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Russia and Egypt Move Toward Deal on Air Bases

Russia has been pushing to expand its influence in the Middle East, which had diminished with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and the expansion of America’s military presence.

Most prominently, Russia has carried out an aggressive air campaign in Syria that has fortified the rule of President Bashar al-Assad against the militant Islamists and American-backed rebels challenging him, cementing his position as a client of Moscow.

At the same time, the United States has reduced its support for Syrian rebels, backed off its onetime goal of removing Mr. Assad from power and taken a back seat to Moscow in the Syrian peace process.

The diminished role in Syria coincides with a stark reduction in America’s diplomatic force at the State Department. More than 100 senior Foreign Service officers have left the State Department since January, and critical diplomatic posts remain open. In the Middle East, for example, the Trump administration has no assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs or ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt or Qatar.

In the conflict with North Korea, considered by many to be the greatest immediate threat to the United States, the administration has yet to nominate an assistant secretary of state for East Asia or an ambassador to South Korea.

Separate events on Thursday demonstrated how rapidly America’s foreign relationships can shift, even among close allies. As Moscow extended military ties with Cairo, in Britain Prime Minister Theresa May rebuked Mr. Trump for retweeting inflammatory videos from a British far-right group and pressure mounted on her government to cancel his invitation for a state visit.

Many of Russia’s moves have dovetailed with the priorities of Mr. Sisi’s government.

Egypt under Mr. Sisi, a former general who took power in the military ouster of an Islamist president in 2013, has also sometimes shown sympathy for Mr. Assad as a fellow strongman defending the status quo and fighting political Islam. Cairo’s position toward Syria has even put it in rare disagreement with its Persian Gulf patrons, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which view the fight against the Assad government as a proxy war against their biggest regional ally, Iran.

In Libya, both Cairo and Moscow have backed the forces of Gen. Khalifa Hifter in his ongoing battle for control of the country. That has put Egypt at odds with the United States and other Western powers, which have backed a unity government in an attempt to end the fighting.

General Hifter has sometimes appeared to model himself after Mr. Sisi, battling militant Islamists for control of the city of Benghazi and portraying his conflicts with the unity government as part of his fight against political Islam.

Mr. Sisi has also sought to cultivate closer direct ties to Russia and the Russian military as a partial hedge against the dependence of Egypt’s military on American aid, equipment and maintenance.

Former President Barack Obama temporarily suspended United States military aid to Egypt after Mr. Sisi’s government killed more than a thousand opponents in a series of mass shootings in the summer of 2013. Mr. Sisi responded by upgrading cooperation with Moscow. In the process, he has revived ties that ended when President Anwar Sadat shifted Egypt’s allegiance to Washington almost 40 years ago.

Source: NYT > World

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