Egypt pushes for progress on Syria talks, inciting Turkish anger

There is little tangible progress in the wake of the talks last week, however Egypt’s position in general is part of a trend among many Arab states to deal with the Syrian regime again.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Ramallah, July 20, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Ramallah, July 20, 2020.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry supports a political settlement for the Syrian crisis and has rejected “foreign intervention” in the country. The later comment has enraged Ankara because it highlights Turkey’s destabilizing role in northern Syria, where extremists operate in areas occupied by Turkey. Ankara says it is merely guaranteeing security and that it is not against Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  
Last week, Egypt joined the so-called “Small Group” of countries to discuss Syria at a ministerial level. These include Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UK and the US.
Shoukry highlighted “Egypt’s support for efforts aimed at strengthening the work of the Constitutional Committee in order to achieve its desired goals, and the need for all concerned Syrian parties to engage positively in the work of the committee in support of the efforts for the political settlement of the Syrian crisis,” Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
Egypt supports UN Resolution 2254, which is supposed to be a road map for peace in Syria. However, since the UN supported this in 2015 under a political process that the Obama administration welcomed, Russia, Turkey and the US have all entered Syria, carving it into spheres of influence. Iran has also increased its role. This means, oddly, that since 2015, the precise opposite of what the UN vision was has happened.
That is largely because the UN is ineffective. However, it also has to do with Russia intervening in pushing the parallel Astana Process, which led to agreements and ceasefires outside the UN context.
Meanwhile, Turkey sought to push the Syrian rebels it co-opted, the more extreme ones, into running northern Syria and used them to fight Kurds. These competing agendas, where the US entered Syria to fight ISIS and Turkey entered to fight Kurdish groups, meant that progress on peace was stalled.  
There is little tangible progress in the wake of the talks last week, according to the Arab Weekly news website. However, Egypt’s position, in general, is part of a trend among many Arab states to deal with the Syrian regime again. Most of the statements on Syria are expressed in generalities without any policy specifications about what might come next.  
EGYPTIAN MINISTRY of Foreign Affairs spokesman Ahmed Hafez tweeted: “Based on an Egyptian stance affirming the necessity of reaching a political solution to the Syrian crisis, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry participates in the Syria Small Group Virtual Ministerial Meeting, and stresses the determinants of the Egyptian position regarding the Syrian crisis.”
Meanwhile, media reports last week said the US and Syria were having secret discussions about Damascus releasing American prisoners. Syria appears to want to trade them for the US leaving the Tanf base near Jordan. US Central Command and the anti-ISIS coalition care about Tanf and don’t want it abandoned.
“Protecting this terrain keeps ISIS and other outlaw groups from using this region,” the US-led anti-ISIS coalition wrote on October 23.
The joint statement of the Small Group on October 22 said: “After almost 10 years of conflict, the people of Syria have suffered deeply. Hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions forcibly displaced. Now facing COVID-19 and continued economic difficulties, we want to highlight again the importance of providing safe and unhindered humanitarian access for all Syrians currently in need of it, including areas where conditions are noticeably deteriorating, as in Idlib province and South Syria.”
The countries also said they “stress the importance of sufficient international support to assist host countries of refugees to help them in their efforts to fulfill the needs of refugees and maintain the resilience of host communities.”
In addition, they underlined that there is “no military solution that will bring peace, security, and stability to Syria. Progress on the political process as outlined in UNSCR 2254, in addition to the establishment of a nationwide ceasefire also as outlined in UNSCR 2254, remains the only path forward towards a better future for all Syrians.”
They want to defeat ISIS, HTS and al-Qaeda. HTS is a group that operates freely in Turkish-occupied northern Syria. In addition, al-Qaeda affiliates operate under areas Turkey controls, and ISIS members have transited through Turkey.
The Small Group also expressed “our deep concern regarding the terrorist threat in the South of Syria and commit to supporting humanitarian efforts there. We deplore the possible further internationalization of the Syrian conflict by the transfer of combatants, including militants, and equipment by various parties to other areas of conflict.”
Turkey, which is not part of the group, was angry at Egypt’s stance. In response to Shoukry’s remarks about Turkey, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said: “We reject the accusations of the Egyptian foreign minister targeting our country at the ‘Small Group’ meeting on Syria.”
Ankara claims it has helped Syrians, even though it has also recruited them as mercenaries to fight against Armenia and Libya and has threatened to force them to go to Greece. Turkey says it has “made a concrete contribution to the political process in both Astana and Geneva processes.”
Turkey’s leader on Saturday said Turkey would not allow a “terror state” to exist in Syria, an apparent reference to Kurdish groups that Turkey claims are “terrorists.” There have been no terrorist attacks on Turkey from Syria.
Turkey uses claims of “terrorism” to justify its occupation. US airstrikes using secretive “ninja sword” munitions often target al-Qaeda members in Turkish-controlled areas, raising questions about Ankara’s policies.