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Egypt steps up efforts to 'restore Syria's position in the Arab world'

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met his Syrian counterpart during the UN General Assembly meetings in New York last week, the first such meeting since the outbreak of the Syrian war.
The empty seat of Syria is seen during an emergency representatives meeting to discuss the conflict in Libya, at the Arab League headquarters, Cairo, Egypt, Jan. 5, 2015.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, on Sept. 24, for the first time in nearly 10 years.

The meeting took place at the headquarters of the Permanent Mission of Egypt at the United Nations in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting, as part of a broader move by Arab countries to reintegrate Syria into the Arab world after ties had been cut since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.

Shoukry told ON TV Sept. 25 that he discussed with the Syrian minister the steps needed for Syria to get out of its crisis and regain its position as an active party in the Arab world.

Egypt appears to be seeking to play an active role in ending the Syrian crisis. “Now that the military battles [in Syria] have tapered off, we must have a role in reinstating communication, to explore the necessary steps that will lead to preserving the Syrian people’s capabilities and getting out of the crisis to restore Syria’s position in the Arab world,” Shoukry continued.

The 10-year civil war in Syria killed more than 388,000 people, destroyed the infrastructure, drained the economy and displaced more than half of the Syrian population with tens of thousands being detained in the regime’s prisons.

Shoukry further stressed that the solution to the Syrian crisis must be in line with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.

“What concerns us now is reaching a solution to the Syrian crisis, and this solution requires compliance with the UN Security Council resolutions, and there must be an understanding between the active states and the influential parties regarding the crisis. The Syrian government must also realize its responsibility toward its people and the displaced must return to their homeland. These are matters that must be explored by the Syrian government and the various actors,” Shoukry said.

Following the meeting, a Syrian Foreign Ministry statement stressed the importance of concerted efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis and respect Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity.

The statement that was issued Sept. 24 said that Mekdad confirmed to his Egyptian counterpart the importance of relations between the two countries, especially given the historical ties that unite them.

In November 2011, the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership due to the government’s violent response and crackdown on the protests that broke out in the country. The league also called for the withdrawal of Arab ambassadors from Damascus, until the Syrian government fully implemented its pledges to provide protection for civilians.

Since then, several Arab countries that were betting on the fall of the Syrian government have cut diplomatic ties with Syria; while other Arab countries allied with the United States — such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — supported opposition groups that fought the Syrian government for years.

Egypt stood on the sidelines at the beginning of the Syrian crisis. But Cairo’s position vis-a-vis the Syrian war has radically changed between the era of late Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who was overthrown by the army in the summer of 2013, and of current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

While Morsi cut diplomatic ties with the Syrian government and supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s overthrow, Sisi believes that the national armies in the Arab world are the guarantee to solving the crisis and maintaining security and stability — a statement that was seen as a support message for Assad against the armed Islamic groups.

When Sisi came into office in 2014, Egypt was not strongly involved in the Syrian issue and began to monitor the situation and study its allies’ position, especially with the growing role of Turkey — Egypt’s current archenemy — and the latter’s control alongside Iran over several issues related to the Syrian crisis.

Egypt, however, maintained security and intelligence contacts with the Syrian government throughout, and negotiated limited reconciliation agreements between Syrian armed groups and the Syrian government.

Caroline Rose, senior analyst at the Washington-based Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told Al-Monitor that the meeting between Egypt's foreign minister and his Syrian counterpart is indicative of a long-term Egyptian effort to jump-start normalization efforts between Syria and the Arab world.

She said, “The Sisi government has called for Syrian readmission into the Arab League and has initiated a series of meetings with Syrian officials to explore avenues to strengthen ties.”

Rose noted, “This meeting indicates Egypt's aim of incremental normalization with the Assad regime — first with upgrading diplomatic relations and reopening a mission in Damascus. It is also an opportunity for Egypt to test the waters, identify spaces for political and economic cooperation, and gauge attitudes toward this process among its Middle Eastern allies, particularly as some have reopened diplomatic missions in Syria and resumed commercial flights to the country."

“The public nature of the meeting indicates Cairo's cemented strategy of normalization with Syria, particularly as it seeks out alternative security and political partners in the wake of US withdrawal,” she added.

Some Arab countries, including those that supported Syrian opposition fighters, are calling for reconciliation with Assad, after the decisive gains achieved by the government forces and its allied fighters recently.

Assad was able to reestablish control over most of Syria, with major areas remaining outside his government’s control.

In late 2018, the UAE and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Damascus, while the Sultanate of Oman — one of the few Arab countries to maintain diplomatic relations with Damascus — reinstated its ambassador to the Syrian capital in 2020.

Jordan, which has also maintained relations with Assad, appointed a senior diplomat in Damascus in 2019. On Sept. 29, Amman announced the reopening of its main crossing with Syria.

Joshua Landis, Syria expert and director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told Al-Monitor, “There does seem to be a concerted effort to bring Syria back into the Arab fold, which will end with readmission to the Arab League.”

He said that Egypt has an interest in renewing relations with Syria. “No Arab country wants to see more chaos in the region or the failure of another Arab state,” he added.

It seems that the decision to reinstate Syria’s membership in the Arab League remains far-fetched. Qatar is a staunch opponent of this move, arguing that the reasons for Damascus’ membership suspension still hold.

Landis said, “For the regional economy to come back to life, Syria must take [back] its normal place within the Arab world. It is vital to the economic health of Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq as well as Egypt.”

In September, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, under US sponsorship, reached an agreement to deliver Egyptian natural gas to Lebanon via Syria, using an Arab pipeline that was established 20 years ago.

Rose said that the rapprochement between Cairo and Damascus is a counterweight and a leverage point that Egypt can use during rapprochement efforts with Turkey, particularly as tensions have revived between Turkish, Russian and Syrian government forces in Afrin.

“And while Egypt has recently explored rapprochement with its traditional adversary — Turkey — it wishes to strengthen inter-Mediterranean defenses against Ankara as a backstop in case tensions revive,” she said.

Turkish forces are deployed in large swathes of land in north and northwest Syria — the Syrian armed opposition’s stronghold. Meanwhile, US forces operate in the eastern and northeastern areas that are held by the Kurds.

Egypt criticizes what it considers “blatant Turkish aggression against Syria,” saying that Ankara is trying to exploit the situation in Syria to justify its occupation.

Since October 2019, Ankara has launched attacks against the Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria, led by the Kurds and supported by the United States.

Rose concluded, “By reapproaching Syria and pursuing normalization, Middle Eastern countries are seeking ways not only to undercut Iranian proxy presence in the region, but to also obtain new economic opportunities that come with the Syrian reconstruction process and counter Turkey's expanding military footprint in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.”

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