Egypt stands unwavering in its support of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, a stance that reflects the strength of relations between the two countries, but also raises questions on Cairo’s policy towards the Syrian crisis.
On Wednesday, Moscow began a campaign of air strikes over Syria, in what some commentators call its biggest military operation in decades. A few days later, Egypt voiced support for the Russian intervention, saying it will halt the spread of terrorism in the war-torn country.
Egypt’s support of the Russian airstrikes are not a change of tune, observers say. While Cairo has avoided showing direct support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Egypt has always claimed that both itself and Syria are at war against an Islamist insurgency.
Its stance on the Russian intervention has made it appear at odds with its main allies, Saudi Arabia and the United States, who have been pushing for the removal of Assad by supporting moderate rebels.
Both Saudi and the United States also accuse the recent Russian airstrikes of attacking moderate rebels and civilians instead of fighting Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants.
Under President Abdelfattah al-Sisi, Egypt prefers a political settlement in Syria and has left it up to Syrians to decide the fate of Assad, unlike its strategic allies, who see no place for the embattled leader in a future state.
“To a certain extent, Egypt is in a difficult position,” Middle East geopolitical expert Justin Dargin told Al Arabiya News.
“Egypt and Syria have a complicated history that is rooted in the past,” said Dargin, recalling the short-lived union five decades ago between the two nations, known as the United Arab Republic.
But since former President Anwar Sadat took power in the 1970s, the relationship between Cairo and Damascus “has been tenuous at best,” he said.
Sadat’s legacy of moving Egypt away from the Soviet axis and pushing the country towards the West still remains largely in place – yet with some caveats, said Dargin.
Since Sisi came to power last year, he has instituted a much more independent Egyptian foreign policy, and has extended alliances with Gulf states, who have been calling for Assad to step down since the civil war began.
“Therefore, while there are certain common aims between Syria and Egypt, such as halting the spread of radical ideology, there is nothing in common beyond those strictly limited goals. And, while Egypt does support Russia in a broad sense, Russia is apparently also bombing moderate Syrian rebel groups which have been assisted by Egypt's geopolitical allies in the Gulf,” said Dargin.
Cairo-based political sociology professor Saeed Sadek said Egypt has its own reasons to support Russian intervention in Syria.
“Egypt feels the Americans and the West are not serious about eliminating ISIL and saw that Russians are more serious in dealing with [the militants],” he said, using another name for ISIS.
During a visit by Sisi to Russia in August, the two countries called for a coalition to fight militancy in the Middle East.
Sadek said Egypt’s current stance could be in line with the agreement between Putin and Sisi, which supports forming “a large counter-terrorist front” to fight ISIS, with the involvement of Assad.
He says supporting Russia’s air campaign does not necessarily reflect that a pro-Assad mood prevailing in Egypt.
“Egypt left it up to the Syrians to decide the fate of Assad,” he said.
Egypt appears to be deeply suspicious of Islamist movements throughout the region, and says Assad’s government will have to be part of a negotiated settlement.
Sadek says Egypt fears the fall of Syria would strengthen terror in the region, and chose to take a different stance from Saudi and the U.S.
But “Egypt is not the [key] player in this conflict,” he said.
“Egypt is giving Arab political diplomatic cover to Russia. But at the same time we have to understand the Syrian conflict is no longer the game of regional powers. It’s the game of Russia and the United States.”
“Saudis and the Egyptians agree on certain issues but disagree on others,” but they will not let the disagreement overtake their bilateral ties, Sadek added.
Dargin thinks that “while Egypt will assist Russia and the Gulf states in fighting against ISIS and other radical groups, the government will refrain from directly associating itself with the Assad regime… It will leave that to Russia.”