Cairo keeps itself front and center in Syria negotiations

Egypt seems to be in demand as a negotiator between the Syrian regime and opposition forces, as the new UN envoy to Syria says he wants Cairo involved.

al-monitor Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry speaks during a news conference with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian in Cairo, Egypt, April 29, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany.
Albaraa Abdullah

Albaraa Abdullah


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Syria Conflict

Feb 27, 2019

CAIRO — Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, during a Feb. 18 meeting with members of the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin, said his country upholds the principle of national unity and sovereign integrity in Syria. Some diplomats speculate that Egypt has become the only Arab country to be considered a mediator in the Syrian crisis.

In the past two months, Egypt has hosted a series of high-level visits by international officials to discuss developments in resolving Syria's nearly eight-year-long civil war. Most importantly, UN special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen visited Cairo on Jan. 28. A Foreign Ministry statement that day said Pedersen is “keen on Egypt being among the main countries to discuss the developments unfolding in Syria and on considering Cairo’s vision on moving forward in the political process to resolve the crisis.” Shoukry is calling on Pedersen to help break the deadlock in negotiations in a bid to reach a political solution.

Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs member Rakha Hassan believes the UN envoy’s visit to Cairo soon after he left Damascus in mid-January strongly indicates that Cairo’s views are to be taken seriously, especially since Pedersen offers a new vision of a transitional government in Syria and the drafting of a new constitution.

Hassan told Al-Monitor via phone that Egypt seeks to participate in Syria's reconstruction, a step welcomed by Russians and Syrians. The reconstruction was a topic of discussion when Egypt sent representatives to the Damascus International Fair in September.

“Egypt has [previously] benefited from the close relations with the Syrian regime at the commercial level. Cairo is considered the second-largest Arab exporter to Syria, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics,” Hassan said.

He also pointed out that Egypt has expressed reservations about Syria returning to the Arab League, which he considers an important consensus among Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the EU. He attributes Egypt's reservations to the need to first reach a political solution in Syria.

Egypt's former assistant foreign minister, Hussein Haridi, concurs with Hassan, saying he also believes Egypt does not want Syria to rejoin the Arab League before agreeing on mechanisms for a political course.

Dalia Youssef, a member of the Egyptian parliament's Foreign Relations Committee, expressed regret over the policies of some Arab countries regarding Syria.

“Egypt’s role has become more effective in the Syrian crisis, given its balanced position on the Syrian conflict for years and in light of the decline of the Saudi role in several issues in the region,” Youssef told Al-Monitor. “Egyptian-Syrian contacts are ongoing, and Damascus wishes Egypt to have a prominent role in rebuilding institutions."

Noha Bakr, a political science professor at the American University of Cairo, told Al-Monitor that geopolitical changes in Syria, in light of the planned withdrawal of US forces, make Egypt an acceptable mediator, because it wasn't involved in any military action in Syria, not even funding.

She stressed that there is international interest in Egypt’s role to this effect, given Cairo’s influence on the Syrian opposition factions based in Egypt, and its ability to galvanize them into accepting a political process, leading eventually to the formation of a constitutional committee. Egypt was able to reach a cease-fire agreement in Cairo between the different Syrian opposition factions in mid-2018.

Ayman al-Sisi, deputy editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, said Cairo has been pressuring opposition factions in Egypt to reach compromises with the Syrian regime.

Sisi also underlined the international community’s interest in Egypt’s role, especially since Egyptian General Intelligence demonstrated a high level of professionalism in mediation in South Sudan in 2017 and also among the Palestinian factions. This has broadened its experience in dealing with reconciliation issues and finding common ground to resolve civil disputes.

“President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a military man and has a firm belief that security and stability in Syria are an extension of security and stability in Egypt. This is why he supports the Syrian army,” Ayman al-Sisi told Al-Monitor.

In November 2016, the president expressed his support for the national armies in Arab countries that are torn apart by civil conflicts, and called on the international community to support the Syrian and Libyan armies.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary-general of the Arab League and a former Egyptian foreign minister, said Feb. 11 that he did not sense any consensus among member states that would allow Syria to rejoin the organization.

At a time when most Arab and Gulf countries are eschewing normal relations with the Syrian regime, Cairo opened its door to Syrian officials when Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power in 2014. Most recently, the head of the Syrian National Security Office, Ali al-Mamluk, visited Cairo in December to discuss political and security issues.

Egypt is expected to try to bring the countries closer together to push forward a political process in Syria and to form a constitutional committee. This is in tandem with talks about reconstruction and preparing for the return of refugees.

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