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Egypt resumes a leadership role

The Times of Israel, August 21, 2017

One of the important byproducts of the recent turn of events in the Syrian crisis has been the role taken by Egypt. For decades Egypt had been the principal actor in inter-Arab relations. It lost that role several years ago due to the convulsions of domestic Egyptian politics and to the decline of Egypt’s weight and impact owing to the rise of Iran and Turkey in Middle Eastern regional politics, and to the increased influence of the rich Arab states in the Gulf.

The changing tide of the Syrian civil war has given Egypt both the impetus and the opportunity to take the initiative and play a leading role in the crisis that has torn the Arab world since March 2011. Bashar Assad’s declaration of victory was premature at the time — he controls some forty percent of the national territory while the opposition still controls important strongholds — but the capture of Aleppo was in fact a turning point and, with Russian and Iranian support, Assad and his regime are steadily increasing the area under their sway. The sense of an unstoppable march by this coalition is enhanced by the drift of Trump’s Syrian policy. It is now clear that after several statements and actions indicating a determination to stop Iran’s advance in the region and to do it in the Syrian arena, Washington is now focused narrowly on destroying ISIS in Syria (and Iraq) and has resolved to act in coordination with Russia to stabilize the situation in Syria.

This state of affairs is a cause for concern in several Middle Eastern capitals. Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Jordan and Egypt (the Sunni bloc) are alarmed by the prospect of an Iranian-Soviet colony in Syria under the guise of a restored Syrian state headed by Assad. Israel and Jordan are concerned both by Iranian and Russian hegemony in Syria at large, and more specifically by the penetration of pro-Iranian Shiite militias into southwestern Syria, close to their borders. Israel dispatched a security delegation to Washington to express its concerns and to try to obtain a US commitment to oppose continued Iranian military presence in Syria. Early press accounts in Israel indicate Israeli disappointment with the results of the visit.

It is against this backdrop that Egypt’s recent activism in Syria should be seen. Egypt is mediating between the regime and opposition groups in negotiating local cease fire agreements and Egyptian delegations are playing a role in the initial efforts underway to rebuild Syria’s economy. This policy represents a stark departure from an earlier policy that insisted on Assad’s departure from power. Cairo’s change of policy was resented by Saudi Arabia, a stauncher foe of Assad, but the Saudis now seem to realize that without US participation the policy of investing in opposition groups leads nowhere. They are receptive to the Egyptian argument that its policy in Syria is one of damage control, and that it is preferable for them to play a role and thereby reduce Iranian influence.

This view is shared at least to some extent by Israel. Israel may not have high hopes that Egypt could actually dispossess Iran in Syria, but it agrees that a greater Egyptian role could diminish that of Iran and place in the Syrian arena an actor that shares Israel’s view of the region and has a close security relationship with Israel. What works in the Sinai could possibly work in Syria.

Next month Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will travel to the US to participate in the UN’s General Assembly. He will also visit Washington. His relationship with the Trump Administration is good. He is no longer haunted by criticism of his domestic policy, and his dialogue with the Administration tends to focus on shared interests and concerns in the region. Sisi was present in Riad when President Trump spoke about the need to stop and restrain Iran. Trump’s high rhetoric, as we saw, has not been followed by a coherent, consistent policy. Sisi’s visit will provide an excellent opportunity to seek a transformation of the Riad rhetoric into policy.