Egypt may step up its Turkiye-Syria mediation role


Egypt may step up its Turkiye-Syria mediation role

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah El-Sisi on the sidelines of the G20 summit in India last weekend. This was the second time in less than a year that the two leaders had met at an international event, the first being in Qatar during the FIFA World Cup. Following his return from New Delhi, Erdogan told the Turkish press that the improvement in Turkish-Egyptian relations could have a positive impact on his country’s attempt to normalize relations with Syria.

This statement brought to mind the late 1990s, when Egypt played a pivotal role in mediating disputes between Ankara and Damascus and ultimately prevented the neighboring countries from escalating to the brink of war. In 1998, then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made impromptu visits to both Turkiye and Syria to revive his mediation bid and convey each side’s demands for normalization. Shortly after, Mubarak hosted then-Syrian President Hafez Assad in Cairo. It is likely that the hosting of Assad paid off and convinced the Syrian leader to end the tensions with Turkiye in a diplomatic way, given the latter’s comparative advantage in terms of military capacities. Egyptian mediation paved the way for the conclusion of the subsequent bilateral agreement on the security and political levels, known as the Adana Accord, which comes on to the agenda whenever Turkish-Syrian relations are discussed.

Egypt’s evolving relations with the two countries make it an ideal candidate for efforts toward normalization

Sinem Cengiz

Today’s Egyptian diplomatic chief has taken on a comparable role to Mubarak’s diplomacy of two and a half decades ago. In February, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visited Turkiye and Syria — the first such visit since Cairo’s relations with both Damascus and Ankara soured more than a decade ago. While these visits were primarily aimed at expressing solidarity with the two countries and their people following a devastating earthquake, they also set the stage for a fresh start in Cairo’s relations with both Turkiye and Syria.

In the eyes of the Turkish side, Egypt’s evolving relations with the two countries make it an ideal candidate for efforts toward normalization, but can Egypt play a larger role in bringing about a final agreement? Ankara seems to be encouraging Cairo to keep playing this role, believing that Egypt’s relations with both parties make it well suited to mediate in future talks.

From the Syrian point of view, a quid pro quo is in play; namely that it might be willing to normalize with Ankara if Turkish troops are withdrawn from northern Syria. However, the Turkish side simply will not agree to that due to its security interests being at stake. Thus, this presents a challenge in terms of how a deal can be negotiated.

Shoukry has urged Turkiye to withdraw its troops from Syria, underscoring some lingering tensions despite recent efforts to mend Turkish-Egyptian relations. Egypt also perceives Turkiye’s intervention in Libya as an issue of national security. In response to Turkiye’s military presence in northern Syria, Cairo has excluded Ankara from the East Mediterranean Gas Forum initiative that overlooked Turkish strategic interests in its maritime border demarcation agreement with Greece and Cyprus. However, Ankara and Cairo seem able to keep such issues to one side and make important strides toward improving their relations. Both states see stable relations based on mutual agreement as the way to close the chapter on past contentious issues.

On the flip side, Cairo was the driving force in bringing Syria back to the Arab fold, as well as the rehabilitation of its regime. Egypt hosted a meeting of the Arab Ministerial Liaison Committee on Syria in mid-August, which brought together the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.

Both states see stable relations based on mutual agreement as the way to close the chapter on past contentious issues

Sinem Cengiz

So, what motivates Egypt’s proactive role on the Syria file? Its motivations stem from a combination of domestic and regional considerations.

Firstly, Egypt aims to regain its former status as a major regional player. In the past, it was a key foreign policy player in the Middle East. However, the domestic political turmoil following the Arab uprisings diverted Cairo’s attention away from foreign policy and toward power struggles at home and its ailing economy, causing it to be relatively absent from regional diplomacy.

The recent detente across the Middle East and shifting regional dynamics have prompted Egypt to adopt a more active foreign policy and invest in new forms of regional alignment, boosting its confidence and assertiveness on the international stage. Cairo wants to convey the message to its counterparts in the region that “Egypt is back.”

Secondly, Egypt ranked fifth in terms of hosting displaced Syrians in the Middle East and North Africa region in 2022, following Turkiye, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Egypt’s policies toward the Syrian refugee crisis have been shaped by considerations of domestic stability and economic capacity. Egypt views spillover effects from other regional conflicts as a significant threat and the normalization of Turkish-Syrian relations could potentially alleviate some of these concerns.

Egypt is keen to avoid any friction with regional and international powers that could be sparked by prematurely normalizing ties with Turkiye and Syria, which explains Shoukry’s humanitarian spin. Therefore, Cairo is likely to expand its mediation between Turkiye and Syria. Like in the past, Egypt’s mediating role could be viewed positively by both parties; however, it faces a tougher task today, given the involvement of more actors, such as Russia, Iran and the US, and the presence of contentious topics such as terrorism and refugee flows. In addition, neither the Turkish nor the Syrian side appears willing to take a step back in terms of their conditions, despite the desire for normalization.

• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkiye’s relations with the Middle East. X: @SinemCngz

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