As a consequence of facts on the ground in Syria, the government in Damascus is gradually reintegrating itself into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold. Eight years after having been suspended from the Arab League, with scores of foreign diplomatic missions shutting down in the Syrian capital, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has managed to re-normalize its relations with a growing number of Arab states.
One Arab state that strongly welcomes this development is Egypt. Indeed, since the time of President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s rise and consolidation of power in 2013/2014, Cairo has favored the Assad government in Syria’s conflict. Yet since last month, Egypt’s government has become even more supportive of Assad’s regime and of regional efforts to push for Syria’s readmission into the Arab League. This is a result of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in northeast Syria, which has played into Cairo’s narrative that support for the Damascus regime is in the vital collective interests of Arab states against a perceived “neo-Ottoman” threat posed by Ankara’s ambitious foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Egypt joined scores of Arab states in condemning Turkey’s military incursion on October 9. In Cairo, numerous politicians and political/legal bodies have taken measures to support Syria’s government since Ankara waged its operation against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Egypt’s assistant foreign minister for Arab affairs declared that Cairo’s call for an emergency Arab League meeting was spurred by the need for a unified Arab stance against Turkey’s latest military campaign in Syria.
Egypt’s assistant foreign minister for Arab affairs declared that Cairo’s call for an emergency Arab League meeting was spurred by the need for a unified Arab stance against Turkey’s latest military campaign in Syria. “It is crucial for the international community to find a clear Arab position formulated collectively within the framework of the Arab League, especially as this offensive threatens regional security.”
As George Mikhail explained, a parliamentary committee in Egypt slammed “the Turkish aggression on Syrian territory” in a statement released earlier this month. Within the first two weeks of Ankara’s incursion into northeast Syria, the same committee hosted in Cairo Damascus’s ambassador who received a “standing ovation at the plenary session” along with his delegation. A few days later, Egypt’s National Progressive Unionist Party paid a visit to the Syrian embassy in Egypt to express solidarity with the Assad government in the face of Turkey’s military campaign. Additionally, on October 27, the Permanent Office of the Arab Lawyers Union held an emergency session with the Syrian ambassador present, in which the participants advocated bringing Syria back to the Arab League and boycotting Turkish products in response to Operation Peace Spring.
The Gulf States Factor
Cairo is a large recipient of aid from the Arabian Peninsula’s deep-pocketed monarchies, which in many instances influences Egypt’s moves on the international stage. Although earlier in the Syrian crisis, Egypt’s support for Assad’s government fueled degrees of friction between Cairo and some in the GCC, currently, Egypt’s support for Syria’s regime is significantly less of a point of contention in Cairo’s relations with Arab Gulf states. Since October 9, Egypt’s growing openness about supporting Assad’s regime has been tied not only to the GCC states’ opposition to Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, but also to the trend among Arab Gulf states toward (re)recognizing the Syrian government’s legitimacy.
With the Sultanate of Oman having never cut off ties with Syria, and Bahrain joining the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in re-opening their diplomatic missions in Damascus almost a year ago while Kuwait maintains a “wait-and-see approach,” the Syrian government is only relatively cut off from the Arabian Peninsula’s sheikdoms. Although Qatar remains firmly opposed to re-normalization of relations with Damascus, experts contend that Saudi Arabia will likely have a rapprochement with Assad at some point before long.
The GCC member-state leading the push for Damascus’s reintegration into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold is the UAE.
Unquestionably, the GCC member-state leading the push for Damascus’s reintegration into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold is the UAE. With Cairo aligning closely with Abu Dhabi as well as Moscow on most security issues in the MENA region, it is understandable that Egypt’s growing support for the Syrian government is well-received among its regional allies. Like Abu Dhabi, Cairo’s views of the Assad government are heavily informed by the positions that Sisi takes on issues such as Turkey’s agenda in the Arab world and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as more extremist groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
Ultimately, Arab Gulf states’ move toward re-normalization of relations with Damascus comes within the grander geopolitical context of Russia’s growing power in the Middle East. With GCC member-states courting Moscow, especially against the backdrop of decreasing confidence in the US as a reliable security guarantor, the Arabian monarchies have slowly come around to viewing reconciliation with Syria’s government as essentially inevitable but also necessary in advancing their relations with the Kremlin. Through Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria beginning in September 2015, Moscow has rather successfully created facts on the ground in the war-torn country and pushed the Assad regime’s enemies in the GCC toward abandoning policies in favor of toppling Syria’s government.
Cairo began re-normalizing diplomatic relations with Assad’s government shortly after Egypt’s coup of 2013.
Yet, in contrast to most Arab Gulf capitals, Cairo began re-normalizing diplomatic relations with Assad’s government shortly after Egypt’s coup of 2013. Also, while Saudi Arabia’s political leadership and prominent clerics within the Kingdom’s religious establishment had strongly condemned Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015, Egypt broke with Riyadh by supporting Moscow’s air campaign, which with the help of Iranian paramilitary power on the ground tilted the balance of power in Assad’s favor. Thus, from the perspective of Sisi’s government, the Russian pressure on Egypt’s GCC allies in relation to the Syrian conflict has advanced Cairo’s interests in terms of re-normalizing Syria’s relations with major Sunni Arab states.
The governments in Cairo and Damascus see eye to eye on many issues concerning political Islam, extremism, and terrorism.
The reasons for Cairo’s increasingly open support for Assad’s government go beyond Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring or shifting perceptions of Syria on the part of Egypt’s partners in the GCC. Indeed, there is much about the Syrian regime which may make it a natural partner for Egypt. Bonded by a mutual hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood, the governments in Cairo and Damascus see eye to eye on many issues concerning political Islam, extremism, and terrorism.
At the time of former President Mohammed Morsi’s ouster in 2013, Assad hailed the coup. “What is happening in Egypt is the fall of what is known as political Islam,” said the Syrian president in an interview with Ath-Thawra (a Syrian state newspaper). “Anywhere in the world, whoever uses religion for political aims, or to benefit some and not others, will fall . . . . You can’t fool all the people all the time, let alone the Egyptian people who have a civilisation that is thousands of years old, and who espouse clear, Arab nationalist thought.”
In November 2016, Sisi stated clearly that his government backs Assad in Syria’s civil war. When speaking to Portuguese state television, the Egyptian president said that his country’s priority “is to support national armies, for example in Libya . . . . The same with Syria and Iraq.” When pressed over whether his government backs Assad’s regime, Sisi responded, “Yes.”
With Assad’s regime securing its “victory” through political and military moves and Sisi’s rule in Egypt facing no credible challenge (notwithstanding some short-term protests earlier this year), the Syrian and Egyptian governments are focused on consolidating power while using authoritarian tactics to restore “stability.” The “death” of the Arab Spring uprisings in both Syria and Egypt have left the two states’ leaders with a sense of relief as they see themselves as vindicated for having triumphed over the Muslim Brotherhood and other agents of radicalism.
As Assad and Sisi’s regimes see themselves, they represent two of the final bastions of secularism and bulwarks against Islamist extremism and widespread tumult in the Arab world.
As Assad and Sisi’s regimes see themselves, they represent two of the final bastions of secularism and bulwarks against Islamist extremism and widespread tumult in the Arab world. Both Cairo and Damascus believe that the chaos, which erupted across the region in 2011 was a result of Arab states failing to be harsh and intimidating enough when it came to dealing with protesters. The lessons which both regimes learned was that compromise leads to dangerous instability.
As Hassan Hassan wrote: “Autocrats [in the Arab region] have little to offer in the way of meeting the demands of the people — only more of the same. For them, there are no lessons to be learned from the uprisings other than the need for more repression. Instead, they count on their people understanding ‘the lessons’ of the Arab Spring, as they typically point to the savagery of the Islamic State and the mass-scale destruction in Syria and Iraq.”
Today, it is clear that by turning the Arab world’s attention to the alleged “neo-Ottoman” threat posed by Turkey and the possibility of Islamic State re-emerging in the Levant, Egypt seeks to urge more in the region to re-accept Assad as a fellow Arab leader to be brought back to the table. On this file, among others, it is clear that Egypt has notably shifted closer to Moscow and away from Washington in yet another sign of Russia’s growing influence in the Islamic world.