Geopolitics clouding cause of crash in Egypt

Egyptian soldiers approach the wreckage of a passenger jet bound for St. Petersburg, Russia, that crashed Sunday in Hassana, Egypt.
Egyptian soldiers approach the wreckage of a passenger jet bound for St. Petersburg, Russia, that crashed Sunday in Hassana, Egypt. Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations via AP

Whether or not terrorists brought down the Airbus that crashed in Egypt on Saturday, Britain is right to halt flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, the airport from which the plane took off, and the rest of the world should do the same.

At this point, there is no way to conclude definitively what caused the worst crash in Russian aviation history, which killed 224 people. An Egyptian-Russian investigation is still to be completed. And political interests shaped by the war in Syria make it hard to know whom to trust, when the U.S. and U.K. say they already have reason to believe a bomb blew the plane up.

The known facts and most significant leaks in the case are as follows.

The 18-year-old Airbus A-321 had a long history in the Middle East, including Syria, before the small Russian charter airline Kogalymavia, also known by its brand name MetroJet, acquired in 2009. In 2001, it developed cracks in its fuselage after a hard landing in Egypt. Airbus conducted extensive repairs. The Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti reported last week, citing an anonymous source, that the plane’s crew had complained about difficulties in starting one of the engines. Pilot Sergei Trukhachev’s ex-wife has also been quoted as saying he’d complained about the aircraft’s technical condition.

Even so, the pilots apparently didn’t tell air traffic control of any technical problems in-flight before the A-321 suddenly lost speed and crashed to the ground 23 minutes after take-off.

Soon after the crash, investigators established that the plane had fallen apart in the air. The Russian news site LifeNews got its hands on a forensic report that said the passengers at the front of the plane had died from mechanical traumas and ensuing blood loss, but those at the back had been badly burned in an apparent explosion. It wasn’t clear what had exploded, though, or why; the cause might have been a bomb, a missile, or a malfunctioning engine.

That’s the extent of what is known. The rest has been a story of leaks and conflicting statements in which no party is credible, because their self-interest is plain to see.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the crash on the day it occurred, circulating a statement on Twitter and putting it on its semi-official website. A follow-up statement from Wilayat Sinai, Islamic State’s Egyptian affiliate, appeared on Wednesday repeating the earlier claim and daring investigators to disprove it. But Islamic State is motivated to have the world believe that Russian holidaymakers just suffered painful retribution for President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Syria.

In the geopolitical mess that is the Syrian war, the U.S. and its allies also have an interest in pushing the terror attack theory. Gains by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would undermine Western hopes of a political settlement that would exclude Assad, and although the regime’s army has been slow to show results from increased Russian and Iranian support, it has started to win back lost territory.

If demonstrating a high cost of intervention can damp Russian zeal for supporting Assad, that would be a good outcome for the U.S.

The U.S. has not officially called the A-321 crash a terror attack, but leaks from intelligence sources have suggested someone at Sharm El-Sheikh airport may have planted an explosive device on the plane.

U.K. authorities have gone furthest in advancing the terror attack version. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond spoke of a “significant possibility” that the Russian plane could have blown up. Prime Minister David Cameron said on Thursday it was “more likely than not.” Flights between Sharm el-Sheikh and the U.K. have been canceled, as if to underscore the seriousness of the assumption.

This is not something the Egyptians want to hear. President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is keen to prove to the world that his country is a safe tourist destination: Tourism contributes more than 12 percent of the country’s economic output. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry called the U.K. reaction “premature and unwarranted,” although the Sharm airport manager has been sacked and the Egyptian authorities are reviewing security procedures there.

Coincidentally, El-Sisi, who has said the investigation of the crash “could take months,” is in London for talks with Cameron. The dispute over Sharm el-Sheikh is likely to overshadow any other issues they talk about, which may be welcome for Cameron: He has been under attack for rolling out the welcome mat for El-Sisi, due to the Egyptian leader’s terrible human rights record.

The Kremlin’s official position is that no theory is ruled out. Less officially, Putin’s supporters have been grumbling about the Western reaction.

“There is geopolitical resistance to Russia’s actions in Syria,” Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign policy committee in the Russian parliament’s upper house, said on Thursday. “There are plenty of those in the world who would prefer to write off this crash to a jihadi response to Russia’s actions.”

Moscow has motives of its own to recognize a terror attack only after everyone else does. One is that Putin is eager to avoid casualties in the Syrian operation, military or civilian. Ordinary Russians are concerned that it might turn into a version of the Soviet Union’s painful and unsuccessful war in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. The other is that Putin, eager for more allies in the Middle East, has been building ties with El- Sisi. Joining a Western chorus blaming lax Egyptian security for the death of more than 200 tourists would damage that effort.

Despite the Kremlin’s queasiness at the thought of casualties, anyone who hopes a finding that terrorists caused Saturday’s crash would undermine Putin’s resolve in Syria is probably wrong. He persevered in quashing an Islamist secession movement in Chechnya despite repeated terror attacks, including in Moscow.

Indeed, if the crash proves to be the result of an Islamic State bomb, that might as easily provide an opening for Putin’s domestic propaganda machine to whip up support for more aggressive action in Syria. Most of the tourists who come from the crash come from Putin’s native city, St. Petersburg. The president could be extremely convincing in calling for a decisive strike against Islamic State.

In one important sense, though, this miasma of political interests is irrelevant: The U.K. reaction is the right one. Middle Eastern airports where security concerns exist should be avoided while the war in Syria continues – and Sharm el-Sheikh was known for its lax security. Seaside vacations in Egypt may be cheap and memorable, but further incidents must be prevented. Russia would do well to halt flights to the area, too.

Indeed, airlines should consider whether it is safe to overfly Egypt’s Sinai province at all. Terrorist fighters there aren’t believed to have the kind of sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles needed to shoot down the MetroJet Airbus, but wars and civilian flights don’t mix. The lesson of the Malaysian airliner shot down over eastern Ukraine last year should be clear by now.

Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.