[Marxism] Egypt and Turkey Soften Positions on Syria, Benefiting Assad

Louis Proyect 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 
in Syria.

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 
sovereignty.”

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 
acknowledged.

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 
extremely unlikely.

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 
undaunted.

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 
volatile situation.

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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