After Russia plane crash, airline passengers need answers

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: Russia, Egypt, the United States and Britain have much at stake with the cause of the crash
  • She says the ramifications of the disaster in the Egyptian desert are just beginning

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Last weekend, on the day I was flying to the Middle East, I woke up to news that a Russian plane had crashed in Egypt. During my flight I stared at the map showing Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and the tiny icon of our plane steering clear of Egypt and of battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq.

A few days later, waiting for a different flight at an airport in an Arab country, news arrived that a bomb may have blown up that Russian airplane. In silence, my fellow passengers and I kept our eyes glued to the news as we stepped aboard.
The crash of Metrojet Flight 9268 from Egypt's resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh is a tragedy for the victims and their families, but it has implications for all of us -- the flying public and a number of powerful governments. We should keep that in mind as we listen to official and off-the-record sources while the investigation unfolds.
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    When British Prime Minister David Cameron said the plane was "more likely than not" brought down by an onboard bomb and President Barack Obama said "it's certainly possible" that the so-called Islamic State put the bomb in the plane, the governments of Egypt and Russia testily rejected the conclusion, saying it's much too early to make a final judgment. After all, the governments of Egypt, Russia, the United States and Britain will each face a different political impact depending on the outcome of the investigation.
    As passengers, we have our own agenda: Above all, we want safety. We want an investigation that gets at the truth and is followed by reasonable measures that are more than security theater; measures that work.
    For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the stakes are enormous. He reportedly had a tense exchange with Cameron after Britain decided to suspend flights to Sharm el-Sheikh and start evacuating some 20,000 of its citizens vacationing there. And yet, only a few hours later, on the advice of his intelligence chief, Putin stopped all Russian passenger flights to Egypt.
    For Putin, the incident is placing his controversial Syria policy under a hot spotlight. Even if an investigation ultimately finds a mechanical failure caused the crash, the mere speculation about ISIS involvement raises a difficult question: Has Russia's intervention in the Syrian war made Russians more vulnerable to a terrorist attack?
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    What would the Russian public believe if it turns out to have been, say, a bomb: that an ISIS terrorist attack against Russia proves Putin was right to get involved in Syria, or that he provoked the Islamic State to target the Russian flight? In the coming days, Putin will likely go out of his way to make the case for the former over the latter.
    As he does, the British and the Americans will underscore the fact that Russia's bombers in Syria have barely targeted ISIS, focusing instead on other groups fighting Bashar al-Assad. The United States and Britain would like to see Moscow turn its guns -- and not just its rhetoric -- against ISIS. And this disaster may accomplish that.
    Putin has built his strongman reputation as a merciless foe of terrorism and protector of the Russian people. He needs to safeguard that image.
    For Egypt, the crash -- unless caused by poor maintenance that can be blamed on the airline -- represents an economic body blow. An official at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport suggested the British purposely claimed the crash was terrorism, because "they want to hurt tourism and cause confusion." Conspiracy theories abound in the region, but the threat to the Egyptian economy is not imaginary.
    Egypt's economy has been struggling because of political instability. Tourism is crucial to a recovery. And President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, like Putin, needs to preserve his image as a tough and competent leader. He came to power after deposing the unpopular Muslim Brotherhood, which had won power in the wake of the Arab Spring. He has launched a merciless battle against the group and has seen a vicious insurgency emerge in Sinai.
    Those insurgents have branded themselves part of ISIS. Wilayat al-Sinai, the group's affiliate in the region, has grown into one of the most dangerous ISIS franchises. Sisi will now have even more of an impetus to fight them, but if he is seen as ineffectual, and if the economy takes an even harsher beating, it could weaken him.
    For President Obama, news that we may have just experienced the worst terrorist attack on a commercial airliner since September 11, 2001, is cause for political concern. Obama, the president who declared an end to his predecessor's "war on terror," has boasted of degrading al Qaeda to near extinction. For the flying public, however, it makes little difference what name the jihadi group takes if they again have to fear boarding an airplane.
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    Obama would like to end his presidency without a major military operation in Syria. That is becoming increasingly difficult. If ISIS, which has emerged as the foremost terrorist group under Obama's watch, has expanded from a player in the Syrian civil war to a new nemesis for global travel, pressure on Obama to act more forcefully will only grow.
    Obama was elected in 2008 as the candidate who would end U.S. involvement in Mideast wars. But his cautious stance has created intense frustration, even inside the Pentagon, as the war rages on, Russia becomes involved and epic refugee flows reach Europe.
    The ripples from the crash are already gliding across the globe. In the wake of the Sinai plane tragedy, the British defense secretary declared it "morally indefensible" that Britain has not joined airstrikes against ISIS. Security experts are preparing new plans that will become part of every traveler's flying ordeal.
    Ultimately, and despite the competing political and strategic agendas, the truth about what brought down Flight 9268 is likely to come out.
    While Russian families grieve, investigators sift through the rubble and international passengers nervously board planes, the ramifications of the disaster in the Egyptian desert are just beginning.