Egypt foreign minister visits Syria for first time since 2011

Sameh Shoukry also visited Turkey, both visits signalling warming ties between the countries.

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad meets with Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Damascus
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad meets Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry in Damascus, Syria, February 27, 2023 [Firas Makdesi/Reuters]

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has visited Damascus in what is the first trip by a top Egyptian envoy to Syria since its civil war began in 2011 and another sign of possible warming ties between President Bashar al-Assad and Arab states.

According to the Syrian state news agency (SANA), Shoukry was received at Damascus airport by his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad on Monday.

Al-Assad has benefitted from an outpouring of Arab support for Syria since February 6 earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people there and in neighbouring Turkey.

Earlier this month, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi spoke with al-Assad by phone for the first time on February 7.

On Sunday, a delegation of Arab parliamentary leaders, including Egypt parliament’s Speaker Hanafy al-Gebali, met al-Assad in Damascus.

Earlier, following the earthquake, the foreign minister of Jordan, which once backed the Syrian opposition, also visited Damascus for the first time since the civil war began.

Syria was largely isolated from the rest of the Arab world following al-Assad’s deadly crackdown against protests that erupted against his rule in 2011. The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership the same year, and many Arab countries pulled their envoys out of Damascus.

The United Arab Emirates, which began normalising ties with al-Assad several years ago, has poured aid into Syria since the earthquake. Saudi Arabia also sent planes carrying aid to Syria, a first in more than a decade.

Washington has voiced opposition to any moves towards rehabilitating or normalising ties with al-Assad, citing his government’s brutality during the conflict and the need to see progress towards a political solution.

The earthquake killed at least 5,900 people in Syria, the bulk of them in the rebel-held northwest.

Relations with Turkey

In Turkey, Shoukry met his counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in the southern city of Adana, which has been hit by the earthquakes.

“[The] Foreign minister offers condolences for the victims of earthquake, affirms solidarity of Egyptian leadership, government and people with Turkey, and asserting continuity of aid for supporting Turkey and its brotherly people,” Ahmed Abu Zeid, spokesperson for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, said.

Shoukry’s visit to Turkey also underlined a new thaw in Egypt’s ties with Ankara.

Diplomatic relations were severed after el-Sisi, then the army chief, led the 2013 overthrow of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who had enjoyed Turkish support during his short-lived presidency.

Turkey has for years served as a refuge for opposition activists from Egypt, further stoking tensions between the two regional powers.

However, in recent years Ankara and Cairo have made efforts to mend ties. Turkey and Egypt held their first diplomatic talks in eight years in 2021.

During the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in November, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shook hands with el-Sisi for the first time, which the Turkish leader described as the first step to launch a new path in relations.

Nevertheless, longstanding disagreements over the countries’ opposing roles in war-scarred Libya have impeded efforts to achieve a full rapprochement until now.

While diplomatic relations between Cairo and Ankara have often been thorny, economic ties have continued unabated. The volume of trade has nearly tripled from 2007 to 2020, according to the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies