Concern is growing in Cairo over possible international military action in Syria as calls for a military response increase following an alleged chemical attack by government forces against the opposition.
"UN teams are still working to collect evidence on whether or not [the government of President Bashar Al-Assad] used chemical weapons against its own people, but already some very conclusive statements are being made. It is disturbing one must say," said a Cairo official who asked for anonymity.
News of the suspected chemical attack have been followed by statements from leading world capitals suggesting that if proven, Assad would have stepped beyond red lines and a reaction would be in order.
On Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the account of Assad’s use of chemical weapon was grounded in fact – but said the world was waiting for the final say from UN inspectors. Kerry’s statement came less than two days after close to open threats by the US President and UK Prime Minister.
European diplomats in Cairo say a military ground operation is out of the question. They insisted the US and Europeans would not send troops – nobody wants another Iraq. No boots on the ground and no direct involvement. Limited aerial or ground-to-ground attacks, possibly from Jordan, are possible.
"Nobody can say what will happen and really nobody can confirm that anything will happen," says a Cairo-based European diplomat.
"At this point, there might be tough pressure on Russia and Iran to force Assad – their ally – to make a political deal that he has been resisting so far, especially recently as he has improved his position on the ground," says one diplomat. "However, it would be unwise to discard the threats entirely as psychological war on Assad."
Russia has warned Britain and America that they will be in "grave violation of international law" if they carry out air strikes against the Syrian government without UN approval. Russian President Vladimir Putin has conveyed this message at length to the UK Prime Minister.
"We are hoping a deal can be reached because if not we are in serious trouble," says another official. He adds that Cairo has been using high-level diplomatic channels to caution against a strike on Syria. "Our position against the atrocities committed by the Assad regime is firm but this is not to say we should encourage moves that might wreak havoc, especially if there is no guarantee that such strikes would remove the Assad regime."
Cairo is concerned that strikes could accentuate tension thus leading to a new influx of Syrian refugees to Egypt, at a time of increasing public dislike and mistrust towards them for their alleged participation in pro-Morsi marches.
Cairo is also apprehensive that an Islamist regime “probably be more radical than the one that has just exited power in Cairo” could come to power in Syria if Assad is removed.
Kadri Saiid, senior strategic affairs expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says a military strike against Syria is the last thing Egypt needs. Even if it is not a war in the conventional sense, Saiid argues, it would still be destabilising for Syria and the entire region, Egypt included.
It would mean the Egyptian military, which is now heavily involved with state administration and battling Islamist militants in Sinai, would have an added worry, Saiid adds.
Egyptian officials agree, and add that a fresh war in the region would deal a serious blow to an already damaged tourism and investment climate in Egypt. “We are desperate for the economy to pick up,” says a government official.
Egypt would take part in diplomatic activities, including with its new-found diplomatic enemy, Turkey, officials say. The priority now is to prevent a war on Syria.
Egypt is talking to Saudi Arabia, an influential regional player. It is also talking to Russia, which has been very supportive of Egypt, and with other partners, to prevent military action.
At an Arab League meeting of permanent representatives on Tuesday, Egypt will urge caution over military action and appeal for new political efforts.
Saiid is aware of the difficulties that could hamper political efforts given the conflicting interests of key regional players: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. However, he says, the US and the UK will not want the regional situation to get out of hand. “If Syria is attacked, Russia and Iran would be more upfront in their support of Assad. This means more weaponry and more havoc at a time when many countries in the region are faced with internal challenges.” He adds that it is too much to argue that more turmoil is in the interests of Israel.