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Egypt's FM Shoukry visits Syria, Turkey in renewed earthquake diplomacy

The top Egyptian diplomat's visit to Syria and Turkey marks a first after almost a decade.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (L) and Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad (R) give a press conference at the Foreign Ministry headquarters, Damascus, Syria, Feb. 27, 2023.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visited Syria and Turkey on Monday to express solidarity with the countries following the earthquakes, in a fresh move showing Egypt’s thawing relations with both Ankara and Damascus.

Shoukry met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, expressing his solidarity with the country following the deadly earthquakes on Feb. 6, whose death toll in Turkey and Syria has exceeded 50,000. Assad told Shoukry he appreciated Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s phone call following the disaster.

Shoukry also said Egypt is ready to provide further support to Syria, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid said in a series of tweets.

After his visit to Damascus, Shoukry traveled to Turkey for the first time since 2016 and met with top Turkish diplomat Mevlut Cavusoglu in Adana. Both ministers then traveled to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Mersin, where the second Egyptian ship carrying humanitarian relief docked.

Flanked with his Turkish counterpart, Shoukry said the relationship between Ankara and Cairo was on track. 

“It is important to agree on a road map for the speedy normalization and restoration of relations between the two countries,” Shoukry said.

Ankara and Cairo have been locking horns over several issues since the 2013 coup that overthrew Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-led government, with activities of leading Brotherhood members residing in Turkey remaining the thorniest issue in ties. The Libyan civil war and conflicting territorial claims in the eastern Mediterranean stand out as other contentious issues between the two capitals. 

Shoukry stressed that political will for the restoration of ties was strong in both countries and that it was important to set up “a strong foundation” that the restoration work would rise upon.  

Cavusoglu, for his part, said a meeting between the two countries’ deputy foreign ministers would be “useful” to agree on points to be discussed during the next meeting between him and his Egyptian counterpart. 

“It is not enough to come together just for photo ops. So we will discuss concrete steps to improve our relations,” he said. “I believe that we can carry our relations to a much higher level."

A brief meeting between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his once-nemesis Sisi late last year during the opening session of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar was the first breakthrough in Turkish-Egyptian ties. Following the killer earthquakes, both Sisi and Shoukry extended their condolences to their counterparts by phone. Egypt also dispatched humanitarian aid by air and sea. 

Aiming to overcome its regional isolation and counterbalancing the new alliances emerging between Greek Cypriots and other regional governments, Ankara has embarked on a vast fence-mending bid with its former regional rivals, namely Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. The Egyptian leg of Ankara's venture has stalled due to a series of outstanding issues between the two countries.

Egyptian parliament Speaker Hanafy El-Gebaly also went to Damascus to meet Assad on Sunday, as did the parliament speakers of the UAE, Iraq, Jordan, Libya and the Palestinian Authority. 

“Egypt in particular has historic relations with Syria, and I am here in Damascus to convey a message that we all support the great and steadfast Syrian people and wish them all prosperity and welfare,” said Gebaly, according to the Egyptian state-owned Al-Ahram.

The visit by Shoukry and the Arab parliamentarians demonstrates Syria’s further political rehabilitation in the Arab world. Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 after the Syrian civil war began. Many countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, began supporting Syrian rebel groups at this time. As the tide in the war turned toward Assad following the Russian intervention in 2015, many Arab states began reconsidering their approach to Syria. Egypt and the UAE in particular have been calling for normalization with Syria for years. Egypt has been among several Arab countries to send aid to Syria in response to the earthquake. Egypt notably delivered aid to the Assad government in Damascus and also to the White Helmets rebel group in northern Syria.

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