Egypt’s foreign minister travelled to Syria to meet President Bashar al-Assad, a rare visit by a senior regional official to Damascus as its Arab neighbours move towards a tentative re-engagement with the regime after this month’s devastating earthquake.
Sameh Shoukry said the trip — the first by an Egyptian foreign minister since the eruption of Syria’s civil war 12 years ago led to the country being ejected from the Arab League — was a show of solidarity after the quake killed 6,000 Syrians and wrought more despair on the conflict-ravaged nation.
The foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Jordan have already visited Syria since the quake, while Assad this month travelled to Oman. The UAE was also the first Arab country to welcome Assad since the civil war when he travelled there a year ago.
Arab governments have struggled to develop a Syria policy since Assad brutally crushed the opposition and regained control over two-thirds of the country, with support from Russia and Iran. Damascus was isolated for many years, and its regime is still subject to international sanctions because of the extensive human rights violations against civilians in the course of its war against its opponents.
Yet the re-engagement with Assad suggests the arms-length approach may be coming to an end. Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, said this month that there was “a growing consensus” in the Arab world that isolating Syria was not working.
The prince suggested a different approach was “being formulated” to address issues such as Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and the humanitarian disaster of the quake.
Shoukry on Monday pledged that Egypt would provide further aid in “co-ordination with the Syrian government”, in addition to the supplies it had already given. Most of the Syrians killed in the disaster were in parts of the country’s north-west still controlled by rebel groups.
Faisal Mekdad, Syria’s foreign minister, welcomed Shoukry’s visit saying: “When the foreign minister of Egypt comes to Damascus, he comes to his home, his people and his country.”
Emile Hokayem, director of regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said Arab capital had been seeking to re-engage with Damascus for some time, but that they had found it difficult to come up with a workable policy.
“There’s a lack of policy alternatives,” he said. “Arab governments [also] know full well that there’s very little they can expect from Assad in terms of a political process or regional alignment. It’s very difficult to see what he can offer, given his weakness and indebtedness to Russia and Iran.”
Hokayem said one reason for the push to engage with Damascus was a “suspicion that the US wants to offload Syria and to get out, so everyone is trying to stake out a position”.
Gulf countries would also like to draw Assad away from Iran, a regional rival but a crucial lifeline for the Damascus regime, he added.