It is now generally accepted that the Russian commercial airliner that crashed in the Sinai fell victim to a terrorist attack through the introduction of a bomb into the cargo hold, presumably hidden in a crate or container and labelled as containing as some harmless product. Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility and there is no reason not to believe it.
IS has spread its presence across the Middle East and North and sub-Saharan Africa, far from its territorial base in Iraq and Syria. Its militants in the Sinai, now in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, have declared the “Sinai vilayet [province] of the Caliphate” and have begun to consolidate the heretofore heterogeneous and scattered jihadist groups in the peninsula. Thus far, despite a significant military and police presence, the Egyptian government has been unable to re-establish its authority.
What is the broader significance of the success of this terrorist act? In the first place, it will seriously affect Egyptian tourism, one of the mainstays of the Egyptian economy. Egypt is in a parlous economic condition and heavily dependent on subsidies from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which are themselves negatively affected by the fall in oil prices and thus presumably will not be able to support Egypt financially forever.
It is also a blow to Russian prestige, at a time when Putin is in a campaign to increase Russian presence and influence in the eastern Mediterranean, with massive intervention in the Syrian civil war through its naval and air bases in the Syrian coastal area and air strikes and limited ground operations directed against rebel groups opposed to the Assad regime, and in a more limited way, against IS as well. In these efforts, Russia is in an informal alliance with Iran, which is now actively introducing ground troops into Iraq and Syria.
Both Russia and Iran have been negatively affected by Western sanctions and more particularly by the precipitous drop in oil prices. Iran can look forward to an injection of cash through the release of funds frozen in the US under the terms of the six-power-Iran deal signed in July, but Russia has no such prospect and is burning through its reserves at a rapid rate to cover growing budget deficits and a costly rearmament campaign.
This witch’s brew of forces, operations, plans and projects may lead to consequences which we can speculate about by putting ourselves in the place of the actors involved; in this case IS, Russia and Iran. IS’s success in Sinai may well lead to a terrorist attack on the Suez Canal, the other mainstay of the Egyptian economy, recently enlarged at great expense. If successful, such an attack would be a deathblow to the al-Sisi government, likely resulting in the reestablishment of a Muslim Brotherhood regime, such as the one he overthrew, a very serious setback for Israel’s position on its southern borders. It would also result in sea-borne cargo between Europe and Asia having to go around the Cape of Good Hope instead of through the canal, since even if the obstruction caused by the attack was cleared up quickly, marine insurance rates for cargo vessels using the canal would skyrocket. This, in turn, would result in higher costs for shippers, which would be passed on to producers and consumers.
Both Russia and Iran, as mentioned, are in a serious economic plight as a result of the collapse in the international price of oil. That, in turn, is partially due to the fact that Saudi Arabia has resolutely refused to limit production in order to reverse the decline in the oil price, thus infuriating both newly-aligned countries. Most of the Saudi production is centered in its eastern province bordering on the Gulf, which also happens to be an area dominated by Shiites, who periodically demonstrate against alleged Saudi government discrimination against them. Recently, a series of events has seriously worsened Saudi-Iranian relations, which in any case have been strained. A Shiite uprising supported by Iran and Russia against the Saudi government, the armed forces of which are heavily engaged battling the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, and involving the sabotaging of oil wells and related installations, would immediately cause the price of oil to skyrocket and might even cause the collapse of the Saudi regime.
Even if that did not happen, and the rebellion was eventually put down, the price of oil would remain much higher for a long time, until the oil installations were repaired. Iran and Russia would find their economic and financial situations vastly improved. Conversely, such a development would negatively affect the already weak economies of the oil-importing countries of Europe and Asia.
The position of Israel in the region would be negatively affected by both developments, since it would have to deal with a higher oil import bill and a potentially hostile government in Egypt. Serious thought should be given to offering military cooperation to the al-Sisi government, perhaps in coordinated air attacks on IS strongholds, beyond the intelligence-sharing that already takes place.
This piece originally appeared in Globes.