that Egyptian security arrangements at the airport are unreliable. Egypt responded angrily describing the UK’s decision as “premature” and delayed giving permission for the flights.
Russia also initially sided with Egypt by arguing that it was too early to come to any conclusions about the exact cause of the crash. But soon it had to change course and suspend all flights to Egypt. There are about 80,000 Russians currently holidaying in Egypt. Incidentally, Russia took the decision only after the US and UK shared intelligence with it. Both had agreed to share the intelligence only after Russia publicly complained and asked for it. The latest is that Russia has requested the US agency Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to help with the investigation. It is a positive development that the US is slowly coming round to the view that Russia cannot be kept out in the cold if its cooperation is needed to resolve issues.
The investigation into the crash is being conducted by a team of officials from Egypt, Russia, France, Ireland, and Germany. Egypt alone is authorised to make public statements on the findings as it is the lead investigator. However, Egypt has been rather reticent even after examining the flight recorder. Meanwhile, French officials involved with the investigation as the aircraft was manufactured in France gave out that the flight recorder clearly showed that the flight was normal for the first 23 minutes, till a sudden explosion was heard leading to the conclusion that there was a bomb in the cargo hold of the plane. Egypt has admitted that there was a big noise, but argues still that nothing more can be said till the investigation is completed.
Exactly sixteen years ago, again on October 31, Egypt Air Flight 990 from Los Angeles to Cairo had crashed into the Atlantic. The investigation showed that the co-pilot under investigation for sexual offences had deliberately brought down the plane as the senior manager of the airliner who had told him that he would not be permitted to fly into the US again was on the plane. Egypt adamantly refused to accept the finding and persisted that there was a mechanical failure. We do not know how long Egypt will take before coming out with the findings in this case. But, we do know that Egyptian security is vigorously searching for the IS mole, if any, working at the airport. It is reported that some of the closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras were not functioning the day the ill-fated plane took off.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, this crash is a serious setback. He had justified his bombing campaign in Syria, starting from September 30, stating that it is better to take on and kill the terrorists in Syria itself rather than wait till they carried out operations in Russia. He did not have much popular support when he ordered the bombing campaign. According to reasonably reliable reports, three Russians have been killed in Syria so far. Will domestic support for the bombing be eroded because of the crash? Not unlikely. The Egyptian Red Sea resorts at about $100 a day, all inclusive with flight, are very popular among not so affluent Russians. However, it remains to be seen how long Russia can go on bombing unless there are clear gains for Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria in terms of regaining the lost territory. For now, the question is if the IS has done it once, how can it be prevented from doing it again?
Egypt is clearly in a difficult situation. Tourism is crucial for generating employment and foreign exchange. How long will it take for Egyptian tourism, already ailing after President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in 2013, to recover from this blow? This is all the more regrettable as Egypt has so much to offer to the travellers and the tourists. Even foreign investment in Egypt might be affected adversely if it remains unsafe to go there.
A more serious question poses itself: How will the Egyptian Government respond to the tragedy? Egypt has repeatedly declared that it has full control over the Sinai, though not many seem to be convinced about it. Since 2011, the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) or the “Supporters of Jerusalem” has been carrying out attacks in Sinai against Egyptian security forces. After the democratically-elected government of President Morsi was overthrown in 2013, the attacks became more frequent and more lethal.
The key question is whether the rather harsh measures taken by the Sisi Government against its adversaries, including the Muslim Brotherhood and ABM, will deliver the intended result of making Egypt more peaceful leading to more jobs and an inclusive growth. The participation of voters in the first phase of the parliamentary election held recently was disappointingly low at 26 per cent.
In conclusion, as far as Egypt is concerned, it is unlikely that President Sisi will undertake a serious introspection about the political viability of using violence at the command of the state to repress political dissent and adopt the correct course-correction measures. But, in politics, nothing is impossible.
As regards Syria, the air crash might prod the US and its allies to seek a political accommodation with Russia on Syria, and a grand coalition might emerge against the IS. But, even such a coalition will take long to dismantle the IS through military and other means, assuming it were doable.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://idsa.in/idsacomments/crash-of-metrojet-9268-insinai_kpfabian_131115