[Marxism] Egypt and Turkey Soften Positions on Syria, Benefiting Assad
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 3 07:07:53 MST 2016
(Since when was Egypt a "vocal opponent" of Assad?)
NY Times, Dec. 3 2016
Egypt and Turkey Soften Positions on Syria, Benefiting Assad
By ANNE BARNARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian government, flush with pivotal battlefield
gains and bolstered by support from Iran and Russia, is finding itself
the beneficiary of an evolving regional realignment spurred by the war
Egypt and Turkey, countries that were once vocal opponents of Syria’s
president, Bashar al-Assad, have, to varying degrees, softened their
positions. Egypt, the region’s most populous Sunni country and wary of
Iran’s Shiite theocracy, has made its tacit, increasing support of the
Syrian government public for the first time. And Turkey, a Sunni
regional power, is reshaping the Syrian battlefield by edging closer to
Russia and dampening its longtime support for rebels fighting Mr. Assad.
The shifts come at a volatile time as countries in the Middle East long
aligned with the United States are hedging their bets and looking to
Moscow for support as Russian intervention transforms the conflict in Syria.
The maneuvering comes as Russia asserts itself across the region to a
degree not seen since Soviet times, partnering with an increasingly
ambitious Iran. Longstanding American alliances with Turkey, Egypt and
Saudi Arabia are frayed, and face new uncertainty with the election of
Donald J. Trump, whose foreign policy remains largely undefined, except
for an avowed eagerness to shake things up.
Egypt, which has seen its influence wane, is seeking allies and
relevance wherever it can find them, even if that means shelving
concerns about Iran.
While Russia’s goal seems to be to expand its influence and pave the way
for the international rehabilitation of Mr. Assad’s government, the
scrambling of alliances remains in motion and the results unclear. The
new relationships are messy, contradictory works in progress.
“In today’s regional context, this tactical hedging by countries on
multiple fronts is likely to continue and may accelerate under a Trump
administration,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for
American Progress in Washington.
Egypt and Turkey both provide examples of hedging, testing realignments
but not jumping in with both feet.
Turkey has reached a potentially game-changing understanding with Russia
in northern Syria — slackening support for besieged rebels in the
divided city of Aleppo in exchange for a sphere of influence along its
border — but continues to push the deal’s boundaries politically and
militarily. And Egypt is diverging from its traditional allies in some
ways, by splitting from Saudi Arabia on Syria; it remains financially
dependent on the kingdom and hopes to mend fences with the United States
under Mr. Trump.
Egypt, Mr. Katulis said, is “seeking to signal that it has an
independent perspective and position” on the Syrian conflict and on
regional policy, balancing the United States and Russia, not aligning
entirely with either the Gulf Arab states or Iran.
The emerging “Sisi doctrine,” named for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi
of Egypt, said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century
Foundation, a New York-based research institute, is “rigid anti-Islamism
and rigid anti-militancy and a very vocal support for nation states and
Those positions are congruent with Mr. Assad’s. However, they diverge
from those of Saudi Arabia, which has long been one of Egypt’s main
financial lifelines, supplying aid worth tens of billions of dollars.
Mr. Sisi is also increasingly wary of Turkey. He sees the recent defeat
of a coup attempt against Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist government as “the
birth of a religious state in Europe,” he told Mr. Katulis in July
during a two-hour interview for a forthcoming report on United States
policy in Egypt.
Yet, Mr. Katulis said, the Egyptian president also made clear that he
remained suspicious of Iran’s Shiite brand of Islamism despite its
alignment with Mr. Assad and opposition to Turkey in Syria.
But for now, Mr. Sisi seems to be putting concerns about Iran on the
back burner and focusing more on Sunni Islamist movements, which he sees
as a bigger threat. And lending support to Syria helps a weakened Egypt
evoke its glory days as the leader of Arab nationalism in the 1960s.
Mr. Sisi’s emphasis on state sovereignty, supporting Arab states against
insurgents, is also a major boon to the Syrian government’s quest for
legitimacy, said Kamal Alam, a visiting fellow at the Royal United
Services Institute in London and Levant Consultant for the Hoplite Group.
Three years ago, Turkey and Egypt were prominent supporters of the
Syrian rebellion, aligned with Saudi Arabia in what the Saudis saw as a
geopolitical and sectarian struggle against Iran.
Today, both countries have tilted to different degrees away from Saudi
Arabia and toward Russia, if not directly Iran. So has Jordan, another
American ally and mostly Sunni country whose support for rebels had
always been relatively lukewarm.
All three seek to insulate themselves from the upheaval in Syria — from
refugees and migrants, from the Islamist militants like Islamic State
and Qaeda affiliates that gained footholds within the insurgency they
helped support, and from any possible popular revolt.
The first to peel away was Egypt, in 2013, after Mr. Sisi, an army
general, seized power from Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader
who had emphatically supported the Syrian revolt. Pro-government news
media made it clear that the Egyptian stance on Syria had changed;
Syrian refugees were even attacked in the streets.
Mr. Sisi and his foreign ministry avoided explicitly voicing support for
Mr. Assad — presumably to avoid antagonizing the Saudis. But they
quietly hosted Syrian officials, and positioned themselves as an Arab
partner for Moscow on Syria.
Then relations soured with Saudi Arabia, in part over Egypt’s refusal to
actively engage in its fight in Yemen against Iran-backed rebels. The
Saudis cut off discounted oil deliveries.
Egypt’s alignment with the pro-Assad front became more public. In
October, Iran pushed to add Egypt to international talks on Syria, and
Egypt voted with Russia on a United Nations resolution on Syria. Cairo
also recently hosted Syria’s powerful security chief, Ali Mamlouk — not
his first visit during the Syrian war, but the first to be publicly
Then, last month, Mr. Sisi tossed a modicum of public support to Mr.
Assad. Asked whether Egypt would be willing to send peacekeeping troops
to Syria, Mr. Sisi said it was best to support “national armies.” When
pressed to clarify if that meant forces loyal to Mr. Assad, Mr. Sisi
gave a terse “yes.”
It was just a few words, but for Mr. Assad, internationally isolated,
any small nod to legitimacy matters. Soon, reports even circulated that
Egypt was sending pilots to aid Mr. Assad’s war effort. Egyptian
officials strongly denied it, and regional analysts agreed it was
Egypt is not in a position to carry out foreign military adventures, so
the significance of its new steps is mainly optical. But they left Saudi
Arabia “pretty clearly irate,” said Mr. Hanna, who studies Egypt and the
region at the Century Foundation.
But the chances are that Saudi Arabia will continue to send Egypt aid
whose main purpose is to shore up stability there. And Mr. Sisi appears
Even as an outcry arose over the intensive bombing of Aleppo this week,
Egypt in an emergency Security Council meeting justified its decision
not to support “any side against the other.” The statement was seen as a
polite way of refusing to apologize for not hewing to the Saudi line.
Turkey, too, has been unusually quiet on Aleppo. That, to many
observers, confirms it has essentially agreed with Russia on a trade:
Turkey allows rebel defeat in Aleppo, in exchange for Russia’s blessing
of its incursion into Syria farther north to keep Kurdish militias away
from its border.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey even submitted to public
censure from Russia on Thursday, for declaring his country was still
trying to topple Mr. Assad. After being asked for clarification by
Moscow, Mr. Erdogan reversed himself, insisting that Turkey’s goal in
Syria was solely to fight terrorism.
But the parameters of the Turkey-Russia deal remain murky and possibly
undefined even between the parties, Mr. Hanna said, making for a
Turkey entered Syria with a force of anti-Assad rebels to set up what it
calls a safe zone along the border. But as they move farther south and
east, the likelihood increases that they will come into conflict with
Russian-backed government forces, or American-backed Kurdish forces.
“It’s a dangerous fault line,” Mr. Hanna said. “If you put anti-Assad
rebels who have sublimated their goals to serve Turkish interests in
very close proximity to regime forces, how much control does Turkey have
over its proxies?”
Another question is how much control Russia has over the Syrian government.
Diplomatic realignment can go only so far, and the more triumphant
Damascus feels the harder it may be for Russia to deliver “a
de-escalatory path,” said Mr. Hanna, who favors United States-Russia
talks to reach a political solution but says the main obstacle is the
Syrian government’s inflexibility.
“Russia lines up the regional dominoes,” he said. “And the regime says,
‘Great, now let’s continue fighting this war.’ ”
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