Egypt, Syria in Advanced Talks to Restore Diplomatic Relations

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (R) meets with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad at the ministry headquarters in Cairo, on April 1, 2023. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP) (AFP)
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (R) meets with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad at the ministry headquarters in Cairo, on April 1, 2023. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP) (AFP)


  • Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could meet soon after Ramadan

Egypt and Syria are in advanced talks to restore full diplomatic relations more than a decade after ties broke down, people familiar with the matter say, as Arab states warm up to Damascus in fast-evolving developments that are reshaping the Middle East’s geopolitics.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could meet soon after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan ends in late April, the people said. The date and location for a possible summit between the two leaders haven’t been completed, they added.

On Saturday, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad arrived in Cairo to hold talks with his Egyptian counterpart over strengthening ties between the two neighbors, according to the foreign ministries of both countries. It marks the first public visit by a top Syrian official to Egypt since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

Officials from both sides are also expected to discuss over the weekend Syria’s possible return to the Arab League, a group of 22 nations, which suspended Damascus’s membership in 2011, the people said.

Egypt and Syria’s foreign ministries didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Egypt is the latest Arab state to rekindle ties with Mr. Assad’s government after ostracizing him for more than a decade for his brutal crackdown on opponents at home. Saudi Arabia and Syria are also nearing an agreement to re-establish diplomatic ties after negotiations mediated by Russia, The Wall Street Journal reported last month.

Backed by Russian airstrikes and Iranian militias, Mr. Assad used chemical weapons and starve-or-surrender sieges to break the antigovernment rebels, punishing civilians who lived under opposition control. As it became clear in recent years that Mr. Assad was going to remain in power, efforts intensified to bring him back into the Arab diplomatic fold—a move that could not only reduce rival Iran’s influence but also unlock trade benefits for all sides.

Several Arab nations including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have delivered aid after earthquakes devastated swaths of Syria in February. The Assad government, in turn, has also sought to capitalize on the sympathy generated by the disaster to tighten ties with Arab nations and lobby for an end to stringent oil and banking sanctions imposed by the West since the beginning of the civil war, the Journal reported in February.

Mr. Assad has also visited Oman and the U.A.E. in recent weeks amid the broader push to normalize diplomatic relations.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan in February said consensus was building in the Arab world that isolating Syria wasn’t working and that dialogue with Damascus was needed at some point to at least address humanitarian issues, including a return of refugees.

Still, some Arab countries such as Qatar have held out against renewing ties with the Assad government. Doha has said it wouldn’t normalize ties with Syria unless Mr. Assad takes serious steps to repair the damage he caused at home that are acceptable to all Syrians.

Mr. Assad remains a pariah in much of the world over his brutal crackdown on his own people.

The U.S. and European countries made exemptions to the strict economic sanctions placed on Damascus for its violent oppression of Syrians, allowing for humanitarian-aid delivery after the February quakes. But they have said the disaster won’t prompt them to soften relations with the Assad government.

Immediately after the quakes, State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “We would encourage normalization" only if the Assad regime fulfills a road map toward free elections.

Still, for the U.S., Syria’s possible return into the Arab fold is a reminder that, while it remains the pre-eminent military and diplomatic force in the Middle East, its influence in the region is waning.

In a sign of the broader geopolitical realignment under way in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia re-established diplomatic relations with rival Iran last month in a deal brokered by China. It comes amid uncertainty about Washington’s long-term commitment to ensure security in the energy-rich region, where the U.S. has been a dominant force for decades but is increasingly focused on a rising China and resurgent Russia.

The Syrian foreign minister’s visit to Cairo this weekend comes after his counterpart met Mr. Assad in Damascus in late February. That was the first public visit to Syria by a senior Egyptian official in more than a decade. While Cairo suspended high-level ties with Damascus, the two countries maintained downgraded diplomatic relations and security cooperation in the past decade.

Egyptian companies are hoping to win billions of dollars in potential reconstruction contracts in Syria once ties are restored, the people familiar with the talks said.

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