Is the airline crash a golden opportunity for Russia?
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The funny thing is — and this is dark, dark humor — Russian President Vladimir Putin's fake war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) came true. He sent troops to Syria in the name of fighting ISIS, but it was a lie. They fought the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham, Suquor al-Sham and other rebels who might possibly pose a Western alternative to Syria President Bashar Assad. But ISIS didn't know that. ISIS thought Putin was totally serious, took appropriate action, and now the war is real.

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Egyptian investigators have now said they are 90 percent sure that a bomb destroyed Russia's Metrojet Flight 9268 over Sinai last weekend, and ISIS has claimed responsibility. If so, those deaths touch on one of Putin's vulnerable spots. Russians have not yet tasted the cost of Putin's nationalism, or at least not since the height of Chechen terrorist attacks from 2002 to 2004. He has, for example, taken pains to hide casualties from Ukraine, and called his troops in Donbass "volunteers."

It could be that this is the soft underbelly of the Putin regime: that, faced with appalling civilian casualties, Putin will see his popularity fall just as fast as it has risen. We don't know how much dictators care about public opinion. They face no real elections, true; but as a result, their only support is the mob. Dictators don't usually suffer disaster very well: see Farouk, King, and Nasser, Gamal.

Putin must know he has to remain infallible, and there will thus surely be a violent reaction to Flight 9268. However, it probably won't be in Syria. Though he may strike a few targets around Raqqa, a war against ISIS in Syria still doesn't make strategic, airline bombing or no. If Russian and Iranian forces concentrate on destroying the moderate Arab rebels instead, the West will be left with the choice of Assad or ISIS, and it will accept Assad.

The Metrojet bombing could lead to a major opportunity for Russia in Egypt, however. Putin's priority should be to insert some sort of investigatory or advisory military mission into Egypt, to help the government with its war against ISIS in Sinai. In some ways, Russia is actually a more natural partner than America. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's main concern is internal stability in the face of liberals and Sunni radicals, which is also more or less Putin's concern. And Putin is far more enthusiastic about keeping domestic order than America is. He won't complain about the curlicues, no matter how handcuffed and electrified.

That rapprochement would be a disaster for the United States and its tottering regional order. A Russian security presence in Egypt — in whatever form — would be a crushing psychologically blow to Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia, with its control over oil prices, is the jackpot. In the modern era, the Saudis have relied on Sunni heavyweights like Egypt and Iraq to protect them against the Iranians. If Egypt does allow Russian troops on its soil, the Saudis may be more willing to give Putin what he wants in the short term: higher energy prices. With a higher price of oil, Russia could ignore U.S. sanctions, partially match U.S. aid to Egypt, rebuild its domestic economy and bind its coalition tighter.

What keeps Egypt in the American camp are dollars and the Iranians, though not together. The U.S. has traditionally given Egypt about $1.5 billion per year in foreign aid to help buy complaisance with the Camp David Accords. But Egypt has drifted away from the United States over the past several years, ever since Sisi knocked over former President Mohammed Morsi's Islamist regime in a coup and the U.S. cut off most aid in response. Though funding resumed earlier this year, it is now contingent on certain democratization benchmarks, which rankle the Egyptians. That money will be critical to keeping Sisi's government afloat, just as it was critical to Mubarak's. But since the U.S. has allowed Russian forces to operate freely in Syria, it may well continue the money even if Sisi allows them to operate freely in Egypt.

Egypt is also bound to America by fear of Iran. In Yemen, Sisi is actively organizing opposition to the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Here, Russia's forward presence works against it: Russia is the main sponsor of Iran, and Egypt has less reason to trust it than most. But since the nuclear deal is lifting sanctions on Iran, the U.S. has reduced its influence over Tehran nearly to zero and thus has removed itself its decades-long role as protector of the Sunni Gulf states. Nobody has any leverage on Iran any more, except — maybe – for the Russians. Sisi might as well find out what they're offering. 

And then, of course, there’s the small matter of ISIS, the Pinocchio war that became a real war. But despite the Metrojet bombing, ISIS is still not a strategic threat to Russia, since ISIS is primarily fighting its enemies. It may be a threat to Russian civilians, and Putin certainly has to do something symbolic and violent in response to Flight 9268. But he can also sense opportunity, even in the midst of disaster, and this could be both.

Peek was a strategic adviser to the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. His views are his own and do not represent any other person or organization. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewLPeek.