Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has moved to openly support the Syrian Army in that country’s civil war, risking a worsening of relations with key ally Saudi Arabia, the main backer of the rebels opposed to the regime of President Bashar Assad and backer of the rebels.
In an interview aired last week with Portuguese broadcaster RTP, Sisi shifted Egypt’s position from unofficial support of the Assad regime to overt, official backing, in effect offering a further boost to Damascus, which is counting also on a shift in its favor by the incoming Trump administration.
Sisi said Syrian government forces were “best positioned to combat terrorism and restore stability” in Syria, where a civil war that has taken more than 400,000 lives is in its sixth year.
“Our priority is to support national armies, for example in Libya, to exert control over Libyan territory and deal with extremist elements. The same with Syria and Iraq,” Sisi said.
Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia backs the Syrian rebels, also Sunnis, in what it views as a key front of its sectarian battle with Shiite Iran for regional primacy. Iran and the Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah back the Assad regime, whose key figures are drawn heavily from Syria’s Alawite minority.
At first glance it might seem puzzling that Sunni Egypt would allow itself to break ranks in such an overt way from the Saudi stance on Syria, especially given that Riyadh is the main prop to Cairo’s struggling economy, having pumped in some $25 billion in financial assistance to Egypt since Sisi took power in a military coup in 2013.
Analysts say, however, that its stance can be understood in light of its burgeoning relations with Russia, the main backer of the Assad regime and its antipathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood, an important component of the rebel forces.
“For Saudi Arabia, the principal enemy is Iran, for Egypt it is not Iran but rather the Muslim Brotherhood, that’s where the gap between them appears,” says Ofir Winter, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies.
“In Egypt’s view, a victory for the Syrian opposition could give a push to the Brotherhood in Egypt. And a defeat of the Syrian military regime could be an introduction to similar occurrences to the regime in Egypt,” he added.
Sisi’s comments follow Egypt’s vote in the UN Security Council last month in favor of a Russian draft resolution opposed by Riyadh calling for a cease-fire in Syria, without specifying a halt to Russian and Assad regime bombing of besieged Aleppo.
Also last month, Syrian National Security Bureau head Ali Mamlouk visited Cairo, where he conferred with Khaled Fawzy, the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service. The two sides agreed to coordinate political positions and strengthen cooperation in “the fight against terrorism,” according to Syria’s Sana news agency.
Saudi Arabia termed Egypt’s security council vote “painful” and its Aramco oil company announced the suspension of discounted fuel supplies to Cairo. The Egyptian media reacted with heated attacks on Riyadh.
But Sisi’s statements show he is not deterred from his pro-Russian stance on Syria. “This is his way of saying I support Putin and his involvement in Syria instead of what the US has been doing in Iraq and Egypt, and the fact that it almost didn’t do anything in Syria,” said Mira Tzoreff, an Egypt specialist at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center.
At the same time, Sisi will take pains to stress to the Saudis that the support for Damascus is no more than verbal backing and that he will not be allying with Tehran, Tzoreff says. “It is not either Saudi Arabia or Russia,” she said. “Sisi wants them both so he has to exert much effort to explain to the Saudis why he chose to support the Syrian Army and indirectly Bashar Assad.”
Sisi appears to have calculated that the Saudis will continue to support his regime despite its backing of Damascus, because the alternative could be chaos or a return of the Muslim Brotherhood to power and because it remains the weightiest Sunni country in the region.
Sisi first sought to deepen ties with Russia due to cool relations with the Obama administration, widely seen in Egypt as being sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. Military ties have proliferated, with the two sides holding joint exercises in Egypt in October.
There are plans for the Russian company RosAtom is to build a nuclear power plant in Egypt and the two sides are negotiating on the establishment of Russian industrial zones in the country. Moreover, Russia used to be an important source of tourism to Egypt until the bombing of a Russian plane over Sinai last year and Egypt wants to persuade Russia to resume the flights.
“We always take into account our people’s national interests and security concerns and we think that Russia can help to achieve security and balance throughout the world,” Sisi said during a September meeting with Putin, according to the website of the Russian presidency.
Sisi may also be emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, who has praised his leadership and also signaled that he seeks an improved relationship with Putin’s Russia. Trump has said that he views Islamic State as the main enemy in Syria, not Assad regime forces that are fighting ISIS.
As part of what appears to be an emerging Trump-Sisi love fest, the Egyptian leader even voiced understanding during the RTP interview for the idea supported by members of Trump’s team of establishing a registry of Muslim immigrants.
Asked by his interviewer whether he is concerned about talk of a US database for Muslims, Sisi said: “Yes. But every country tries to provide security and stability for its citizens and we understand that.”