Is Egypt’s Sisi planning an alliance with Syria’s Assad?

Abdel Fatah al-Sisi

The Syrian opposition, especially those who live outside the country, are lost in a complex labyrinth of possibilities and spin, and continue to seek a way out, writes Abdelbari Atwan.

The international group of eleven remaining “Friends of Syria” is breathing its last. UN envoy special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, resigned this week out of sheer despair and frustration just as did his predecessor, Kofi Annan.

The Geneva Process has served as a distraction from what is actually happening on the ground in Syria and provided a stage for politicians to perform on, as well as keeping the Syrian crisis alive in the minds of Arab and world public opinion… yet it has failed to bear fruit.

The time is ripe, then, for those seeking to explore (or exploit) new possibilities.

A significant new development came earlier this week when Egypt’s foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, met with a delegation of Syrian opposition figures in Cairo. These were men from across the political, religious and ethnic spectrum (rather than being from the official Syrian National Coalition opposition umbrella) and the visit suggests that Egypt is seeking a new body politic with which to co-ordinate efforts to either rehabilitate the present regime or reframe the struggle.

Let us consider this event in greater detail.

First, it comes less than 10 days before the presidential election that is certain to be won by Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi – the votes from ex-patriot Egyptians is already in with 94.4 percent in favour of al-Sisi.

Second, the participants of the Syrian delegation were carefully selected and included Moaz Al-Khatib, Haytham Manna, Aref Dalila, Jihad Makdissi, and actor Jamal Suliman. What these men have in common is that they are all secular, with not a single Islamist among them – unlike the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) which comprises a large number of Muslim Brotherhood members. In addition, these delegates are known to oppose arming the opposition and any military action to forcefully depose Assad.

We can infer from these facts that the current Egyptian Government is looking for a Syrian al-Sisi in one form or another. In other words, for a Syrian regime backed and run by the army.

What isn’t clear is whether this is an Egyptian initiative alone or a new, internationally devised, approach developed in co-ordination with the Gulf States, the US, Britain and France.

Syrian National Council

This is a very significant question, because it is well known that Saudi Arabia has always been a major backer of SNC and its President, Mr Ahmad Al-Jarba; in addition, France this week decided to follow the US and Britain in granting the SNC its own embassy in Paris, raising it to the level of a diplomatic mission.

If the Egyptian position was crystallized after prior coordination with Riyadh, this may suggest that a change is imminent in Saudi policy toward Syria and that it may yet abandon the SNC.

Another fact to consider is Riyadh’s apparent desire for rapprochement with Iran which will certainly impact on its policy towards Syria, Iran being a stalwart supporter of the status quo in Damascus.

The SNC has experienced successive crises, and had failed to be an effective tent for all the various Syrian opposition groups and factions; while it may be able to form an interim government, this would not be representative of the whole nation and in addition, the SNC is riddled with infighting between its own elements.

Syrian president Bashar al Assad
Syrian president Bashar al Assad

The recent agreement by which fighters in Homs were allowed to withdraw and offered safe passage with their families was a blow to the SNC, because it was arranged by direct negotiations between the regime and the trapped fighters, without intermediaries. In addition, it was overseen by a peace-keeping unit formed of UN officials and Iranian military personnel.

The SNC has been plagued by high level resignations of late, with Defence Minister Assad al-Mustaffa quitting this week. Next month’s SNC meeting in Istanbul may see the election of a new President. Paradoxically, that will be at the same time as President Assad’s supporters will be preparing a marquee in which to celebrate his inevitable re-election for a third term in the state-sponsored Presidential elections.

And here we return to the similarities between the Egyptian and Syrian files: al-Sisi and Assad are both certain to prevail and any semblance of opposition is simply to give the process a veneer of “democracy”; in addition the two have a military background – Assad became a Colonel on the Syrian army after returning from his medical studies in London. Another very important convergence is the two men’s hostility towards political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.

Both leaders – along with the international community – will also have an eye on the post-revolutionary chaos in Libya which nobody wants to see repeated in Syria. In Tripoli, too, a military figure is attempting to establish control and spearheading a campaign against radical Islamists – (US trained) General Khalifa al-Hafta.

We do not rule out some form of co-operation between Cairo and Damascus under the banner of “combatting terrorism” and with mutual endorsement for both regimes’ legitimacy.

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