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Pentagon leaks: Five revelations concerning the Middle East

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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi on 24 October 2019 (AFP)

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A cache of classified Pentagon documents that were leaked online in recent weeks have revealed US intelligence gathering on key partners and adversaries in the Middle East.

Some of the documents, which US officials say are authentic, provide key details about the war in Ukraine and America’s penetration of Russian military plans.

Others expose the extent of US eavesdropping on key allies, including fellow Nato member Turkey as well as EgyptIsrael and the United Arab Emirates.

According to the investigative website Bellingcat, the documents appear to have first emerged in photos posted on Discord, an online social media platform that is popular with gamers.

The documents bear classified markings, with some labelled “top secret”, the highest level of classification. Some also contain the marking Noforn, or “Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals,” meaning they cannot be shared with foreign intelligence agencies.

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Some of the conversations that were revealed were conducted by foreign leaders as recently as February, while others give up-to-date analysis of key international events in almost real time.

One of the documents claims that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s planned to secretly supply Russia with rockets.

 

In February, Sisi ordered the production of up to 40,000 rockets, instructing his officials to keep the plan secret “to avoid problems with the West”, according to one of the documents.

Dated 17 February, the document summarised alleged conversations between Sisi and senior Egyptian military officials that referenced plans to supply Russia with artillery rounds and gunpowder, in addition to rockets, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday.

Middle East Eye has not seen the document cited by the Post and is unable to confirm its authenticity.

An Egyptian source speaking to the state-run Al-Qahera News channel on condition of anonymity called the report “baseless and unfounded”.

Egypt to ‘repay’ Russia

 

A US government official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, did not deny the intelligence but told the Post that Washington was “not aware of any execution of that plan”.

Still, the allegation that Egypt even considered arming Russia is likely to incense the US. Cairo is one of Washington’s oldest partners in the Middle East and receives about $1.3bn in annual military aid.

Ties between the two have frayed in recent years, and in September the Biden administration announced it was withholding $130m in aid over human rights issues.

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Human Rights Watch has repeatedly accused Sisi of overseeing a violent crackdown on opponents. Under the former general, Egypt has become the world’s third worst jailer of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

 

Egypt has chaffed at Washington’s criticism and has turned to Russia, along with China, to diversify its partners.

 

Like its Arab neighbours, Egypt has refused to support western sanctions against Russia, whose state-owned nuclear company Rosatom is building a power plant in Egypt. The two have also cooperated in regional hotspots like Libya.

Meanwhile, amid surging inflation and a cost of living crisis, Egypt has doubled down on Russia for vital wheat imports.

The leaked report is particularly embarrassing for Washington because it contains an exchange between Sisi and his minister of state for military production, who says he would ramp up activities at Egypt’s military factories to fill Russia’s request, even if it meant “shift work” because “it was the least Egypt could do to repay Russia for unspecified help earlier”.

In March, the Wall Street Journal reported that US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin asked Egypt to dig into its supplies of Soviet-era weaponry to provide Ukraine with artillery ammunition but didn’t receive a commitment.

Russian spies in Dubai

The UAE is another close US partner whose coziness to Russia has been spotlighted by the leaks.

In a separate document viewed by the Associated Press, Russian spies were allegedly overheard bragging that they convinced the UAE “to work together against US and UK intelligence agencies”.

The report cites signals intelligence claiming that FSB officials had enticed UAE security service officials to deepen their parternship. The FSB is the successor to the Soviet-era KGB spy agency.

“The UAE probably views engagement with Russian intelligence as an opportunity to strengthen growing ties between Abu Dhabi and Moscow and diversify intelligence partnerships amid concerns of US disengagement from the region,” the document said, according to the AP.

An Emirati official told CNN in a statement on Tuesday that “any purported claims referenced in the Associated Press regarding the FSB enquiries are categorically false”.

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But the report comes amid signs of strain between Washington and Abu Dhabi.

In March, a US Treasury official, assistant secretary Elizabeth Rosenberg, said in pointed public remarks that the UAE was “a country of focus” as Washington looked to choke Russia’s ties to the global economy.

She added that the UAE had exported semiconductor devices between June and November 2022 that could have dual-use military technology to Russia.

As recently as December, the UAE was still exporting drones to Russia, according to Russian government data analysed by the Washington DC-based Free Russia Foundation.

The UAE has enjoyed a windfall in energy revenue amid the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, glitzy Dubai has thrived as a neutral business hub.

 

Dubai became the world’s fourth most active luxury property market behind New York, Los Angeles, and London this year – thanks to a surge in interest from Russians who have become Dubai’s biggest real estate buyers.

Besides welcoming Kremlin-linked oligarchs, Dubai is also benefiting from an influx of Russian tech workers, many of whom are looking to avoid the repercussions of Vladimir Putin’s war.

Under pressure from the US,  the UAE cancelled a licence it had issued to Russia’s MTS Bank in March, citing “sanctions risks” associated with the lender.

The UAE’s rare move to grant MTS a licence was viewed as an indication of Russians’ growing economic clout in the Emirates, but caught the eyes of officials in Washington who say Russia has turned to smaller banks like MTS and wealth-management firms in an attempt to evade western sanctions.

Wagner in Turkey

Another document reported by The New York Times says that representatives of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group met with “Turkish contacts” to explore weapons purchases that would use Mali’s military-led government as a transit destination.

According to the leaked document seen by the newspaper, Wagner emissaries travelled secretly to Turkey – a Nato member state – in February as part of an effort to procure arms and equipment for fighters in Ukraine.

The document further stated that the West African country of Mali could serve as a proxy to acquire the Turkish weapons on the mercenary group’s behalf.

The reported documents do not mention whether a deal went through or whether the Turkish government was aware of the situation. MEE reached out to the Turkish embassy in Washington for comment.

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CIA director William Burns met with Russia’s spy chief in the Turkish capital last year to discuss nuclear weapons and US prisoners held in Russian jails.

This is also not the first time Wagner has looked to Turkey to try and boost its operations.

In October, MEE reported that the mercenary group was seeking to replenish its forces by recruiting fighters from Turkey, in addition to countries like Serbia, Czechia, Poland, Hungary, and Moldova by offering high salaries.

Although a Nato member, Turkey has staked out an independent position on Ukraine. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has supplied armed drones to Kyiv and positioned itself as a mediator to the conflict by helping broker a UN-backed deal to unlock Black Sea grain.

But like other Middle Eastern leaders, Erdogan has not shied away from providing an economic lifeline to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The value of bilateral goods exchanged between Turkey and Russia has surged about 200 percent as the war rages, and Ankara has gorged on discounted Russian energy. Meanwhile, Turkey’s battered economy has benefitted from an influx of Russian ex-pats looking to escape sanctions and the wider repercussions of the Ukraine war.

Turkey has come under pressure from its western partners to curtail economic ties with Moscow. In March, MEE reported that Turkish companies had stopped providing services to western-made aircraft owned by Russian airlines, after warnings from US officials.

Wagner gained notoriety for its role in conflicts such as Libya and Syria, but the group was long shrouded in mystery. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, Wagner has gone public. Its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Putin, went from denying the group’s very existence to publicly trumpeting it as Russia’s most effective fighting force.

Israel ‘lethal’ arms

In addition to the Wagner Group, the leaked documents provide insight into US thinking on Israel’s position on the war in Ukraine.

A Pentagon document titled, “Israel: Pathways to Providing Lethal Aid to Ukraine,” predicts that Israel could provide arms to Ukraine under increased US pressure or a “perceived degradation” in its ties with Russia.

Washington’s closest Middle Eastern ally has condemned Russia’s invasion and provided Ukraine with humanitarian aid, but has rebuffed pleas from Kyiv for military support.

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Israeli officials say publicly that they do not want to sour relations with Moscow over concerns that it could impact their ability to conduct military operations in Syria, where Russia maintains troops and air defence systems. Israel frequently targets Iranian forces and proxies in Syria.

Last year, Michael Herzog, Israel’s ambassador to the US, said that Russia could use its military assets in Syria to “disrupt” Israel’s air campaign.

US officials said the “most plausible” scenario for Israel to adopt would be the “Turkish model”, where it provides lethal aid to Ukraine through third parties while positioning itself as a mediator in the conflict.

A different scenario could see Israel step up aid in light of Russia’s growing military cooperation with Iran. The leaked documents say it would require Moscow transferring strategic systems to Iran that could expand its missile or nuclear programmes.

Another situation could see the US leverage a more forceful posture against Iran to win Israeli support, or Russia causing a rupture in ties by downing Israeli aircraft in Syria.

Mossad backed Israel’s protests

Another set of leaked documents allege that Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, secretly encouraged people to join protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul.

The documents state that Mossad’s leadership had “advocated for Mossad officials and Israeli citizens to protest the new Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms including several explicit calls to action that decried the Israeli government”.

The intelligence memo came from signals intelligence – meaning the US spied on its closest ally in the region.

Netanyahu’s office on Sunday condemned the reports on behalf of Mossad and described them as “mendacious and without any foundation whatsoever.”

“The Mossad and its senior officials did not – and do not – encourage agency personnel to join the demonstrations against the government, political demonstrations or any political activity,” the statement read.

The disclosure of these documents comes after pro-government Israelis accused the US of secretly orchestrating the protests against Netanyahu and supporting them.

Israel has been rocked by weeks-long protests and strikes since January against the judicial overhaul plan, which critics say will weaken the Supreme Court and remove checks on parliament.

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