Egypt takes the lead on Syria
Egypt should take a leading role in ending the Syrian conflict even if there can be few hopes for a quick fix to the country’s problems, writes Salah Nasrawi
With Islamist rebels, including the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front group, continuing their advance on government-controlled towns in Syria, Egypt is stepping up diplomatic efforts to help moderate opposition forces to work together for a political settlement to the four-year old civil war in the country.
But like all world and regional powers that have been trying to mediate in the Syrian crisis, Egypt faces daunting challenges. While several opposition groups welcomed Cairo’s decision to play a leading role in resolving the ongoing civil war in Syria, scepticism remains rife about forging a united and plausible alternative to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Cairo’s bid to unite the anti-Al-Assad opposition groups is also being challenged by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are leading efforts to overthrow Al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime by backing the predominantly Sunni insurgency.
Nevertheless, Cairo’s invitation to some 200 Syrian activists seeking a political resolution to the inter-communal war in their country demonstrates Egypt’s resurgence as a key player in the Middle East where several other regional powerhouses are also vying for influence.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said that Syrian opposition delegates, nearly half of them from inside Syria, will meet in Cairo on 8 and 9 June to discuss how to form a united opposition front to resolve Syria’s vicious civil war and form a democratic transitional government.
Top Egyptian diplomats have met several times over the last few weeks with senior Syrian opposition representatives in Cairo to prepare for the meeting, dubbed the National Conference of the Opposition Forces for a Political Solution in Syria.
Egyptian officials said the conference would be hosted by the Egyptian Council for Foreign Relations, a think tank associated with the Foreign Ministry, which will provide facilities but will not take part in the two-day discussions.
According to various sources, the conference is expected to come up with a strategy based on a UN-backed roadmap to end the Syrian conflict. The six-point plan was agreed at an international peace conference on Syria in June 2012 intended to stop the violence and move the government and opposition groups towards a political settlement.
The framework, known as the Geneva Communiqué, calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body that will “exercise full executive powers” in Syria. It states that the body could include “members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent”.
While next week’s meeting is expected to reaffirm the need for a political settlement to the conflict based on the Geneva formula, participants are also expected to lay out a broader framework for what they call a united, sovereign and democratic Syria in the post Al-Assad era.
Such a formula, they hope, will create the conditions for the emergence of a new Syrian state that is pluralistic, inclusive, and capable of governing the entire country.
Among other main objectives of the framework is to restructure Syria’s army and security forces following the establishment of the transitional authority in order to avoid their dissolution which would create a security vacuum.
Realising the threats posed by IS and Al-Nusra Front militants who control vast amounts of territory in Syria, the participants will also seek international support to isolate the two groups, including a UN Security Council resolution penalising travel by foreign combatants to Syria.
In order to underline their differences with other groups seeking Al-Assad’s ouster, the organisers of the Cairo meeting have said a policy statement to be endorsed by the conference will call for talks with the regime “if it shows its preparedness to transfer all civil and military powers to a transitional government.”
However, the anti-Al-Assad opposition remains deeply split, and previous efforts to unite the rebel groups have faltered. Though the organisers of the Cairo conference insist that there are no plans to form a new political movement, other opposition groups remain sceptical.
It is unlikely that the Syrian National Coalition, Syria’s main opposition group which receives generous funding from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, will send delegates to the Cairo conference. Some coalition leaders have even accused Egypt of “sympathising” with the Al-Assad regime.
After more than four years of a brutal conflict that has killed some 200,000 people, wounded thousands of others and forced 9.5 million people, more than a third of Syria’s population, from their homes, the Syrians themselves remain sharply divided.
In recent weeks the conflict has reached alarming levels, with hundreds of people perishing in fighting or in government bombing of rebel-controlled areas. Vast amounts of territory, including strategic cities and border crossings, have fallen to the rebels.
Turkey, backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, has recently increased its military intervention in Syria amid speculation that it is pushing hard to establish an air-exclusion zone inside Syria which could later be used to carve out an area under its control in the north of the country.
The civil war in Syria began in 2011 when some opposition groups began an armed rebellion against Al-Assad’s government during the Arab Spring. By 2014, large chunks of Syria had fallen under the control of militants from IS and the Al-Nusra Front.
The Cairo meeting signals Egypt’s determination to reassert itself on the regional stage more than four years after the popular uprising which toppled the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak and set Egypt into political turmoil.
Last month, Egypt hosted meetings for Libyan and Yemeni political and tribal groups in similar bids to broker solutions to the conflicts in the two beleaguered Arab countries.
Egypt fears that the collapse of the Syrian state could trigger wider regional destabilisation and allow IS, which has established an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and the Al-Nusra Front to expand their influence in the region, compromising a central part of its strategy to contain the Islamists.
But Egypt’s resolve to reconfigure the post-uprisings shift in the regional balance of power in its favour seems to be unwelcome to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are converging on an aggressive strategy to topple Al-Assad.
While Egypt’s relationships with Qatar and Turkey remain strained over a host of issues, including the two countries’ support for the banned Muslim Brotherhood group, a disagreement over Syria could translate into a test for Cairo’s relations with Riyadh.
On Sunday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir made a quick stop in Cairo for talks with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on regional conflicts including Syria. While Al-Jubeir denied any “discord” over Syria, there have been few indications that Egypt has changed its position on pushing for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
“The meeting dealt with regional issues, in particular Syria, Yemen and Libya. There was agreement on the importance of reaching political solutions to the conflicts in these countries which will stop the bloodshed, protect their territorial integrity, and preserve their national institutions,” said a statement from the Egyptian presidency following Al-Jubeir’s meeting with Al-Sisi.
But diplomatic words alone cannot paper over the ambiguity or even contradictory messages in the statement. A meticulous reading of the text shows that Egypt is standing by its position that any solution to the Syrian crisis must ensure the unity of the country and keep its state apparatus and army intact.
In this regard the Saudi stance on Syria is not close to that of Egypt, which also says Al-Assad should be part of a negotiated settlement. Egypt’s stance, deeply suspicious of the Islamist movements throughout the region, fears that Syria’s descent into chaos will give extremists, such as IS and the Al-Nusra Front, a chance to fill the vacuum following Al-Assad’s fall.
That is not what Saudi Arabia believes or wants. Indeed, Riyadh is hosting its own conference for the Syrian opposition groups, with radical Islamist groups including the Al-Nusra Front reportedly invited, later this month in order to discuss plans to escalate military operations against Damascus and prepare for the post Al-Assad era.
Egypt might not succeed in its ultimate goal in its mediation to resolve such a complex situation, but its invitation to the Syrian groups to come to Cairo signals its determination to pursue a more proactive foreign policy, while carefully seeking to avoid any immediate confrontation, particularly with a key financial backer like Saudi Arabia.
Because of the threat that IS and the Al-Nusra Front terrorist groups may be the alternative to the Al-Assad regime, Syria is a matter of national security for Egypt. If Egypt does not act now, who will.
This article appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on June 4, 2015