Egypt, Syria, Turkey repair ties

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu yesterday – marking the first visit by a top official to Damascus in a decade.

By Erin Viner

An outpouring of Arab support in the wake of the devastating 6 February earthquakes in Syria and Turkey signals a lifting of diplomatic isolation following Assad’s deadly crackdown against protests that erupted against his rule in 2011.

“The goal of the visit is primarily humanitarian, and to pass on our solidarity – from the leadership, the government and the people of Egypt to the people of Syria,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry said at a press conference in Damascus.

Egypt intends to provide more assistance “in full coordination with the Syrian government” after having already donated some 1,500 tons of humanitarian aid, Cairo’s top diplomat said while standing alongside Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.

“When the Foreign Minister of Egypt comes to Damascus, he comes to his home, his people, and his country,” Mekdad stated.

Over 5,900 Syrians died in the earthquake, the majority of whom were located in the insurgent-controlled northwest. In Turkey, the death toll has reached more than 44,000.

Syria was largely excommunicated from the rest of the Arab world for the past 12 years. The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in 2011, while many of the United States-allied Arab states supported opposition forces seeking to oust Assad from power, and withdrew their envoys from Damascus.

There has been a notable shift among several Arab countries including the United Arab Emirates (UAE) toward rehabilitating ties in recent years, after loyalist forces defeated rebel fighters across much of the country with help from Syria’s strongest allies, Iran and Russia. The Syrian leader’s 2022 visit to the UAE was his first trip to an Arab state since the outbreak of the civil war.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi spoke with Assad by phone for the first time on 7 February and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi made his first ever trip to Syria on 15 February.

Assad traveled to Oman on 20 February in his first visit outside Syria since the quake. He has rarely left his country since 2011, travelling only to his patrons Moscow and Tehran.

Tehran is looking to improve relations between Ankara and Damascus due to efforts to protect its own troops and Shi’ite proxies in Syria, a country it regards as a corridor to the Mediterranean Sea and a territory from which to confront Israel. The Islamic Republic’s mediation role is secondary to that of Russia’s, however. Moscow’s broader interests consider Syria as a gateway to Africa and the Arab world which have so far generally refused Western sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine.

A delegation of parliamentarians from around the region, including Egypt’s parliament speaker, met Assad in Damascus this past Sunday. The heads of the Iraqi, Jordanian, Palestinian, Libyan, Egyptian and Emirati Houses of Representatives, as well as officials from Oman and Lebanon, visited Syria as part of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union.

“We cannot do without Syria and Syria cannot do without its Arab environment, which we hope it can return to,” said Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammed Halbousi.

Shoukry, who last met with met Mekdad in 2021 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, did not respond to reporters’ questions on whether Egypt favors lifting the Arab League’s suspension of Syria.

In the immediate aftermath of the devastating earthquake, Sisi spoke with Assad by phone for the first time.

The US has expressed opposition toward normalization of relations with Assad, citing his government’s savagery and need to see advancement of a political solution to the civil war.

Saudi Arabia – which so far also remains adverse to Syria, -has acknowledged that there is rising agreement in Arab states that the banishment of Syria has not been effective, and that dialogue is necessary to at least respond to humanitarian needs.

In another shift of policy, the Egyptian Foreign Minister also visited Turkey for talks with his counterpart Çavuşoğlu in the quake-stricken southern city of Adana.

The purpose of the visit was to offers condolences for the victims of earthquake, affirm solidarity of Egyptian leadership, government and people with Turkey, and confirm the continuity of aid in support of Turkey “and its brotherly people,” stated Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid.

Turkish and Egyptian ministers later visited the port of Mersin, where an Egyptian aid ship docked yesterday.

Relations between Cairo and Ankara have been strained since the Egyptian military, under Sisi’s leadership, toppled Muslim Brotherhood President  Mohammed Mursi following mass protests in 2013. Mursi had enjoyed support by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party.

Erdoğan and Sisi shook hands during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar – another country with which Cairo has repaired ties; while Turkish companies this month pledged to invest $500 million in new projects in Egypt.

Çavuşoğlu told reporters in Mersin that the Turkish and Egyptian leaders could meet again soon.

“During our talks today, we exchanged views on mutual visits in the upcoming period. Our Deputy Foreign Ministers met twice before, and it would be beneficial for them to meet again. After our talks, our presidents can meet either in Turkey or Egypt,” he said.

Ankara’s top diplomat commented this past November that his country would re-appoint its ambassador to Cairo “in coming months.”