Dialogue Between Enemies: How Egypt's President Plans to End the Syrian Civil War

The Middle East political space has been dominated by unprecedented and widespread anti-American mass rallies sparked by a blasphemous film, but last week it was also the repository of fresh efforts to address the tragic conflict in Syria.

While in Damascus, the new UN envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, had his first audience with embattled President Bashar al-Assad, and in Beirut the visiting Pope Benedict XVI prayed for peace and condemned foreign import of arms into Syria as a "sin", the representatives of a brand new "quartet" consisting of Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran held their first meeting in Cairo, thanks to the singular initiative of Mohammed Morsi.

The Egyptian president had unveiled his idea of a regional contact group on Syria at last month's special meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and reiterated that vision soon afterwards, at the Tehran summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) (see Egypt and Iran, the new twin pillars, Asia Times Online, September 1, 2012).

As expected, the quartet's Cairo meeting drew the praise of Brahimi, who wants to revive the UN "six-point" peace plan drawn by his predecessor, Kofi Annan, and of Damascus, irrespective of Bashar al-Assad's misgivings as to whether Turkey and Saudi Arabia can play "neutral interlocutors" since both those countries have thrown their weight behind the Syrian opposition.

Indeed, this is a legitimate concern on the part of Damascus as well as of Tehran, particularly since even Cairo continues to sing the "regime change" tune in just about every foreign communication by Morsi, including his recent telephone conference with French President Francios Hollande, according to a recent report in Le Monde that indicated Morsi's conviction, much like that of Turkey's leaders, that Assad's regime is destined to fall.

Yet, there is little empirical evidence to back such wishful predictions, which are seemingly out of touch with the staying power of Assad's regime regarding both internal and external factors (for more on this see Does Gaddafi's fate await Assad?, Asia Times Online, August 25, 2011). In fact, the very idea of the quartet initiated by Morsi urging dialogue and and end to armed hostilities is a concession to the skepticism that Assad is not about to be overthrown by the rebels any time soon, and that the rebels can at best sustain a costly (in human and physical terms) quagmire.

Simultaneously, the potent radical Islamists' attacks on US interests - in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Middle East - may have served as a wake-up call to US and other Western governments that Syria may turn into another Libya if conflict continues to spiral.

Indeed, the policy ramifications of last week's turmoil throughout the Middle East, on the whole serving as a break on the West's omnibus of support for the armed Syrian opposition, are unmistakable and benefit the diplomatic and political option that relies on participation by regional players.

As a result, a more explicit Western support for the quartet is called for. However, this may not be forthcoming as a result of the on-going Iran nuclear standoff and the West's refusal to give Iran credit for its role in regional stability and conflict-mediation. Yet, intertwined with Western hesitation about letting Iran take part in the mediation efforts on Syria are Iran's own concerns about the unintended consequences if the quartet fails and/or the three other participants - Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia - were to band together around the "regime change" scenario, leaving Iran as the "odd man out".

Despite its reservations about precisely such an unwanted outcome, Tehran has opted to take part in Cairo's peace initiative under the conviction that this is bound to bring Egypt and Iran closer together and at any rate is a boost for the "new Egypt" that needs to put the mark of its "diplomatic renaissance" on the map sooner rather than later.

This may explain why Iran was not particularly worried about Morsi's statement at the NAM summit expressing solidarity with the Syrian people and calling for regime change in Syria. Convinced that Morsi is still learning the ropes of his presidency, and that priority should be given to areas of agreement rather than disagreement, Tehran's rulers have opted to push an arch of cooperation with Egypt on shared positions on regional and international issues.

In turn, this raises a serious question in terms of future US-Egypt relations - called into question by President Barack Obama last week in the wake of anti-American protests at the gates of US embassy and Morsi's belated response. Is the White House questioning Egypt's role as a "non-NATO ally" partly because Cairo is getting closer to Tehran and does not share US's enemy image of the Islamic Republic of Iran?

Unfortunately, many US politicians, especially in the Republican Party, appear to be sold on precisely such a "zero-sum" conclusion that imposes on Cairo a stark "either/or" alternative. What these US politicians and various US pundits tend to overlook is the potential protean value of select cooperation to end the conflict in Syria, that can in turn improve the US-Iran climate and thus bring potential for a timely breakthrough in deadlocked relations between Iran and the West.

The past week's assault on the US consulate in Benghazi has been a powerful reminder of ''roads better not taken'' in Syria that, if followed, may spell disaster for Western interests.

In conclusion, the big question is whether the US is now ready to take this to the next logical step and commence direct dialogue with Iran on Syria and a host of other Middle East issues? The answer to this question may have to wait until after the US presidential elections in November. Yet, as it pertains to the deadly conflict in Syria, imperiling the lives and safety of millions of innocent Syrians caught in the maelstrom of civil war, a US decision on Iran's conflict-mediation role in Syria via the quartet cannot and should not be postponed and must be reached immediately.


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