Egypt’s foreign minister breaks ice with visits to Syria and Turkey
By Kinda Makieh and Firas Makdesi
DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Egypt’s foreign minister on Monday met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in the first visits to Syria and Turkey by a top Egyptian diplomat in a decade.
Assad has benefited from a surge of Arab support since devastating earthquakes hit his country and neighboring Turkey this month, which has helped ease the diplomatic isolation he has faced over Syria’s civil war that began in 2011.
“The aim of the visit is primarily humanitarian and to pass on our solidarity – from the leadership, the government and the Egyptian people to the Syrian people,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told reporters in Damascus.
Egypt is looking forward to providing more earthquake relief “in full coordination with the Syrian government” having already donated around 1,500 tons, added Shoukry, standing alongside Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.
“When the foreign minister of Egypt comes to Damascus, he comes to his homeland, his people and his country,” Mekdad said.
The earthquake killed more than 5,900 people in Syria, most of them in the rebel-held northwest. In Turkey, the death toll is over 44,000.
The Arab League suspended Syria in 2011 over the government’s deadly crackdown on protests, and many US-aligned Arab states supported the opposition trying to overthrow Assad.
But a number of Arab states, most notably the United Arab Emirates, have changed their approach to normalizing relations in recent years after Assad defeated his insurgent enemies in much of the country with the help of Iran and Russia.
Shoukry did not respond to reporters’ questions about whether Egypt would support the Arab League’s lifting of the suspension of Syria.
DIALOGUE WITH DAMASCUS
Relations between Syria and Egypt were briefly suspended during the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of President Mohamed Morsi.
Egypt reopened its embassy in Syria in 2013 after the army removed Morsi from power but kept Assad at bay. Shoukry met Mekdad on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in 2021.
After the quake, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi spoke to Assad by phone for the first time, and on Sunday a delegation of parliamentarians from across the region, including Egypt’s parliamentary speaker, met Assad in Damascus.
Washington has opposed any move to restore or normalize ties with Assad, citing his administration’s brutality during the conflict and the need for progress towards a political settlement.
Saudi Arabia, which remains at odds with Assad, said a consensus was forming in the Arab world that isolating Syria is not working and that at some point a dialogue with Damascus is needed to at least address humanitarian issues.
Shoukry also visited Turkey and pointed to another shift in Egypt’s foreign relations. He met Cavusoglu in the southern city of Adana, which was also hit by the earthquakes.
“The Minister of Foreign Affairs offers his condolences to the victims of the earthquake, reiterates the solidarity of the Egyptian leadership, government and people with Turkey, and reiterates the continuity of assistance in support of Turkey and its brotherly people,” said Ahmed Abu Zeid, spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.
Turkish and Egyptian ministers later visited the port of Mersin, where an Egyptian relief ship called in on Monday.
Diplomatic ties between Egypt and Turkey were severed in 2013 after Sisi led the ouster of Morsi, who had been backed by Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party.
But a rapprochement is underway. Erdogan and Sisi shook hands during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar – another country Egypt has reestablished ties with – and Turkish companies this month have pledged $500 million in new investments in Egypt.
Speaking to reporters in Mersin, Cavusoglu said Erdogan and Sisi could see each other again soon.
“During our talks today, we exchanged views on mutual visits in the coming period. Our Deputy Foreign Ministers have met twice before and it would be to their advantage if they met again. After our talks, our presidents can meet either in Turkey or in Egypt. ” he said.
Cavusoglu said in November Turkey could reappoint its ambassador to Cairo “in the coming months.”
(Reporting by Clauda Tanios in Dubai, Maya Gebeily in Beirut, Aidan Lewis in Cairo, Huseyin Hayatsever in Ankara; Writing by Clauda Tanios and Tom Perry; Editing by Jacqueline Wong, Michael Perry and Nick Macfie)