Following the conclusion of June 8conference of Syrian opposition forces in Cairo, it looks like Egypt has adopted a new policy on the Syrian crisis, shifting a position formerly supportive of its strategic regional partner, Saudi Arabia. The government is now rejecting a military solution and instead is calling for a political resolution to the crisis that erupted in 2011.
In June 2014, Sisi took power in Egypt and sought out middle ground to avoid jeopardizing relations with international and regional actors, primarily Saudi Arabia and Russia, which have taken conflicting positions on Syria.
Despite Turkey’s new alliance with Saudi Arabia on Syria, with both supporting jihadist movements there, Cairo’s diplomatic efforts appear geared toward countering or lessening Turkey’s active role in the conflict. At the same time, Egypt is taking steps toward rapprochement with Russia and is considering Assad’s existence as part of a potential solution.
While Cairo has been relying on Saudi Arabia, deeming it a strategic ally since Sisi’s accession, Egyptian media have reported tensions between Cairo and Riyadh over Syrian crisis management stemming from the Saudi alliance with Turkey, including supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorists in Syria to bring down Assad. Reports from Persian Gulf are predicting that even more differences may arise, especially given Cairo’s decision to host Syrian opposition figures and formulate a road map before an anticipated gathering of the Syrian opposition in Riyadh, albeit at an undetermined date.
However, despite the two states’ differences, Egypt and Saudi Arabia signed a pact in Cairo aimed at boosting military and economic ties between the two Arab allies. Saudi-Egypt relations have warmed since ouster of Islamist President Mohammad Morsi in 2013, with Saudi Arabia offering billions in aid to Egypt. Indeed, what makes Cairo to think twice before announcing its policies more loudly is the fact that it is dependent on Al Saud’s financial aid.
Although, during a meeting between Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair and his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shukri, confirmed that there is no disagreement between the two countries on the Yemeni and Syrian files, Egypt-based Al-Shurooq newspaper emphasized that there are still tough tensions between Egypt and Saudi Arabia “over the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen and Syria” .Saudi Arabia, Egyptian news paper claimed, is paving the way “for the Muslim Brotherhood to ascend to power in Yemen… and Egypt considers this a red line.”
But who is telling the truth? Saudi and Egyptian foreign ministers or Al-Shurooq? However, looking more precisely, one can see there is a gap between what Al-Jubair said and what Shukri said about the same issue.
While Riyadh is a key backer of rebels and terrorists who are fightng Assad’s government; Egypt’s government, which is deeply suspicious of religiously inspired movements throughout the region, says Assad will have to be part of a negotiated settlement.
Riyadh is clear that the fall of Assad is the first step to putting an end to the Syrian tragedy. Cairo, though, seems hesitant and has not yet decided what it wants. It is no wonder that Cairo’s diplomatic discourse is generalized, vague and indirect. This begs the question as to whether such vagueness implies a vision that is contrary to that of the Saudis and ambiguity is nothing but courtesy toward Saudi Arabia. The fact is that in as much as Egypt needs Saudi Arabia, the latter also needs Egypt. Why then is direct language used here but not there?
The main difference between Riyadh and Cairo is that of priority. Riyadh believes the resisting Iranian influence in the region is the most pressing issue, as seen in its intervention in Yemen, while Sisi believes the priority is to stop the influence of Islamists as they represent an existential threat to his regime.
There are also disagreements between Cairo and Riyadh on Syria and Yemen. On Syria, Sisi believes that a political solution is needed, which should include Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi supports military options. The Saudi-led action in Yemen has also affected trust, because Sisi has had relations with the Ansarullah movement and the deposed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, while they are Al Saud’s enemies.
Touching on Russia’s support for Syrian government, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said that Egypt has talked to Moscow officials. The Russians want a political solution to the Syrian crisis, which is supported by Egypt.
Divided over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, Arab countries have kept silent over Russian air strikes in Syria, apart from Cairo which openly supports Moscow’s campaign. Egypt, welcomed the Russian campaign as a measure to fight terrorist groups like ISIS.
“We believe that the (Russian intervention) will impact the fight against terrorism in Syria and help eliminate it,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri said in New York.
It seems that Egypt’s Sisi in line with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy that seeks to revive the camp of authoritarian nationalism in the face of Islamist movements, rather than Saudi Arabia who is trapped in Syria and Yemen cases.