Assad finds a New Friend in Cairo
As the tumultuous waters continue to swirl in the Middle East, President Mohammed Morsi’s fall, the Egyptian military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Sinai insurgency have added new dynamics to Cairo’s foreign policy. Egypt’s emboldened interim-government has embarked on a dramatic new path, which includes a restoration of Egyptian-Syrian relations. The growing Egyptian-Syrian partnership has the potential to significantly alter the Middle East’s balance of power when the conflicts in both countries finally resolve.
The latter half of the Cold War’s impact on the Arab world, coupled with several important developments that impacted the region’s balance, pitted the strategic interests of Damascus and Cairo against each other. Such transformations included the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, the fall of Iran’s Shah in 1979, the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Hezbollah’s 2006 standoff with Israel, the rise of Hamas in Gaza and Western-imposed sanctions on Iran. Consequently, Egyptian-Syrian relations remained peaceful, yet cold, for the majority of the past 39 years. During Hafez al-Assad’s presidency (1970-2000), Syria severed ties with Egypt after it made peace with Israel. However, relations resumed a decade later.
To counter U.S. and Israeli agendas in the Levant, Bashar al-Assad reached out to Egypt shortly after coming to power in 2000, and relations did improve.
Egyptian-Syrian relations recently grew hostile when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government sided with the Syrian rebels and Morsi called on young Egyptians to travel to Syria and wage holy war against the Syrian Army. Egypt’s interim government has outlined an opposite course for Cairo vis-à-vis Syria.
The shared interests of Egypt’s and Syria’s governments are indicative of some anti-Islamist currents in the region that led to Morsi’s ouster, and the Syrian opposition’s failure to unite. General Sisi and President Assad presently lack democratic legitimacy, yet the legitimacy that both leaders do possess is largely rooted in fears of the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda’s brand of extremism.
The ongoing attacks that militant Salafists have waged across Egypt (and most of North Africa) that target Sufi shrines and Copts have led many in Egypt’s Sufi Muslim and Christian communities to welcome Morsi’s fall. Syria’s ruling order maintains an important support base from religious minorities that has grown stronger as a consequence of the hard-line Salafist rebels who have targeted Alawite and Christian communities. Egypt’s and Syria’s militaries are both engaged in a struggle against Salafist insurgents committed to establishing Islamic emirates in northern Sinai and northern Syria. This guarantees Sisi and Assad with continued support from groups in both countries, and abroad, opposed to the Salafists.
The prominent militant Salafist factions in the Sinai (such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen Fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis al-Takfir wal-Hijra, and Jaish al-Islam) hold much in common with the Salafist jihadists in Syria (such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the Ahrar al-Sham Battalions) with respect to their ideologies and political objectives across the Middle East and North Africa. In sum, Sisi and Assad view themselves as sitting in the same boat with respect to the forces of political Islam that have influenced, in no small part, the course of events since the ‘Arab Awakening’ erupted two and a half years ago.
The two leaders have justified their crackdowns under the banner of ‘fighting terrorism.’ While some of their enemies accuse them of using lethal force to crush democratic movements, both Messrs. Sisi and Assad understand that international support for one bodes well for the other’s position. What may eventually prove to constitute a new realignment in the Middle East and North Africa was showcased earlier this month when the Arab League voted on foreign military intervention in Syria.
Before voting in concert with Assad’s Arab allies (Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon), Egypt’s foreign minister stated the interim government’s opposition to “any aggression in Syria,” which underscored Cairo’s opposition to the U.S. military taking any action that could undermine the Syrian military’s capacity to wage a counter-insurgency against the plethora of armed groups inside Syria, including those affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Sisi’s relationship with Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia — which seek Mr. Assad’s ouster — will complicate the prospects for a maturing Egyptian-Syrian relationship. It appears that Sisi is combining the tenants of Nasser and Sadat’s approach to Egyptian foreign policy. Whereas Nasser established a partnership with the Soviet Union, Arab nationalist governments (Algeria, Iraq, and Syria), and waged a proxy war in Yemen against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Sadat realigned Egypt under the U.S. sphere of influence and deepened ties between Egypt and the Arab Gulf monarchies.
While Washington’s foreign policy has become increasingly neutered and muddled, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have stepped up their economic assistance to Egypt after Morsi’s removal. As an influential state that has historically played a leadership role in Arab affairs, Egypt has great value to a variety of states. The Americans, Israelis, Saudis, Syrians, and Russians will continue to attempt to influence Egypt’s foreign policy according to their own respective interests. To strengthen the Egyptian military’s clout as it wages a counter-insurgency in the Sinai and faces off against Morsi loyalists in other areas of Egypt, Cairo will depend on its web of foreign alliances. On the international stage, Mr. Sisi’s challenge is to play off rival powers’ competing agendas to his advantage.
While much uncertainty defines Egypt’s short-term future, he has successfully balanced Egypt’s traditional allies with his new friend, Assad. Depending on how the Egyptian and Syrian conflicts play out, Mr. Sisi may turn out to have been the most cunning player in the Middle East.