For Kerry, Syria tops list of priorities for Middle East visit

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 6 Mar 2013

As US Secretary of State John Kerry concludes his first visit to the Middle East, he is heading back home with good results on Syria

US Secretary of State John Kerry (Photo: Reuters)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (Photo: Reuters)

In Cairo, Riyadh and Doha, US Secretary of State John Kerry heard guarantees of support for the Syrian opposition "of all shades and not just the Islamists," an informed diplomatic sources told Ahram Online.

The tour comes at a time when Washington is becoming increasingly concerned – perhaps due to repeated pressure from European capitals – about a possible takeover of Syria by radical Islamists.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar offered new assurances of continued Gulf generosity for the opposition, along with Saudi expressions of concern over growing militant Islamism in the region.

In Doha, Kerry told reporters there would be an effort to make sure that an increased flow of armaments would flow to the Syrian opposition without falling into the wrong hands.

Egypt seemed to promise a wide range of what official sources call “logistics support” – a euphemism for military expertise. However, as one source told Ahram Online on condition of anonymity, the scope and length of this "support" is not something about which the president and military have identical commitments.

On the Palestinian-Israeli file, Kerry received commitments from Arab leaders, including President Mohamed Morsi, that they would support whatever attempt the US is willing to make to restart Palestinian-Israeli talks.

“We don’t have great expectations and we know that Obama is not going to get very engaged in the matter. But he will give it a try and we promised to help and to convince Hamas to be supportive,” said an Egyptian official who asked to remain anonymous.

Obama is expected in Israel later this month for talks on regional stability that include Israeli relations with Palestinians and Iran.

During talks in the Middle East, John Kerry conveyed the need to make sure that Tehran is "kept in line."

Egypt-Iran ties

In Cairo, there was a different tone over Iran, Egyptian officials said. Kerry did not express exaggerated concern over a possible improvement in relations between Cairo and Tehran, given that Washington had already been assured Egypt would not go too far in its relations with Iran, with whom it has not had full diplomatic relations for over 30 years, without a green light from the US.

“It was different, in the sense that [the US] told us that if you are talking to [Iran] and if they are keen to improve relations with you then you might as well use the opportunity to pressure them to come to a deal over their nuclear programme. That was the line that Kerry offered,” another Egyptian official said.

Internal Egyptian developments were another key matter on Kerry's agenda, but the topic came after Syria and other regional matters.

Promoting consensus in Cairo

Kerry met extensively with opposition figures, intellectuals and members of civil society. Indeed, some Egyptian officials said Kerry devoted more time to talks with the opposition and civil society groups than he did to talks with government officials.

Both presidential and opposition sources said Kerry had called for "consensus."

“He was trying to broker a deal, if one could say so, to end tension between the president and army on the one hand, and the president and the opposition on the other,” an official source said.

Senior political analyst Gamal Abdel-Gawwad said that "an attempt to promote consensus" was key to Kerry's talks in Cairo. He was not necessarily a successful attempt -- at least not yet, Abdel-Gawwad added.

The opposition told Kerry that if he wanted them to contest parliamentary elections he would need to get the president to offer sufficient guarantees on the running of elections and to commit to meeting some of their basic demands, opposition sources said.

This, official sources acknowledged, was something that Kerry raised with President Morsi. He asked the president to consider some opposition demands, including a cabinet reshuffle and delaying the election.

Morsi promised to see what he could do and he was not pressured further on the matter, according to the same sources.

The guarantees Kerry received from Morsi, however, were the president’s commitment to make sure that the new law regulating non-governmental organisations would not be as restrictive as the legislation during the Mubarak era, as some in the sector have feared.

In an expression of gratitude for the commitment Kerry received on regional and domestic matters, Kerry announced a $190 million cash transfer to Egypt, which should reach Egyptian coffers in weeks, to help with the acute financial problems that Cairo is facing.

“This is not a new allocation; it was promised last year but was delayed with the attack by demonstrators on the US embassy last September. It was delayed again in the wake of the crisis over the November constitutional declaration,” which angered opposition and civil society by endowing the president with enormous, if temporary, powers, said an informed government source.

Along with this amount, Kerry also signalled the release of $50 million that was promised to Egypt right after Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011 for enterprises that would be decided by a joint Egyptian-US business council whose board has just been established. This money is not included in the direct cash transfer and will be provided over the course of the next five years.

The release of this money is an expression of Washington’s support for economic reforms that Egypt is to undertake as part of its agreement with the International Monetary Fund to get a multi-phase $4.8 billion loan that is expected to be signed next month.

Separate army talks

Meanwhile, Kerry was sure to recognise the new political dynamics in Egypt whereby army and presidency do not necessarily see matters eye to eye.

The tete-a-tete that Kerry held with Minister of Defence Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi away from the presidential palace is by no account a standard procedure in over three decades of Egyptian-US relations.

Coupled with an independent meeting between Kerry and the Egyptian head of intelligence, this meeting signalled what several foreign diplomats in Cairo qualify as a new American acknowledgement of the deep political crisis in Egypt.

According to Abdel-Gawwad it is “an American acknowledgement of the lack of cohesion in the command of the state; it is very telling that while Washington is still keen to give the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood a good chance, given the American perception that there is no other civil force who could do the job, it is determined to maintain its strategic relations with the army.”

Abdel-Gawwad argues that if anyone was talking about a serious split in the top echelons of the army with regards to the presidency he must have been silenced by the visit of Kerry to El-Sisi.

“The visit should not be misinterpreted, however,” Abdel-Gawwad said. The US, he added, “is not at all interested to see the army being re-introduced to the political scene in Egypt, but judging by Kerry's calls on the minister of defence and the head of intelligence it seems clear that Washington is aware that what it does not like might happen.”  

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