Rumours Cairo could become involved on the ground in the Syrian conflict have been circulating on the back of Washington’s suggestion an Arab force could replace US troops there, and gained momentum after Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri remarked that “this is possible.”
In an official statement released on Friday the Foreign Ministry dampened the speculation, stating categorically that Cairo would not send troops to Syria.
The statement went on to clarify Shoukri’s own remark: “What he meant by ‘possible’ was that the idea had been put to Egypt by the US,” it said.
In a recent seminar organised by Al-Ahram’s International Politics periodical Shoukri said: “The idea of replacing [US] forces with other forces, perhaps Arab ones, is possible. It is being discussed in the media as well as between governments as we try to determine the extent to which such ideas can contribute to stability in Syria and end its current crisis.”
“I cannot say whether the idea has been fully formed, or has matured into a proposal on which a decision can be taken.”
The Wall Street Journal of 16 April cited US officials saying that the Trump administration wants to assemble an Arab force to take the place of the US military force in Syria and assist in stabilising the northeastern part of the country following the defeat of Islamic State (IS).
The article reported that newly appointed US National Security Advisor John Bolton had recently contacted Egypt’s acting intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, to gauge whether or not Cairo would contribute to this effort.
Less than two weeks later, during the 28th military educational seminar held on 28 April, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi alluded to the issue, saying Egypt would not repeat the experience of Egyptian military involvement in Yemen from 1962 to 1967.
He made it clear Egyptian troops would not fight on the ground abroad as they had during the Yemeni civil war.
The 1960s Yemeni civil war is a conflict Al-Sisi has referred to before. During his campaign for a second presidential term he said that Egypt had lost its “gold cover” due to expenditure in Yemen.
Egypt’s intervention then is estimated to have cost LE40 million, in addition to the lives of 26,000 Egyptian soldiers.
Yet in the end the conflict was resolved not by battle but through a political settlement with Saudi Arabia which had been waging a proxy war against factions fighting for the Yemeni republic.
Egypt’s first military attaché to Yemen, General Mohamed Qashqoush, professor of national security studies at the Higher Nasser Military Academy, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the Syrian situation is complex and the Yemeni lesson springs to mind whenever the subject of possible participation in a war outside our borders crops up”.
“It seems the US administration is contemplating changes to the coalition forged to fight IS in Syria once its mission is over.
President Trump does not appear convinced of the importance of keeping US forces there.
Yet even if the Arabs agree to contribute they cannot serve as a substitute for 2,000 US troops.”
An Egyptian source familiar with the details told the Weekly that it is easy to second-guess Cairo’s view of sending troops to Syria given the challenges Egypt faces.
“The army is busy in Sinai and along the Western borders. To the south is another front related to [security in] the Red Sea. How can the army consider opening up yet another field of operations?”
Qashqoush says while there are Egyptian forces near Bab Al-Mandeb, deployed in the framework of the Arab coalition to restore legitimacy in Yemen, their presence is consistent with Egypt’s national security calculations which include the need to secure maritime traffic in the Red Sea and the approached to the Suez Canal.
Qashqoush points out there are marked differences in the positions of Arab governments that might be asked to contribute to any Arab force in Syria.
Cairo and Riyadh, in particular, take different approaches to Syria, and he fears relations between the two could become strained should Riyadh press Egypt to send ground troops.
In a joint press conference with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on 20 April Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said Riyadh would be willing to send forces as part of an “Islamic counter-terrorist coalition in Syria”. It was a reiteration of a position Al-Jubeir first espoused in April 2017.
Divergent views have surfaced between Cairo and Riyadh with regard to other developments in Syria. While Saudi Arabia responded positively to the US strike against Syria in response to allegations the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons in Douma, Egypt officially criticised the strike.
According to the Wall Street Journal report, Gulf states will foot the bill for any Arab military operation in Syria, with Riyadh said to be willing to contribute $4 billion.
US President Donald Trump’s remarks during his recent joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron are significant in this regard.
Referring to the Arabs, he said: “They have to now step up and pay for what’s happening… The countries that are there that you all know very well are immensely wealthy, they’re going to have to pay for this…. And they will pay for it. They will pay for it.
We’ve spoken to them. They will pay for it. The United States will not continue to pay. And they will also put soldiers on the ground, which they’re not doing. And we will, in fact, bring lots of people home.”
Washington no longer attaches the importance it once did to the Middle East, says Cairo University political science professor Mohamed Kamal.
“Trump’s remarks imply that while the region was important to the US in the past it is less so today. The US currently gets nothing in return for the money it spends in the region. His second point is that wealthy nations in the region should pay the costs incurred because of regional issues, and not just defence costs.”
Even when the US does take part in military operations it now expects wealthy Arab countries to pay for the missiles and bombs it uses.
Nor is it likely the US will contribute financially to reconstruction after political settlements are reached in countries such as Syria and Yemen.
Abdel Khalek Abdallah, an Emirati political analyst, told the Weekly by phone from the UAE that he supports the idea of sending Arab forces to Syria.
The idea, he said, has been on the table since the beginning of the crisis in Syria. “An Arab presence is important despite the complexities of a situation in which it would replace US forces stationed east of the Euphrates while on the other side are Iran, Hizbullah and Russia.”
“I don’t think it is too late for this kind of intervention. In fact now may well be the right time. The Syrian crisis is ongoing and it is not about to end because everyone has become embroiled in it.”
Abdallah believes “Arab national security” justifies the operation.
“Ultimately, what binds us together is Arab national security and the need for the Arabs to establish a strategic balance rather than leaving Syria prey to Turkey and Iran. A limited Arab presence already exists along the Jordanian border with Syria. It should be bolstered by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.”
Former deputy Chief-of-Staff General Mohamed Ali Bilal, commander of Egyptian forces during the Gulf War, argues that whatever the positions of other Arab states, Egyptian military intervention in Syria would not serve Egyptian interests.
“There can be no question of sending Egyptian forces. Egypt only sends forces abroad within a framework of legitimacy, whether international or Arab, or to defend itself by confronting a threat. The regime in Syria solicited the support of Russia, Iran and Hizbullah. Their presence in Syria is therefore legitimate, regardless of the outcome. Likewise, when the Arab League asked NATO to intervene to protect civilians in Libya it conferred legitimacy on that intervention in spite of the disastrous consequences.”
Bilal stressed the “enormous difference” between Egypt’s participation in the Desert Storm campaign following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the current situation in Syria.
“Kuwait appealed for help against the aggression and Saudi Arabia asked for forces to protect its borders. The international community acted and the Arab League rallied behind the intervention. The circumstances could not be more different to the case of Syria.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: No troops for Syria