April 24, 2023

Egypt & Syria: The Tie That Binds No More

[Editor’s Note: This article also appeared on the Huffington Post on Sunday, June 16th.] Over the weekend, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi announced that he was cutting all ties with Syria, to include unilaterally ending the long-maintained diplomatic relationship between the two Arab countries and closing Egypt’s embassy in Damascus.

This drastic step by one of the Arab region’s most populous and influential countries could signal a sharp turning point in the drawn out Syrian civil war, as we could now realistically see defections in support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime from other Arab neighbors. It is even conceivable that forces fighting against the Assad government could even receive direct military assistance from those neighbors, not to mention the United States. This, after all, was similar to the trajectory of the conflict in Libya that brought on the fall of that country’s long-time dictator.

But what is unique about the Egyptian-Syrian relationship, unlike the relationship between nearly any other set of Arab countries, is just how far it has now fallen with this cutting of diplomatic ties.

In 1958, as part of a movement toward pan-Arabism that was sweeping the region, Egypt and Syria jointly agreed to actually merge their two independent and sovereign states into one country called the United Arab Republic. Egypt’s president at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser, a famous champion of both the regional pan-Arab movement and the global non-aligned movement, presided over the new union until its dissolution just over three and one-half years later.

Although tensions existed between Damascus and Cairo during the brief period of union, the two countries’ 1961 divorce did not significantly weaken their relationship. Egypt and Syria went on to fight two more wars together against their common neighbor Israel (they had fought two previous wars together prior to their union, the first in 1948 upon Israel’s founding and the second in 1956), and have widely been regarded as strong strategic, diplomatic, cultural, and political allies ever since.

The only major strategic and political difference between the two countries since 1979 has been the successful negotiation of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, a stability-inducing move which Syria to this day has failed to replicate. Now it appears that the chasm between these historic Arab allies has just greatly deepened and the bridge over that chasm has been demolished.

Given the carousel of shifting political alliances throughout the region in the wake of the Arab Spring, it is quite likely that Egyptian-Syrian relations will be promptly restored following the overthrow of the Assad regime and the establishment of a successor government in Syria. Until then, the tie that once bound Egypt and Syria - for a brief period more than metaphorically - binds no more.

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