The unprecedented visit of a top Egyptian diplomat to the Syrian capital Damascus last month, the first in over a decade, was seen as a new chapter in relations between Cairo and Damascus.
On 27 February, Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry arrived in Damascus, where he met his counterpart Faisal Mekdad and president Bashar al-Assad to show solidarity with the Syrian people after an earthquake hit the conflict-torn country three weeks earlier.
Dubbed by analysts as ‘earthquake diplomacy’, the deadly natural disaster has allowed Assad political space to manoeuvre an end to his isolation in the Arab world.
Both the Egyptian and Syrian regimes are believed to have been in contact on several levels after Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi took power in Egypt following a coup in 2013.
“Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has been supporting the Assad regime in so many ways. And both share one thing: they are fellow dictators who have silenced opposition,” a prominent political analyst told The New Arab on condition of anonymity, fearing for his safety.
One day after the earthquake, Sisi called Assad to express Egypt’s support and pay his condolences, the first official exchange of communication between the two leaders.
“You can say that Sisi’s call to Assad followed by Shoukry’s visit to Damascus have officialised a previously undeclared return of relations,” the analyst argued.
The conflict in Syria was triggered by the 2011 Arab uprising that spread across the region, in which Egypt ousted long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Syria was suspended from the Arab League later in the same year for cracking down on peaceful protesters. The country soon morphed into a civil war, claiming at least half a million lives, with the majority killed by regime forces.
In June 2013, Egypt’s first democratically-elected president Mohamed Morsi severed ties with Syria, shutting down the Syrian diplomatic mission in Egypt and pulling out Egyptian diplomats from Damascus, just two weeks before he was overthrown by the then-defence minister Sisi.
“The Egyptian regime is quite aware of the strategic importance of Syria, geographically, economically and politically, especially with regards to its ties with Russia, a dominant foreign player in the region, and an ally of Egypt,” the analyst explained.
Last month, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt signed an agreement on shipping 650 million cubic metres of natural gas annually from Egypt to Lebanon via Syria as part of a US-backed effort to address Lebanon’s crippling blackouts with electricity and gas transfers.
For years, Egypt remained reluctant about officially declaring the partial return of ties with Syria due to the US stance towards the oppressive Assad regime, on one hand, and that of the Gulf countries, on the other.
But Assad’s historic visit to the UAE last year may have paved the way for such a rapprochement, even though it outraged the US administration of president Joe Biden.
Prior to Shoukry’s visit, Saudi foreign minister prince Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said during a security summit in Munich that consensus was building in the Arab world that isolating Syria was not working and that dialogue with Damascus was needed.
“Sisi wouldn’t risk jeopardising his relations with his wealthy sponsors unless he was quite certain of their consent. The Egyptian government has been dependent on financial support offered by the Gulf States over the previous years… aid, money injected into businesses, sales of public assets or loans,” the analyst said.
Normalising Arab ties
While Arab states have used the deadly earthquake as a means to get closer to the regime and, in turn, normalise relations, Assad has also been accused of manipulating the natural disaster to end the international isolation of his regime and to pressure the US to end sanctions.
Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned Arab countries against normalising ties with Damascus before holding Assad accountable for the atrocities his government had committed.
“I hate to say that, but the earthquake has been a blessing in disguise for both Assad and the Arab countries, including Egypt, of course,” political sociologist Mohamed Eissa told TNA.
“Arab states seeking to normalise relationships should recognise that the Syrian government in power today is the same one that has forcibly disappeared tens of thousands of people and other serious human rights violations against its citizens even before the uprisings began,” said Hiba Zayadin, senior researcher for HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division.
The international watchdog further condemned Arab countries for rushing to normalise ties with the regime “without pressing for accountability for the crimes that the Syrian authorities have committed or the critical reforms necessary for durable peace and a prosperous post-war Syria”.
“At the end of the day, for Sisi and Assad, it is going to be ‘business as usual’ as only interests matter when it comes to politicians,” Eissa concluded.