Still at odds
examines possible scenarios for future Egypt-Syria relations
Egyptian officials are not short on criticism of Syria's regional behaviour. On the contrary, Syria, as far as Egypt's foreign and national security policies are concerned, is not being helpful on a wide range of issues, including Iran, Iraq and Palestine.
Particularly subject to criticism in Cairo is the Syrian (mis)handling of Egyptian- Syrian tensions. "They are not helping at all. They are causing more damage and are blocking any chances, no matter how remote, for an end to the long phase of tension," commented one Egyptian official on condition of anonymity.
Cairo is especially disturbed by a demonstration of a few hundred Syrians that took place in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Damascus and where harsh anti- Egypt slogans were chanted portraying Egypt deliberately shrugging the humanitarian crisis in Gaza borne by the Israeli siege by refusing to unilaterally open the Rafah Crossing that links Gaza to Sinai.
On Tuesday, Assistant Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Salah summoned Syria's Ambassador to Cairo Ahmed Youssef to protest against the demonstration. Salah conveyed a firm message to the Syrian diplomatic mission over what Egypt qualifies as "an unacceptable attack on Egypt, a leading Arab nation, and the head of state, from demonstrations that could not have taken place but for a green light by the Syrian government and its security apparatus."
Salah declined to comment on the meeting with Youssef, but insisted that Cairo cannot turn a blind eye to attempt to twist the facts and misrepresent the situation.
Syrian diplomats acknowledge that the recent demonstration was not the best thing for Egyptian-Syrian relations. Attacking Egypt over its Rafah policy has become popular in Iran, Syria and Gaza. Egyptian diplomats insist, however, "There are red lines that should not be crossed. Using harsh words against state symbols cannot be accepted and it certainly does not help attempts to overcome past sensitivities between Cairo and Damascus that were originally prompted by unfortunate [Syrian] statements and miscalculated policies," said an Egyptian diplomat.
The two Arab countries, however, do not seem set for all-out confrontation. Despite frustrations on each side, both agree that conflict is not in the interest of either state. Nonetheless, "we do not seem set for reconciliation soon," commented one Syrian source in Damascus. He hastened to add, however, that tension would not -- and "should not" -- "get out of hand".
And according to one Egyptian source, "if Egypt wanted to push Syria, it would not have demonstrated the support it did at the International Atomic Energy Agency when the international organisation discussed accusations against Damascus of hiding evidence for alleged illicit nuclear activities". "But we did what we thought was expected of Egypt as a leading Arab state and what we thought is consistent with Syria's interests -- despite our frustration of Syria's regional policies," he added.
Egypt is particularly sensitive about what it perceives as an exaggerated association between Syria and Iran, given Cairo's concerns over alleged attempts by Tehran to dominate the Arab world. Egypt is also uncomfortable about the support it believes Damascus is lending Hamas in the context of its struggle with Fatah over the direction of the Palestinian cause. "And these are but a few examples," said one Egyptian official.
For its part, Syria is uneasy with what it perceives as Egypt's association with the Western recipe for regional stability. Youssef told a Lebanese daily a few weeks ago that Egypt is acting in a way that serves US plans for the Middle East. Syria also suggests that Egypt turned its back on Damascus over Syrian involvement in Lebanon at a time when the world was forcing Syria into isolation and when Syria was hoping that it would be helped by Egypt.
For tensions to be contained, Egypt expects Syria to end all forms of verbal attack. It also expects an apology of sorts from Syria for the harm done. It also expects "positive attitudes" from Syria on issues related to enhancing security and stability in Lebanon and pushing Hamas leaders -- for whom Damascus is playing host -- to be "more helpful on the issue of Palestinian reconciliation", and to renew the truce between Hamas and Israel "to avoid further damage that could result from Israeli military operations, big or small, against Gaza".
Syria would like Egypt to "suspend attacks on Damascus" and is expecting Egypt to realise that Syrian relations with Iran are tailored to serve Syria's strategic interests against an aggressive Israel and "never to interfere with Syria's prime role as an Arab state". Syria also wants Egypt to realise that there is "a limit to its influence over Hamas leaders". "We do not give them orders and we do encourage them to go for reconciliation, but the Egyptian mediator is tasked with a hard mission because the two Palestinian sides are firmly opposed to one another at this point," said a Syrian official.
When US President-elect Barack Obama enters the Oval Office 20 January, he is likely to be advised to open up to Syria in order and to build bridges with Iran. Middle East diplomats suggest that Obama will likely adopt this advice sooner rather than later. As such, it is in the interest of Syria to make it easier for Obama to reach out to Damascus by avoiding tension with the firmest US allies in the region -- Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Diplomats also suggest that it is in the interest of Egypt to minimise tensions with Syria. "[French President Nicolas] Sarkozy opened the door for Syria and it will not be closed again," commented a Cairo-based European diplomat.
The Egyptian and Syrian presidents are expected to take part in the first Arab Development Summit in Kuwait in January. Kuwait previously offered to mediate between Egypt and Syria, but the offer was shrugged off by Cairo. It is unclear whether Kuwait will try again. What is confirmed is that Arab League Secretary- General Amr Moussa is working hard, and tactfully, to promote Egyptian-Syrian détente, for which Kuwait could be the launching venue.