Cairo-Riyadh tensions pile up over Syria

Friday 26/02/2016
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) speaking with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defence Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz during a military academy graduation ceremony in Cairo, last July.

Cairo - Adverse policies adopted by Cairo and Riyadh on regional developments cannot easily stop rela­tions between the two Arab capitals from working but the latest difference in positions on Syr­ia is deeply affecting relations, even if in hushed tones, political analysts say.

Decision makers in Riyadh are gritting their teeth in anger at Cairo’s decision to stay away from a pro­nounced Saudi bid to send ground troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State (ISIS).

“The Egyptian position will inevi­tably affect relations with Saudi Ara­bia at all levels in the days to come,” said Saad al-Zant, president of Egyp­tian think-tank Centre for Strategic and Political Studies. “There is ap­parent anger in Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi Arabia recently said it was ready to participate in ground oper­ations that an international coalition might launch against ISIS in Syria. The announcement came after re­bels backed by Saudi Arabia, Tur­key and the United States suffered heavy defeats in Aleppo.

Earlier in February, the Syrian Army, along with Hezbollah fighters and Iraqi Shia militias command­ed by Iranian officers, reportedly started pressing forward to encircle about 35,000 rebels in Aleppo.

Rebel supply routes are being cut as the Damascus-allied forces tight­en control on Aleppo and into the northern province of Idlib and the Turkish border.

The rebels are said to be short of weaponry to stave off the offensive. Once Aleppo and northern Syria are taken over by the Damascus coali­tion, the opposition will have suf­fered its heaviest defeat since the war started almost five years ago.

The Saudi offer is largely seen as a disguised response to calls for help from the rebels.

But in Cairo, the developments are seen as good news.

From the very beginning, the Egyptian administration’s position on Syria was clear: There is a need for keeping the Syrian Army intact and finding negotiated solutions to the Syrian crisis, regardless of who is at the helm in Damascus.

“There is deep disparity between the positions of the two countries on how the Syrian war should end,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor from Cairo University. “The new generation of leaders in Saudi Arabia believes in military force as a means of settling foreign policy problems, which is not the belief held in Cairo.”

However, by distancing itself from this Saudi position, Egypt moved closer to the opposite camp, namely that of Russia, Damascus and prob­ably Iran.

This is, observers say, particularly shocking from a country that has re­ceived more than $20 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states over the past two years.

The general feeling in the Gulf, the observers add, is that Egyptian Pres­ident Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is breaking promises regarding defence of other Arab countries. Probably aware of the criticism, Sisi on February 17th said that Egypt’s army would be ready to defend other Arab states if they were attacked.

However, this is less about hon­ouring pledges and more about the difference between how Saudi Ara­bia and Egypt see the Middle East generally, Fahmi says.

“Saudi Arabia sees the region through a sectarian prism, which is not the case in Egypt,” he said.

Cairo is keen to refute reports about strains in ties with Riyadh.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokes­man Ahmed Abu Zeid said there were no problems between Cairo and Riyadh against the background of Saudi Arabia’s plan to send troops to Syria. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry had described the Saudi decision as “sovereign”.

Few, though, are ready to buy into the Egyptian official discourse.

Saudi King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud was scheduled to visit Cairo in October but the visit never took place. There is talk that the Saudi king will visit Cairo in April. Local analysts say the visit will be a test of whether relations between the two Arab states have been strongly affected by the conflict over Syria.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has started punishing Arab countries believed in Riyadh not to be in har­mony with its positions. Riyadh re­cently said it would suspend a $4 billion aid package for the Lebanese army, apparently in response to Beirut’s failure to condemn attacks on the Saudi diplomatic mission in Tehran in January.

Some people say the aid suspen­sion should send a message to Cairo.

“I hope the Saudi and Egyptian leaderships can reach a middle ground on Syria during King Sal­man’s expected visit to Cairo,” Zant said. “Saudi Arabia needs to under­stand that it is running a huge risk by directly stepping into the Syrian minefield.”