Around 100 Syrian opposition figures recently concluded a conference in Cairo. The meeting was noteworthy for two reasons. It signaled Cairo’s cautious but unmistakable entry into the Syrian minefield, and it marks the still-fragmented opposition’s first careful steps in the direction of a compromise with the Assad regime.
President Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi’s government is determined to rehabilitate Egypt’s pan-Arab image and to restore an Egyptian role in Arab affairs—in Syria and elsewhere. “Egypt,” explains one close observer of the diplomatic efforts on Syria, “is trying to replace Istanbul as the capital of the opposition.”
On the political front, and in stark contrast to policy during the Mohamed Morsi era, the Sisi government has made no secret that Egypt’s strategic objective is to defeat Islamists and jihadis of all stripes, in Egypt and throughout the region, as part of a wide-ranging counterterror strategy. In the Syrian context, this translates into antipathy toward opposition elements associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, including those that form the core of the Syrian National Council (SNC). In the view of some in the Egyptian military, the Assad regime is fighting against the very forces seeking to undo Egypt. On the other hand, Egypt maintains a close alliance with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other GCC states that view Assad as the key problem and support the non-jihadi rebels. Sisi has come out in support of a political solution in Syria, through a revival of the Geneva process.
As an indication of Cairo’s tentative and strategically patient entrée into Syrian affairs, an NGO headed by foreign diplomats ran the conference rather than the foreign ministry. Government officials attended, but as observers instead of ringleaders. A well-informed Egyptian diplomat says that the impetus for the gathering came from Syrians themselves. “We have no intention of doing this for them,” he explained. “The initiative came from them, as it should.”
One participant in the meeting concurred, saying, “The Egyptians played a good role. They really wanted just Syrians to talk without interference.”
The Syrian representatives who attended the conference were drawn, according to one observer, from four or five main secular political movements. Cairo may not have explicitly excluded members of the Islamist opposition, which dominates the opposition in exile, but due to Egypt’s well-advertised aversion to the Muslim Brotherhood, some in the SNC may have thought it best to absent themselves from the meeting.
Notably, explicit and unconditional demands for Assad’s ouster were missing from the dialogue, as were calls for the wholesale replacement of the regime and its institutions. Demands of this kind have been at the center of opposition platforms for at least three years.
The meeting was a welcome effort by Syrians to get their own house in order. One former senior Syrian diplomat who attended the conference said that for the first time he heard rational talk from the opposition coalition (Etilaf) …
Continue reading at the Middle East Institute. Republished with permission from the Middle East Institute.
Geoffrey Aronson is the Director of Research and Publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, DC. He is the editor of the Foundation’s bimonthly Report on Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Territories. Aronson is the author of “From Sideshow to Center Stage: US Policy towards Egypt and Israel, Palestinians and the Occupied Territories: Creating Facts in the West Bank.” He has written numerous newspaper, magazine and journal articles on Middle Eastern affairs and he writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times, SF Chronicleand Christian Science Monitor, for the Arab world in Al-Hayat and Al-Wasat, and for Europe in Le Monde Diplomatique.