Analysis |

In Blow to Iran, Egypt Becomes Surprise New Player in Syria

To Israel's delight, Cairo's involvement is already showing results

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Russian premier Vladimir Putin and President of Egypt Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visit Moskva missile cruiser, August 12, 2014.
Russian premier Vladimir Putin and President of Egypt Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visit Moskva missile cruiser, August 12, 2014.Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office via Wikimedia Commons
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A new and surprising player has recently entered the Syrian arena and has already contributed to establishing local cease-fires: Egypt received Saudi and Russian “permission” to conduct negotiations between the rebel militias and the regime, both in Ghouta al-Sharqiya (east of Damascus) and the northern neighborhoods in the city of Homs. In both cases, it managed to get a cease-fire deal signed – in the former on July 22, in the latter in early August.

Both areas are part of the de-escalation zones on which Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed in May, in consultation with the United States. But this is the first time Egypt has played an active role in diplomatic negotiations between the warring parties that produced positive results.

From Israel’s standpoint, Egypt’s involvement is important. Any country engaged in blocking Iran’s influence in Syria serves Israel’s interests. But that’s especially true when said country is Egypt, which is Israel’s partner in the war on terror in Sinai and an ally (together with Saudi Arabia and Jordan) with whom it sees eye to eye about both the Iranian threat and the danger of Syria disintegrating into cantons.

Israel is also involved in discussions about the de-escalation zone in southern Syria that runs along Syria’s borders with both Israel and Jordan. Over the weekend, an Israeli delegation headed by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen began talks on the issue with senior U.S. officials in Washington, and a meeting has been scheduled for Wednesday between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

During these discussions, Israel will presumably push the superpowers to encourage Egypt’s involvement in Syria, thereby ensuring another Arab partner (alongside Jordan) that will be sympathetic to its interests.

Egypt’s involvement is the result of a diplomatic about-face that began when Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi took office in 2013. His predecessor, Mohammed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood, had severed Egypt’s relations with Syria. But Sissi repeatedly said Egypt “supports national armies in solving crises in the region and maintaining security” – a clear expression of support for President Bashar Assad’s regime and its army.

A picture of Syria's President Bashar Assad in Waer district in the central Syrian city of Homs, July 26, 2017.Credit: OMAR SANADIKI/REUTERS

Lest there be any doubt, Sissi also said “Assad is part of the solution” in Syria, and allowed Egypt’s intelligence chief to meet publicly with his Syrian counterpart, Ali Mamlouk, in Cairo. One such meeting took place in October 2016. The Arab media has also reported several other meetings between senior Egyptian and Syrian officials over the past year.

This past week, a delegation of senior Egyptian businessmen and chamber of commerce officials attended a trade fair in Damascus. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem lavishly praised this Egyptian show of support, saying the delegation’s size and seniority “reflect our Egyptian brothers’ desire to strengthen relations between our countries.”

Given the Arab boycott of Syria and the latter’s expulsion from the Arab League, the Egyptian delegation’s attendance wasn’t merely a matter of business interests: it was a clear diplomatic statement.

Sissi favors Assad remaining in power because he fears Syria will collapse otherwise, with potentially serious consequences for Egypt. Until recently, though, this policy wasn’t well received in Riyadh, which demanded Cairo fall in line with its position that Assad’s departure is a precondition for any diplomatic solution.

Saudi Arabia even punished Egypt for supporting a Russian resolution at the UN by halting its supply of cheap oil to the country. That forced Cairo to buy from other sources at market prices, taking a hefty chunk out of its already strained budget.

At the same time, Egypt’s relationship with Russia grew closer, despite its renewed friendship with Washington after U.S. President Donald Trump entered office and voiced support for Sissi – in marked contrast to the Obama administration’s chilly attitude toward him. But Moscow and Washington were no substitute for Egypt’s diplomatic and economic ties with Saudi Arabia; nor could they reconcile Cairo with Riyadh.

The turning point came when Egypt joined Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in imposing sanctions on Qatar, which was even more important to Riyadh than the Syrian issue. Moreover, Riyadh has recognized it cannot achieve either a military or diplomatic victory in Syria, and that its policy of supporting the anti-Assad militias has produced no real benefits, since it has neither forestalled nor reduced Iranian influence in Syria.

So, when Turkey invaded Syrian territory as part of what Riyadh views as a tripartite alliance between Turkey, Iran and Russia – one in which Saudi Arabia, like the United States, plays no part – the kingdom decided on a strategic U-turn. It seemingly now prefers Egypt’s involvement to Turkish involvement – and certainly to an Iranian role.

For Russia, this U-turn is important. According to some reports, Egypt is working to renormalize relations with Syria. If it actually does so, this would grant the Assad regime formal Egyptian legitimacy and, ultimately, broader Arab legitimacy as well. Egypt could thereby pull the rug out from under Turkey’s efforts to be the power broker in Syria, while also giving Syria an Arab alternative to its dependence on Iran.

But it would be going too far, at least at this stage, to predict that Iran’s role in Syria will wane due to Egypt’s involvement. The Syrian regime owes its very survival to Iran and Russia. Even under a diplomatic agreement, these countries will continue to serve as Syria’s strategic depth.

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