Fear of ISIS, emboldened Israel shape Egypt’s stance on Syria
CAIRO - Fear of the Islamic State (ISIS) seeping out of Syria and into Jordan and consequently near Egypt’s borders has pushed Cairo to lobby for restoring Syrian statehood and shoring up the legitimate government in Damascus, analysts say.
There are also fears in Cairo that the collapse of Syria’s army will create a much weaker Arab front against Israel.
“The collapse of the Syrian Army and the destruction of Syria’s state institutions just mean that an important regional player is totally out of the power game in this region,” Egypt’s former foreign minister Mohamed al-Orabi said. “This will leave the Egyptian Army with the burden of defending Arab interests alone.”
Egypt has viewed the Syrian Army as an integral part of its power. When it launched a military offensive against Israel in 1973 to recapture the Sinai peninsula, occupied by Israel in 1967, Cairo acted in coordination with Syria, which staged an offensive to recapture the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel six years earlier. The countries also used to have a common defence pact.
Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1978 and has maintained the peace with the Jewish state, even though in a cold manner. However, there are few illusions in Egypt about the peace. Some Egyptians say the peace treaty can falter any time, especially if Israel tries to reoccupy Sinai.
By bucking a general anti-Syrian President Bashar Assad trend, though, Egypt may be jeopardising its ties with important Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia, which gave Egypt billions of dollars in aid, keeping it afloat during its political and economic turmoil in the past two years.
Saudi Arabia and regional allies Qatar and Turkey have been arming and training the Syrian opposition since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. The three countries consider Shia Iran-backed Assad to be at the centre of a Sunni-Shia regional struggle for supremacy.
The three countries have called for Assad’s removal from power but that is not the view generally held in decision-making centres in Cairo.
Orabi says Egypt is least concerned about whether Assad stays in power or leaves.
“Egypt only works to protect Syria as a state, whose collapse will cause many problems to Egypt,” he said.
Political science Professor Walid Kazziha, of the American University in Cairo, says a power vacuum in Syria would allow the country to fall into the hands of terrorist organisations.
“Libya provides us with a strong example about how countries turn to chaos when the central government falls down,” said Kazziha.
To prevent this vacuum, Egypt talks to regional players, tries to convince the Syrian opposition to have a unified stance and also apparently is in communication with the government in Damascus.
Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk was in Cairo in September. In an interview a few weeks ago, Assad referred to the presence of security coordination between his regime and Egypt.
There have also been media reports about shipments of Egyptian missiles and ammunition sent to Assad by sea. Cairo has not confirmed such reports. If they prove to be true, they would mark a clear policy shift on Syria.
The Muslim Brotherhood wholeheartedly backed the Syrian opposition against Assad. In October 2012, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Muhammad Morsi severed diplomatic ties with Damascus and announced full support for the anti-Assad opposition.
That Morsi’s regime and his Muslim Brotherhood movement sent jihadists and arms to the opposition was confirmed in 2012 by Safwat Hegazi, a preacher and a strong supporter of Morsi, who is now in jail.
The change of mind in Cairo, meanwhile, is based on national fears that, with Assad’s army wiped out, ISIS may have an easy ride through the heart of Jordan and into Egypt’s Sinai through the Gulf of Aqaba.
Egypt fights against an ISIS surrogate in Sinai already. Called Sinai Province, the militant group has attacked army troops and police in the north-eastern peninsula for almost two years. It wants to create an Islamic caliphate in Sinai.
“With ISIS taking root and growing in neighbouring Libya, Egypt has reasons to fear from more ISIS terrorists arriving in from Jordan in case Syria falls down,” security expert Khaled Okasha said.
This might explain repeated meetings between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and King Abdullah II of Jordan since the Egyptian leader came to power in June 2014. They met ten times from June 2014 through May 2015.
A few months ago, Egypt’s former foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit called for the deployment of the Egyptian Army in Jordan if ISIS attacked the Hashemite kingdom.