OTTAWA, Canada – The Syrian regime-friendly newspaper As-Safir published an article on November 24 claiming that an Egyptian military unit had been deployed to Syria to provide logistical support to President Bashar al-Assad’s army. The report claimed that the Egyptian unit had been stationed at Hama Airbase in central Syria since November 12 and included 18 pilots, four of whom hold senior military ranks. An anonymous source quoted in the article added that an additional two generals from Egypt’s military chief command are now based in Damascus and are visiting battle front lines and holding military evaluation meetings.
News of Egypt’s presence in Syria came only days after Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared his country’s support for Assad’s military. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem later stated at a press conference in Damascus that Syrian-Egyptian relations are progressing, adding that only a “small jump remains for affairs to return to normal.”
The As-Safir report created some confusion and controversy among observers who follow the region, prompting the Egyptian embassy in Beirut to issue a response. Ambassador Nazieh al-Najari denied claims of his country’s military involvement in Syria, but As-Safir issued a rebuttal, publishing an explanation confirming the accuracy of its source. On November 29, Russian news agency Sputnik also reported that a Syrian military source confirmed Egyptian participation, saying that the Syrian government welcomed the contribution from any Arab army to “counter terrorism in the Syrian territory.”
Whether or not the report from As-Safir is accurate, it is only a matter of time before Egypt finalizes its alliances with Assad and Russia. The article’s author, Mohamed Ballout, a journalist with reportedly strong relations with the Syrian mukhabarat (intelligence agency), suggested that Egypt will likely increase its involvement in Syria beginning in January 2017.
If Egypt does in fact engage militarily in Syria, it is likely that the major power dynamics in Syria and the region will be deeply disturbed.
Damascus and Cairo have maintained strong ties throughout the last 60 years, interrupted only during the Arab Spring in 2011, when popular uprisings protested military rule in both countries. When the Egyptian revolution succeeded in toppling then President Hosni Mubarak, the country’s ties to Assad remained severed, until the Egyptian military took the presidency and overthrew and imprisoned former president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Since Sisi was elected in 2014, Egypt’s policy on Syria has been diplomatic, rather than military, in favor of a political solution between the regime and the government. Egypt backs a group of Syrian opposition figures called the Cairo Conference Delegation, who are pushing Egypt to take on a leadership position in the region, and who seem to hold a more amenable stance towards Russia than the main opposition block backed by Turkey.
Despite the recent rapprochement between the two countries, Sisi reasserted in an interview with Portuguese news outlet RTP last week that Egypt’s position remains “to respect the will of the Syrian people, and that a political solution to the Syrian crisis is the most suitable way.” But Egypt’s support of a political solution in Syria does not apply to counterterrorism, where Cairo’s “priority is to support national armies,” Sisi said.
If Egypt officially announces that it will have a military role in Syria, it will likely present its support to Assad as a fight against ISIS. Similar to the approach taken by Russia, this would secure Egypt a spot on the negotiation table as a mediator and allow for an on-the-ground military presence, both of which would bolster Assad.
Since Sisi took power, Egypt has been dependent on Saudi Arabia to survive economic hardships. The Saudi Kingdom has been generous with aid, loans and cheap oil. In return, Riyadh has expected loyalty from Cairo on regional issues, including trade, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and ongoing tensions with Iran. However, this symbiotic relationship has not flourished. Under the premise of its own economic challenges, Saudi cut off cheap oil shipments to Egypt and reduced aid, pushing Cairo to rethink its alliances and seek out new friends.
While Egypt has received benefits from Saudi in recent years, it has also maintained warm ties with Russia. Russia has historically been friendly with Egypt, with a concord dating back to the Soviet era. Today, Russia is looking to reinvest in military-oriented regimes in the region, which makes Egypt a logical partner.
Russia’s growing stature in the international community may have appealed to Sisi even more than the Saudi cash. From the Egyptian perspective, as long as ties with Saudi deteriorate, those with Russia should increase. Egypt benefits from Russian arms deals and now hosts joint military exercises. In terms of oil trade, Egypt will be able to access Iran’s and Iraq’s oil as a substitute after Saudi suspension.
All of these factors will influence Egypt’s decision to engage in Syria, even if it means surrounding itself with Saudi’s enemies. The war in Syria has upset the regional order, and as a result, Egypt’s role is shifting. Egypt is increasingly gaining international support, which is likely to increase once U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, whose focus in Syria is on defeating ISIS, assumes office. With international backing, Egypt is on a path to holding the position of a “stabilizing force” in the region, like it has in the past.
What’s In It for Assad?
Assad continues to benefit from foreign nations competing for power in Syria. With the support his forces received from Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraqi militias, he was able to establish a new balance of power on the ground in Syria, particularly against armed opposition. The addition of Egyptian forces would mean more than just military aid; it would translate into further international consensus for his rule and a blow to the regional camp that supports the Syrian opposition.
With Trump in the White House, this pro-Assad, Russia-oriented camp in the Middle East could have the potential to grow. The Syrian opposition will face a nearly insurmountable force, unless regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with European nations, find a way to counter Russia’s mounting influence.
Cairo is eager to expand its clout in the region, a move that will result in increasing international competition in the Middle East, as foreign powers reinforce their positions and alliances. Egypt’s potential participation on behalf of Assad in the war in Syria will only prompt the opposition’s foreign allies to increase their military involvement. Regardless of what side they are fighting for, introducing new foreign armies to the conflict will only have tragic results for Syrian civilians.