Egypt cautiously steps into Syria and Libya morass

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 31 Dec 2014

Informed sources in Cairo suggest diplomatic moves are afoot to help bring Syria's political opposition to a common position, and that Libya, too, is also in Cairo's sights

Jihadits fighting in Syria against Al-Assad regime in 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

Egyptian informed sources say that several leading Syrian opposition figures may be meeting in Cairo in the early weeks of 2015 to "agree amongst themselves with the help of Egyptian mediation” on a set of rules for “what should be a political position of the Syrian opposition that could be offered in any possible talks with the Syrian regime.”

“The dates are still flexible and the positions are equally flexible, but what I can say with a considerable deal of certainty is that there is a growing realisation within the Syrian opposition (and I am here specifically not talking about the armed groups) that demanding the immediate departure of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, as a pre-requisite to any political settlement, has become unrealistic given the considerable control the forces of Bashar exercise on the ground,” said one Egyptian source.

According to this source, whose account is not exactly identical with that of a source from the Syrian opposition, it was the leading figures of the Syrian opposition who approached Egypt to provide a venue and mediation for an opposition deal prior to a possible meeting that Moscow is planning, with the help of the international envoy on Syria Steffan de Mistura, in late January between a representative of Al-Assad's regime and representatives of the opposition.

Egyptian mediation would address the relative weight of each political group in the collective vision tabled in Moscow, the possible future role of each group, and the limit of the role of Al-Assad and top regime figures in a transition that would lead to democratic “parliamentary and then presidential” elections, said another Egyptian source.

Egyptian sources acknowledge that in an attempt to help formulate this collective stance of the Syrian opposition, Cairo has been in talks with representatives of Al-Assad's regime, to explore how far it is willing to go in accommodating opposition demands.

“Not very far — at least yet,” said one source who is familiar with the Cairo-Damascus talks. This said, he added, Al-Assad is coming under considerable pressure from Moscow to engage positively towards a deal whereby the president of Syria, who had faced wide protests demanding democracy as part of the now largely contained Arab Spring in early 2011, would have both a role in the transition and a clear amnesty.

Most informed regional diplomatic forces speak still of views and counterviews on what would make a successful transition in Syria, especially with a continued Saudi veto on the chances of political survival for Al-Assad, seen by Riyadh as a key regional ally of its arch-enemy, Tehran, and amid the influence that Ankara is hoping to have on any final deal that would decide the political map of its immediate neigbour.

Influential world capitals are also still to find agreement amongst themselves and with their regional partners, especially in the Gulf Cooperation Council, on what to do with Al-Assad, given the reality of his military and political strength.

“It would be unrealistic in a sense to assume that the early weeks or months of 2015 would bring early signs of a political deal in Syria,” said one regional diplomat.

An equal sense of realism is prevailing in Cairo where concerned officials are talking more of a “short-term” stability-driven “to start with” approach, rather than a comprehensive one to a “very complex situation” in Syria.

The same sense of realism characterises Cairo's outlook towards Libya. “In a sense, Libya is even more of a complex and vulnerable situation than Syria,” suggested an Egyptian diplomatic source. He added that the “battle of conflicting regional powers is much more devastating in Libya than in Syria.”

Cairo, government officials say, is in constant coordination with international Libya envoy Bernardino Leon. The objective of this coordination is to find a way to “support the legitimacy" of the Tobruk parliament, “which is being contested by radical militants.”

An aide to Leon, however, argued that for any sense of stability to be found in Libya “in the near future,” Cairo and other regional capitals would have to adjust their position from defending one side of the political equation to enabling all sides to find a reconciliatory agreement. “This is what the Egyptians are doing in Syria and this is what we are telling them they need to do in Libya,” she said.

The position in Cairo is so far opposed to any possible political engagement of radical groups in Libya — something that some other international and regional parties are sceptical about and fear might lead to the division of Libya into “two or even three countries.”

Foreign diplomats in Cairo argue that the situation in Libya and Syria is only an indication of the defeat that befell calls for democracy in several Arab countries in the early months of 2011.

“In Tunis and Egypt, the presidents stepped down, leading to two different courses of events. In Yemen, the president accepted a political deal that did not fully get him out of the picture. In Libya, international military intervention failed to take into consideration a very fragile state, and in Syria a hesitant international community underestimated the strength of the regime,” said a Middle East based European Union diplomat.

He added: “It is all about the sad fate of the Arab Spring that was not given thoughtful attention or due support by the world, especially by Europe, the immediate partner and neighbour of the countries of the southern Mediterranean.”

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