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memri
September 21, 2017 No.
1347

Egypt Draws Closer To Assad Regime: Openly Participates In Damascus International Fair, Brokers Ceasefire Agreements In Syria

In the recent weeks, there have been clear signs of further rapprochement between Egypt and the Syrian regime, headed by Bashar Al-Assad, although Egyptian officials repeatedly stress that Egypt is not taking sides in the Syrian crisis. Since Egyptian President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi came to power in 2014, Egypt has adopted a policy supportive of the Syrian regime, as reflected in statements by Al-Sisi himself, in visits by senior Syrian defense officials to Egypt, and in articles in the government press. There have also been unconfirmed reports that Egypt is extending military aid to the Syrian army.[1]

Today, Egypt is acting openly to tighten political, economic and cultural ties with the Syrian regime, as reflected in its sending a large delegation to the Damascus International Fair that took place on August 17-26, 2017. Egypt is also cooperating with Assad's ally Russia in efforts to establish de-escalation zones in Syria, and in efforts to expand the Syrian opposition delegation to the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, so that it will include, in addition to figures close to Saudi Arabia, also oppositionists close to Cairo and Moscow. The latter espouse more "moderate" views on the solution to the Syrian crisis and on Assad's future role, compared to the oppositionists supported by Saudi Arabia.

The rapprochement between the Egyptian and Syrian regimes has been welcomed by Egyptian politicians who have called for normalization of the relations between the two countries and for restoring Egypt's membership in the Arab League. It was also supported in many articles in the Egyptian government press, which claimed that Egypt is ideal to serve as mediator in the Syrian crisis, since it is acceptable to all the regional and international parties involved. Some articles expressed direct and explicit support for the Syrian army and for Bashar Al-Assad himself.

This warming of the relations between the Egyptian and Syrian regimes has not taken place in a vacuum. In recent months a significant change has occurred in the West's position on the Assad regime, manifested mainly in receptiveness to the possibility of his remaining in power and in a focus on fighting the Islamic State (ISIS). Egypt's support lends an Arab seal of approval to the Syrian regime, which this regime crucially needs and which can pave the way to its return to the Arab fold, from which it was excluded in 2011.

In a joint press conference in Jeddah with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Saudi Foreign Minister 'Adel Al-Jubeir said that his country welcomed the establishment of de-escalation zones in Syria.[2]  This statement lends credibility to the reports in the Arab press according to which the Egyptian brokering of the de-escalation agreements in the southern Ghouta and in Homs was carried out with the approval of and in coordination with Saudi Arabia, which heads the anti-Assad camp.[3]  Al-Jubeir's statement, and these reports, reflect a change in Saudi Arabia's position regarding the resolution of the Syria crisis and a shift towards the Egyptian and Russian position in this matter, following a long period of tension between Saudi Arabia and Egypt due to their disagreements on Syria. [4]  

This report reviews recent measures by the Egyptian regime to draw closer to the Assad regime, as well as articles supporting this in the Egyptian press.  


Egyptian Steps To Move Closer To Syria

Extensive Official Egyptian Participation In The Damascus International Fair; Acting Egyptian Ambassador To Syria: "We Hope To Take Part In Rebuilding Syria"

Egypt, which downgraded relations with Syria after the outbreak of the crisis there, and has since avoided drawing attention to official relations with the Syrian regime, sent a large delegation to the Damascus International Fair held on August 17-26, 2017. The delegation was headed by Ahmad Al-Wakil, head of the Egyptian Chamber of Commerce, and comprised representatives of ten companies from various branches including industrial engineering, the service sector, transportation, and solar energy, as well as artists and journalists.[5]

Egyptian Charge d'Affaires in Damascus Muhammad Tharwat and the delegation members stressed their support for the Syrian people and for the Syrian regime, and their desire for closer economic relations and Egyptian participation in the rehabilitation of Syria, the cost of which is estimated at $180 billion. In an interview with the Syrian government Al-Watan daily, Tharwat said, "Egypt's participation in this year's Damascus International Fair is natural given the character of the commercial relations between the two countries. We hope that this participation will play a part in restoring the economic relations between the two countries, and that we will play a part in the re-building [of Syria]." Tharwat stated that, throughout the Syria crisis, Egypt maintained its neutrality and "the Egyptian Embassy continued to operate and did not close following the decision of the Arab League, at the start of the crisis, to recall the ambassadors [from Syria]... [True,] we decided to downgrade relations to the level of charge d'affaires, [but] we are not the only country that did that."[6]

Delegation head Ahmad Al-Wakil said, "We have come to convey a message that we support the Syrian people and support the rebuilding and the return of peace to Syria... With Allah's help, our participation will be a new beginning of developing economic relations."[7]

The director of the Egyptian section at the fair, Khalid Ismail, said that the holding of the fair in the present circumstances is "a victory and achievement for Syria and its people."[8]


Egyptian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem meets with the Egyptian delegation to the Damascus International Fair (image: sana.sy, August 17, 2017)

Egyptian Mediation Towards A Ceasefire In Syria

In addition to its activity in the economic sphere, Egypt, with Russia's blessing and close cooperation, is working to position itself as a significant player in the efforts to find a solution to the Syrian crisis, and thereby to improve its standing in the Arab world.

In recent weeks, Egypt has successfully mediated talks in Cairo between representatives of the armed Syrian opposition and Russia with respect to de-escalation agreements in the Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, and in the rural area north of Homs.[9] According to several reports, the Syrian opposition was represented at the talks by Ahmad Jarba, head of Syria's Tomorrow Movement, who is considered to be close to Egypt and the UAE. Addressing the Egyptian mediation, Jarba said, "The choice of Egypt as the sponsor [of the talks]... was a natural and necessary result, since Egypt is not at odds with any faction that operates in the areas affected by the agreements and does not support any military side, which would be a sensitive point for other sides, and also thanks to its close and strong relationship with Russia." He added that, "Egypt... and its President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi have [consistently] regarded Syria with nothing but unshakeable faith... because Syria is an integral part of the history of Egypt... and of its national security... the [Tomorrow] Movement's only reservation about the negotiations in Astana [this year] was the total absence of an Arab role in them,[10] hence the importance of Egypt's presence as a supporter of the present negotiations..."[11]

Egypt is also seeking to change the composition of the opposition delegation to the talks with the Syrian regime in Geneva, so that it will include members of the opposition who are close to Egypt and Russia, and thus minimize the influence of the opposition that is supported by Saudi Arabia – which to date has adhered to its demand to remove Al-Assad from power – and to solve the crisis in such a way as to enable Al-Assad to remain.

At an August 21, 2017, joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shukri, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov referred to Russia's and Egypt's joint efforts to solve the Syrian crisis. Lavrov said that Russia and Egypt are working together to assemble a Syrian opposition delegation for the negotiations with the Syrian regime, and stressed the significant role played by Egypt in this context. For his part, Shukri emphasized that "[Egypt's] role with respect to the de-escalation zones is limited to the political framework and to preparing the appropriate groundwork for it from a political perspective, and it is illogical that it should expand to general participation in the field via supervision of these areas."[12]

At the same press conference Shukri called for all the international partners to work to cement the de-escalation agreements and to expand them to all areas of Syria, while emphasizing the need to renew negotiations under the auspices of the UN in Geneva so as to achieve a solution that will protect the future of Syria, its stability, and the integrity of its territory.[13]

Egypt's involvement in negotiating the de-escalation agreements, as well as its official participation in the Damascus International Fair, was welcomed by the Egyptian public and media, and calls were made to strengthen the ties between the two countries.

Political elements in Egypt, mostly Nasserist left wing elements, issued an announcement on August 9, 2017 in which they demanded the full reinstatement of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Syria and the restoring of Syria to the Arab League.[14] In addition, 104 public figures in Egypt, among them former government ministers, published a statement expressing solidarity with Syria and demanding the restoration of diplomatic relations with it. They also called for signing a joint defense agreement between the countries and the announcement of a joint Egyptian-Syrian fight against terror.[15]

Magdi Basyouni, editor of the Egyptian weekly Al-Arabi, which is identified with the Nasserists, called on the Egyptian public to support the speedy reinstatement of relations between Egypt and Syria.[16] Similar statements were made to the Syrian SANA news agency by Souha Al-Baghdadi, board deputy chair of the Egyptian magazine Sawt Al-Arab. [17]


Egyptian Journalists Express Support For Syrian Regime And Strengthening Of Egypt-Syria Relations

As mentioned, there were numerous articles in the government press supporting Egypt's moving closer to the Syrian regime and Egyptian involvement in a solution to the Syrian conflict. The writers clarified that Egypt could assume the role of mediator since its hands are clean of Syrian blood, and it is therefore acceptable to both the opposition and to the Syrian regime, as well as to Russia and the U.S.

Several articles expressed support for the Syrian army, for Bashar Al-Assad, and for Syria's return to the Arab League. One of the articles claimed that Egypt does not accept the Western position that Bashar Al-Assad is solely responsible for the use of chemical weapons.

Egyptian Analyst: Egyptian Mediation In Syria Is Accepted By All Regional Players, Except Iran

Writing in the government daily Al-Ahram, Ahmad Abu Douh, an Egyptian political analyst who lives in Lebanon, explained that Egypt is the optimal mediator for several reasons: it has no hidden agenda, it is acceptable to the superpowers as well as to the Syrian opposition, and it can lend Arab legitimacy to any agreement that will be reached.

"If you look at the map of the forces that hold the reins [in this crisis], you will find no-one who objects to Egypt playing the role of mediator, including Russia and the U.S. [Syria's oppositionist] Tomorrow Movement, headed by Ahmad Al-Jarba, is the link to the opposition factions, which today want to de-escalate [the crisis] more than Bashar Al-Assad wants this. [Apart from Egypt] there is no other regional force that the Syrian army can accept [as mediator]. Even Hizbullah has no problem with Egypt or with the option of its acting as mediator in certain areas where Iran has no strategic interests...

"Iran is the only element that is displeased with an Egyptian presence in Syria. The Iranians know that whenever Egypt gains ground in the conflict Iran loses ground...

"Egypt has no political or military stake in Syria. The Egyptian activity that can be seen above ground in Syria has no [hidden] underground roots... The international consensus regarding Egypt [as mediator] stems, in essence, from the lack of agreement regarding Iran and Turkey [as mediators]. The Russians want to curb Iran's expansion in order to keep Assad [in power], and the Americans want to curb Turkey's influence, to ensure the success of the strategy of fighting ISIS.

"All Egypt needs to do is wisely take advantage of the [opportunity] that has opened up... First of all, Egyptian officials should gain a toehold [in Syria] and take their time to consolidate it. Then they should act very slowly and quietly to realize their interest, whatever it is, without entering into confrontations with anyone."[18]

President Of Egypt's Journalists' Union Assesses: In Interim Stage Syria Will Have National Unity Government

Makram Muhammad Ahmad, president of Egypt's journalists' union and a columnist for the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, praised the performance of the Syrian army and stressed that Egypt is working to change Saudi Arabia's position on the Syria crisis. He assessed that during the interim stage Syria will be ruled by a national unity government incorporating opposition elements, an option that is acceptable to the Russians and to the Assad regime. He added that it is not yet clear what will happen to Assad following the interim stage, whether he will run for president or will "prefer to safely step down" from the political stage.

Ahmad wrote: "The Damascus International Fair... proves that life is returning to normal in the capital of Damascus, which is regaining its vitality and energy from day to day, while most areas in Syria are [likewise] regaining their security and stability. Most opposition forces are demonstrating their commitment to the ceasefire, and their leaders are convening in the Saudi capital of Riyadh to prepare for the interim stage that will be led by a national unity government incorporating the opposition. The interim stage will culminate in parliamentary and presidential elections during a long-term ceasefire that all sides will respect..."

"After the fighting abates in Al-Raqqa, Deir Al-Zor and Tel 'Afar, [the sites of] the last three battles against terror, and after all the opposition forces unite in Riyadh, the stage will be set for a new round of negotiations in Geneva, which everyone hopes will be the last and will yield an understanding between the Syrian regime and the opposition regarding the nature of the political solution to the crisis and the character of the interim stage. [This stage] will culminate in the drafting of a new constitution for the country and in parliamentary and presidential elections. We do not yet know if Bashar Al-Assad will be a candidate in these presidential elections or will prefer to safely step down before the elections..."

Ahmad stressed that "Egypt has not ceased its efforts to help the Syrian people in its present state of distress, whether by treating the Syrian refugees just like Egyptian citizens, without discrimination; by taking an active role in achieving the recent ceasefire agreement and de-escalating [the crisis], or through its in-depth dialogue with Riyadh aimed at [gaining] Saudi sympathy for the Syrian people..."

Ahmad also praised the Syrian army, "without whose steadfastness on the ground, a complete collapse would have occurred," and noted that "the Russian assistance by itself could not have yielded such significant progress..."[19]

Senior Egyptian Journalist: Egypt Opposed "Discriminatory" Security Council Resolutions Against Assad

In an article in the government daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', senior journalist Karam Gabr, who is close to regime circles and currently heads the National Press Authority, expressed opposition to what he called "discriminatory" UN resolutions that accused only Assad of using chemical weapons in Syria. He wrote that Egypt has always been against allowing Assad to meet the same fate as Iraq's former leader Saddam Hussein, who, he said, was ousted on false charges of possessing chemical weapons. He stated further that Egypt has not taken part in the bloodshed in Syria and that peace there will not be achieved by toppling Assad.

He wrote: "Egypt's approach on the Syrian crisis has been vindicated. Egypt has neither supported Bashar [Al-Assad] nor opposed him, but has [only] supported the Syrian people and its steadfast army, without which Syria would have disappeared from the map. Some condemned Egypt for opposing the Security Council resolutions [against Syria], but today they understand that it refrained from supporting [these resolutions] in order to [avoid] aggravating the suffering of the Syrian people and sabotaging the negotiations for a peace settlement in Geneva. Peace will not be achieved in Syria by weakening Bashar [Al-Assad], and Syrians will not be able to enjoy life until the cannons fall silent. The Security Council resolutions seem full of compassion [for the Syrian people] but in practice they hurt [them] and bring the crisis back to square one.

"Egypt did not want Assad's fate to be similar to that of Saddam Hussein and [be determined by] discriminatory UN resolutions based on conclusions reached by UN investigative committees and by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW], [resolutions] which blamed Assad for chemical attacks on civilians while ignoring testimonies about ISIS and [other] Islamic organizations using chemical weapons...  Egypt refrained from being party to discriminatory UN resolutions that realized the interests of foreign countries which are involved in the Syrian quagmire. [These countries aim to] repeat the scenario of Iraq's destruction by means of resolutions that accused Saddam of possessing nuclear and chemical weapons and which used this as an excuse for waging war on Iraq, murdering its people and destroying its infrastructure. Later it turned out that the information was false and that Western intelligence services had obtained it from Iraqi traitors who were working for them...

"Egypt's hands are clean of the Syrian people's blood and it has never changed its position that called for a political solution and for recognizing the right of the Syrian people to determine its own fate and choose its leaders...

"Egypt refused to be party to a religious war that the West ignited in order to burn the East, and rejected the unjust calls for jihad in Syria that the ousted [Egyptian] president [Muhammad Morsi] had made from the Cairo stadium... For it was inconceivable that Egyptians, who live with others in brotherhood, harmony and peace, should agree to a civil war that would cause them to fight one another, [to fight] their fellow Muslims and compatriots..."[20]

Egyptian Journalist Welcomes Calls In Egypt To Return Syria To The Arab League

Muhammad Mustafa Abu Shama, the former head of the Egypt offices of the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, also addressed the close relations between the Egyptians and Syrians in an article in Al-Yawm Al-Sabi'. He wrote: "I was gladdened by the call [made by] Egyptian public [figures] to renew the formal relations with Syria and restore it to the Arab League, [a call] which came alongside reports about the diplomatic role Egypt played in mediating and enabling the last two ceasefires [in Syria], in the Eastern Ghouta and in the rural area around Homs.  Syria is a unique case: love for it has been living in the Egyptians' hearts throughout the ages, and has never been affected by the [passing] years or by crises but has [only] grown."[21]  

* C. Meital and N. Mozes are research fellows at MEMRI.

 

[1] On the Al-Sisi regime's support of the Assad regime, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No.1284, Growing Egypt-Syria Rapprochement Includes Al-Sisi Statement In Support Of Syrian Army, Reports On Egyptian Military Aid To Syria, November 30, 2016.

[2] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 11, 2017.

[3] For reports that Saudi Arabia welcomes the de-escalation zones and is drawing closer to the Egyptian position, see Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 4, 2017, Al-Sharq (Qatar), August 21, 2017.

[4] Since Al-Sisi's election as president, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been divided on the best solution to the Syrian crisis: while Saudi Arabia favored a military solution and the removal of Bashar Al-Assad, Egypt adhered to a position that favored a political solution and Assad's remaining in power. The resulting tension between the countries was expressed in many ways, including even the suspension of Aramco oil deliveries to Egypt for several months. For more information, see MEMRI reports: Inquiry & Analysis No. 1202, Egypt-Saudi Arabia Relations: Substantial Rifts Despite Shared Basic Interests, November 11, 2015; Inquiry & Analysis No.1274, The Egypt-Saudi Dispute Over A Resolution To The Syria Crisis Goes Public, October 18, 2016. On Egypt's non-participation in the fighting against ISIS in Syria, see October 22, 2014 Inquiry & Analysis No.1125, Egypt's Position On International Anti-ISIS Coalition: Reserved Support Alongside Refusal To Commit To Military Participation, October 22, 2014.

[5] Sana.sy, August 18, 2017; al-Arabiya.net, August 20, 2017.

[6] Al-Watan (Syria), August 16, 2017; About the freezing of Syria's membership in the Arab League and the demands of member states to return it to the organization, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6841, In Advance Of Arab League Summit In Jordan, Calls In Arab Countries To Reinstate Syria's League Membership; Syrian Writers Reject Calls For Reinstatement, Saying Syria Will Return Only If Arab League Apologizes To It, March 23, 2017.

[7] Al-Watan (Syria), August 17, 2017.

[8] Sana.sy, August 18, 2017.

[9] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 3, 2017. For information about the Syrian army announcement about the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire in Ghouta, see alwatan.sy, July 23, 2017. For a draft of the ceasefire agreement in the Homs area, see orient-news.net, August 2, 2017.

[10] It should be noted that Jordan was an Observer at the negotiations in Astana. For more information, see Al-Ghad (Jordan), February 7, 2017.

[11] Al-Hayat (London), August 6, 2017.

[12] Al-Watan (Syria), August 22, 2017.

[13] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), August 21, 2017.

[14] Raialyoum.com August 9, 2017. It should be noted that Syrian Foreign Minister Shukri likewise supported Syria's return to the Arab League in an interview published last March. For more information, see Al-Watan (Egypt), March 10, 2017.

[15] Al-Watan (Syria), August 22, 2017.

[16] Sana.sy, August 22, 2017.

[17] Sana.sy, August 27, 2017.

[18] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 9, 2017.

[19] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 26, 2017.

[20] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), August 13, 2017.

[21] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), August 14, 2017.