The Consequences of Egypt’s Potential Military Engagement in Syria
As ties between Cairo and Damascus strengthen, Syrian journalist Abdulrahman al-Masri explores the factors behind possible military cooperation between Egypt and Syria and the consequences this would have both locally and regionally.
|WRITTEN BYAbdulrahman al-Masri||PUBLISHED ON
Dec. 1, 2016
|READ TIMEApprox. 5 minutes|
OTTAWA, CANADA – The Syrian regime-friendly newspaper As-Safir published an article on November 24 claiming that an Egyptian military unit had been deployed to Syria to provide logistical support to President Bashar al-Assad’s army. The report claimed that the Egyptian unit had been stationed at Hama Airbase in central Syria since November 12 and included 18 pilots, four of whom hold senior military ranks. An anonymous source quoted in the article added that an additional two generals from Egypt’s military chief command are now based in Damascus and are visiting battle front lines and holding military evaluation meetings.
News of Egypt’s presence in Syria came only days after Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared his country’s support for Assad’s military. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem later stated at a press conferencein Damascus that Syrian-Egyptian relations are progressing, adding that only a “small jump remains for affairs to return to normal.”
The As-Safir report created some confusion and controversy among observers who follow the region, prompting the Egyptian embassy in Beirut to issue a response. Ambassador Nazieh al-Najari denied claims of his country’s military involvement in Syria, but As-Safir issued a rebuttal, publishing an explanation confirming the accuracy of its source. On November 29, Russian news agency Sputnik also reported that a Syrian military source confirmed Egyptian participation, saying that the Syrian government welcomed the contribution from any Arab army to “counter terrorism in the Syrian territory.”
Whether or not the report from As-Safir is accurate, it is only a matter of time before Egypt finalizes its alliances with Assad and Russia. The article’s author, Mohamed Ballout, a journalist with reportedly strong relations with the Syrian mukhabarat (intelligence agency), suggested that Egypt will likely increase its involvement in Syria beginning in January 2017.
If Egypt does in fact engage militarily in Syria, it is likely that the major power dynamics in Syria and the region will be deeply disturbed.
Damascus and Cairo have maintained strong ties throughout the last 60 years, interrupted only during the Arab Spring in 2011, when popular uprisings protested military rule in both countries. When the Egyptian revolution succeeded in toppling then President Hosni Mubarak, the country’s ties to Assad remained severed, until the Egyptian military took the presidency and overthrew and imprisoned former president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Since Sisi was elected in 2014, Egypt’s policy on Syria has been diplomatic, rather than military, in favor of a political solution between the regime and the government. Egypt backs a group of Syrian opposition figures called the Cairo Conference Delegation, who are pushing Egypt to take on a leadership position in the region, and who seem to hold a more amenable stance towards Russia than the main opposition block backed by Turkey.
Despite the recent rapprochement between the two countries, Sisi reasserted in an interview with Portuguese news outlet RTP last week that Egypt’s position remains “to respect the will of the Syrian people, and that a political solution to the Syrian crisis is the most suitable way.” But Egypt’s support of a political solution in Syria does not apply to counterterrorism, where Cairo’s “priority is to support national armies,” Sisi said.
If Egypt officially announces that it will have a military role in Syria, it will likely present its support to Assad as a fight against ISIS. Similar to the approach taken by Russia, this would secure Egypt a spot on the negotiation table as a mediator and allow for an on-the-ground military presence, both of which would bolster Assad.
Since Sisi took power, Egypt has been dependent on Saudi Arabia to survive economic hardships. The Saudi Kingdom has been generous with aid, loans and cheap oil. In return, Riyadh has expected loyalty from Cairo on regional issues, including trade, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and ongoing tensions with Iran. However, this symbiotic relationship has not flourished. Under the premise of its own economic challenges, Saudi cut off cheap oil shipments to Egypt and reduced aid, pushing Cairo to rethink its alliances and seek out new friends.
While Egypt has received benefits from Saudi in recent years, it has also maintained warm ties with Russia. Russia has historically been friendly with Egypt, with a concord dating back to the Soviet era. Today, Russia is looking to reinvest in military-oriented regimes in the region, which makes Egypt a logical partner.
Russia’s growing stature in the international community may have appealed to Sisi even more than the Saudi cash. From the Egyptian perspective, as long as ties with Saudi deteriorate, those with Russia should increase. Egypt benefits from Russian arms deals and now hosts joint military exercises. In terms of oil trade, Egypt will be able to access Iran’s and Iraq’s oil as a substitute after Saudi suspension.
All of these factors will influence Egypt’s decision to engage in Syria, even if it means surrounding itself with Saudi’s enemies. The war in Syria has upset the regional order, and as a result, Egypt’s role is shifting. Egypt is increasingly gaining international support, which is likely to increase once U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, whose focus in Syria is on defeating ISIS, assumes office. With international backing, Egypt is on a path to holding the position of a “stabilizing force” in the region, like it has in the past.
What’s In It for Assad?
Assad continues to benefit from foreign nations competing for power in Syria. With the support his forces received from Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraqi militias, he was able to establish a new balance of power on the ground in Syria, particularly against armed opposition. The addition of Egyptian forces would mean more than just military aid; it would translate into further international consensus for his rule and a blow to the regional camp that supports the Syrian opposition.
With Trump in the White House, this pro-Assad, Russia-oriented camp in the Middle East could have the potential to grow. The Syrian opposition will face a nearly insurmountable force, unless regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with European nations, find a way to counter Russia’s mounting influence.
Cairo is eager to expand its clout in the region, a move that will result in increasing international competition in the Middle East, as foreign powers reinforce their positions and alliances. Egypt’s potential participation on behalf of Assad in the war in Syria will only prompt the opposition’s foreign allies to increase their military involvement. Regardless of what side they are fighting for, introducing new foreign armies to the conflict will only have tragic results for Syrian civilians.
Sisi’s support for Syrian regime threatens to harm Cairo-Riyadh ties
CAIRO — Relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt have recently grown tense in light of their conflicting views on the Syrian crisis. On Oct. 8, the United Nations Security Council considered two draft resolutions (one sponsored by France, the other by Russia) on the situation in Aleppo. Egypt voted in favor of both resolutions, drawing criticism from Saudi Arabia, who supported the French draft.
Saudi ambassador to the UN Abdullah al-Mouallimi described the Egyptian stance in favor of the Russian resolution as painful. Saudi media also bashed Egypt’s stance, while Saudi social media users urged their government to halt oil supplies to Egypt.
Egyptian Oil Minister Tariq al-Mulla told the media Nov. 8 that the Saudi Arabian Oil Co. has suspended its oil shipments to Egypt, even though the two countries signed a five-year agreement in April whereby Saudi Arabia would provide Egypt with petroleum products.
On Nov. 15, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud received Ahmed Aboul Gheit, former Egyptian foreign minister and current secretary general of the Arab League, in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, where they discussed the general Arab situation and the role of the Arab League in promoting Arab unity. The visit seemed to be an attempt by the Arab League to reconcile the views of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Ayman Samir, expert on international relations and former editor of Egyptian newspaper As-Siyassa, believes Aboul Gheit’s visit to Riyadh could ease tensions, especially since the secretary general has strong ties with Gulf states and was an Egyptian minister of high caliber.
“Saudi Arabia must reconsider its position in order to mend its ties with Egypt, especially since the crisis stirred by Egypt’s vote at the Security Council has been amplified in the media in both countries," said Samir. “The Egyptian stance on the Syrian crisis is not new. Egypt believes that the implementation of the 2012 Geneva I declaration is paramount and that state institutions must be preserved in Syria.”
He added, “While Egypt believes that it must maintain good relations with the Syrian regime’s allies to resolve the crisis, Saudi Arabia wants to end the [Bashar al-]Assad regime and is supplying the opposition with weapons. Some Saudi politicians act according to the ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us’ mentality.”
Free Syrian Army (FSA) military sources told Al-Arabiya in 2013 that the FSA uses anti-tank missiles supplied by Saudi Arabia. In October 2015, Saudi Arabia provided the FSA with 500 TOW anti-tank missiles. The BBC reported that “Saudi Arabia is responding to the recent Russian airstrikes on Syrian rebels by stepping up its arms supplies," quoting a Saudi source as saying that “the weapons would go to the FSA and other small rebel groups.”
Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, adviser to Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, told Egyptian Dream TV channel in May 2016, “Saudi Arabia’s position on the Syrian regime is clear. We support the opposition politically, militarily and financially to protect the Syrian people.”
Samir said that Egypt does not want to break ties with Saudi Arabia. He expects that special bilateral relations will soon resume between the two countries, as they both need each other.
Al-Azab Tayeb al-Tahir, who covers the Arab League for Al-Ahram newspaper, told Al-Monitor that Aboul Gheit’s visit to Riyadh was positive on two levels: The visit mended the relationship between the Arab League and Saudi Arabia, and also put Egyptian-Saudi relations on the right track, preventing their deterioration.
“Relations between Saudi Arabia and the Arab League under the mandate of former Secretary General Nabil Elaraby from May 2011 to July 2016 were cold because of the constant disagreement between Elaraby and Ahmed Qattan, the Saudi ambassador to Egypt and permanent representative of Saudi Arabia to the Arab League," said Tahir. “The two had converging political and economic stances within the league, since the Saudi representative wanted to reduce administrative expenses, close some representation offices and impose salary cuts."
He added, “The Saudi king appreciated the efforts exerted by the Arab League to reunify Arab ranks, and Aboul Gheit’s visit was the result of joint efforts with the United Arab Emirates.”
Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed visited Cairo Nov. 11 to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. According to a statement issued by the Egyptian presidency, the meeting discussed the reunification and solidarity of Arab ranks and the need to keep a vigilant eye on all attempts to stir up a row between Arab countries in a bid to destabilize the region.
After the visit, bin Zayed headed directly to Riyadh, in what seemed to be a mediation process between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Tahir said, “The UAE is making great efforts alongside the Arab League for the reunification of Arab ranks, especially since the UAE wants to maintain its triangle of stability with Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the region.”
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said in a Nov. 20 press conference in Damascus that “Syrian-Egyptian relations are progressing."
“A small step is still needed, and things will go back to normal," said Moallem. “When Syria and Egypt are together, the Arab nation would be fine. Egypt, with its great people and army, cannot stand idly by watching what is happening in Syria. Syria also cannot help but sympathize with the Egyptian army fighting terrorism in the Sinai [Peninsula].”
Two days after Moallem’s comments, Sisi told Portugese TV, “It is better to support national armies to impose their control over their territories and preserve stability. This applies to the national armies of Libya, Syria and Iraq.”
As-Safir reported Nov. 24 that 18 Egyptian pilots have started operating at Syria’s Hama military air base. But an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Nov. 27 that Egypt has no military forces in Syria, denying Arab news reports and calling such claims false allegations.
In any event, Egypt has always emphasized the need to preserve the institutions of the Syrian state and stop the Syrian bloodletting to reach a political settlement. However, Sisi’s recent announcement stressing the need to support the Syrian army in its war on terrorism may give the impression that Egypt is now siding with the Assad regime, which threatens to sour relations more between Cairo and Riyadh, regardless of any regional efforts for Arab reunification.
Former Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said on Monday that the Syrian strongman could stay in power if the Syrian people agreed, prompting Saudi Arabia to reportedly call for him to step down.
“I mean if the people elect him he can run in elections, however, there first must be a ceasefire and acceptance of his presence as a part of a reconciliation deal because it is highly likely that groups would refuse to work with him," Aboul Gheit told Egyptian talk show host Ahmad Moussa.
His position is a departure from many Gulf and Western powers who have repeatedly called on the embattled Syrian leader to step down.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently expressed support for the Syrian military during a recently aired interview with Portuguese state media.
His government had been supported by billions of dollars in aid from Saudi Arabia, but ties appear to have cooled between the two countries amid disagreements over Syria.
Saudi Arabia backs rebels trying to oust Assad, while Russia and Iran are supporting him militarily.
Egyptian and Saudi sources told The New Arab on Thursday that Aboul Gheit’s comments on Assad remaining in power have angered Saudi officials and prompted them to send an “angry letter" to the General Secretariat of the Arab League.
“Riyadh hinted in the letter that it could stop funding Arab League activities and demanded that Aboul Gheit’s position be reconsidered," the sources said.
They added that Aboul Gheit’s “entanglement" between his role as head of Arab League and a mouthpiece for the Egyptian government has annoyed many Saudi officials.
The diplomat also accused Turkey of having supported the Islamic State group [IS] in the past.
“It has been bothersome that there have been question marks surrounding Turkey’s actions as it has allowed hundreds if not thousands of young people from Europe and Arab countries to flow into Syria and Iraq," Aboul Gheit said.
“It has been said – however I do not have certain information about this – that [Turkey] allowed its existence to facilitate the downfall of the Syrian government until [IS] turned against them."
He accused Turkey of allowing IS to raise funds by smuggling oil across the Turkish border – claims echoed by Russian President Vladimir Putin last year.
Relations between Turkey and Egypt sharply deteriorated after the Egyptian military ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, a close ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.