Egypt mediation hopes in Syria facing uncertainty
Cairo- Egypt’s nascent attempts to mediate a solution to the conflict in Syria must address hurdles in eastern Ghouta and northern Homs.
Egyptian mediation efforts succeeded in late July and early August to de-escalate fighting in the two regions, capitalising on Cairo’s good terms with both Russia, which is backing the Assad regime, and rebel groups fighting the Syrian Army.
However, the de-escalation appears to be colliding with the plans of Qatar and Turkey, which are backing rival forces in Syria.
“Both countries will not allow Egypt to have a presence on the Syrian stage,” said Firas al-Khalidi, a representative for the Cairo group of the Syrian opposition. “The roots of the positions of the two countries can be traced to regional rivalries and in the huge gap between Egypt’s vision for solving the conflict in Syria and their vision for the same.”
Cairo relied on Syria’s Tomorrow Movement, an opposition political party founded in Cairo in 2016, to convince groups active in the two regions to agree to a ceasefire.
Syria’s Tomorrow Movement leader Ahmad Jarba, a former president of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, confirmed that Cairo was a viable broker because it was not directly backing any party in the conflict.
“Egypt was not implicated in the shedding of Syrian blood either,” Jarba said at a news briefing in Cairo. “Cairo’s strong ties with Moscow played a central role in turning the aspired deal into a reality.”
However, absent from the signing of the ceasefire in Cairo were several groups active in both regions, including al-Rahman Legion, a coalition of Islamist militias backed by Turkey and Qatar. The group said it would not agree to any ceasefire deal sponsored by Egypt or agreed to in Cairo and instead called for future ceasefire talks to be in Doha.
Egypt had hoped the eastern Ghouta and northern Homs ceasefire deals would serve as models for other regions of the embattled country.
“The hope was for these two ceasefires to be emulated in other areas so those fighting against each other in Syria could have the chance to sit down and find a negotiated solution,” said Mohamed Orabi, a former Egyptian foreign minister and now a member of the country’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee. “Egypt believes that there can be no military solution to this conflict, which is why it works hard to convince all parties to solve their problems at the negotiating table.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi differs from regional allies such as Saudi Arabia that insist Syrian President Bashar Assad must step down. Cairo’s desire to broker a solution to the Syrian conflict is based on the fear that, if the country fragments, it could fall further into the hands of Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS).
The eastern Ghouta ceasefire is holding but there have been reports of flare-ups in a number of suburbs, controlled by the al-Rahman Legion and allied militias, Jarba said.
He called on al-Rahman to join the ceasefire, holding it responsible for violence in suburbs it has controlled since the signing of the ceasefire July 22 in Cairo.
Al-Rahman has denied being behind the violence. “Those holding us responsible for the crimes committed by Assad [in these suburbs] equate the victim and the victimiser,” an al-Rahman Legion statement said.
To those in Cairo closely following Egypt’s mediation efforts in Syria, the exchange of blame means that the prospects of future mediation efforts are far from certain. However, such mediation could work in areas in Idlib, Hama and Latakia, where groups financed by Turkey or Qatar are not in control.
“These areas, at least, can form a good basis for the calm both Egypt and Russia aspire to achieve in Syria to open the door for negotiations,” said Tarek Fahmy, a political science professor at Cairo University. “As for other areas, I think Egypt will need assistance from other parties to bring about this de-escalation, including the United States, which can influence rival countries.”