Egypt possibly eyeing a more active role in Syria

Sunday 20/11/2016
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (L) attending an international meeting in Lausanne, last October

CAIRO - Egypt says it will not send troops to Syria but that does not rule out the pos­sibility it is being pushed to play a political role to bring the war to an end, experts said.
“Egypt is the country most qualified to broker a settlement to the conflict in Syria, given the fact that it is on good terms with everybody involved in the Syrian conflict,” said political researcher Hani al-Jamal. “Unlike other coun­tries, Egypt does not have a special agenda for or against any player in this conflict.”
Egypt’s denial of potential mili­tary involvement in Syria comes hard on the heels of a rare visit to Cairo late in October by Ali Mam­louk, a special security adviser to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In Cairo, Mamlouk met with Egyptian intelligence officials and discussed cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
A short time later, Russian me­dia reports suggested Egypt would send troops to aid Assad against radical Islamist groups occupying large swathes of Syria. The Syr­ian presidency said it would issue a statement if there are Egyptian troops in Syria.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry vehemently denied the reports, saying sending troops to Syria is not on Cairo’s agenda.
“Reports that we are sending our army to fight in Syria are to­tally baseless,” said Foreign Min­istry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid. “Egypt is for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Syria.”
“There are close contacts be­tween Cairo and Damascus now,” said Bassam al-Malik, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition coalition. “Over the past three years, Egypt has managed to open channels of communication with the Syrian regime after a brief freeze in rela­tions.”
Malik applied for political asy­lum in Egypt a few months ago but, he said, his request was turned down.
Syria is expected to be the main topic in discussions between Egyp­tian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, Egyptian media re­ports say, is expected in Cairo in November.
Putin is expected to attend a signing ceremony of contracts to build a nuclear power reactor in north-western Egypt using Rus­sian technology and funding.
He is also expected to announce the resumption of Russian flights to the Red Sea resorts of Sharm el- Sheikh and Hurghada, a year after they were suspended when a Rus­sian passenger plane was brought down by a bomb over Sinai.
Putin’s expected push for more Egyptian involvement in Syria will, sources say, seek to exploit two main developments: The first is the success of Donald Trump in winning the US presidential elec­tion and the second being the re­cent flare-up of tensions between Cairo and Riyadh over Syria.
Trump has promised to cooper­ate with Russia in ending the Syr­ian conflict and suspend US sup­port for the Syrian opposition.
Egypt, on the other hand, backs the Russian clampdown on radical groups fighting Assad, favours him staying in power for a transitional period and prefers a negotiated so­lution to the conflict.
In this, Egypt differs from its main financiers in the Gulf, espe­cially Saudi Arabia, which is an­gered by Cairo’s failure to follow its stance on Syria.
Egyptian analysts said the fact that Cairo has started breaking the ice between it and Iran also gives it more leverage in the Syrian war.
“Cairo has no bias when it comes to the Syrian conflict,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo University. “This makes it a trustworthy broker for all players in this conflict.”