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The mystery of the Syria contact group

• www.atimes.com/Vijay Prashad
The mystery of the Syria contact group
By Vijay Prashad

In late August, Egypt's new president Mohammed Morsi proposed the formation of a regional initiative to stem the conflict in Syria. Five decades ago, Egypt and Syria were yoked together to form the United Arab Republic, an experiment that lasted less than three years. Since then relations between the two states has ebbed and flowed, reliant more on the winds of mutual opportunity The mystery of the Syria contact group
By Vijay Prashad

In late August, Egypt's new president Mohammed Morsi proposed the formation of a regional initiative to stem the conflict in Syria. Five decades ago, Egypt and Syria were yoked together to form the United Arab Republic, an experiment that lasted less than three years. Since then relations between the two states has ebbed and flowed, reliant more on the winds of mutual opportunity than on ambition or ideology. Nasser's enormous personality had overshadowed all those who came after him and the failure of the Syrian-Iraqi union on Ba'ath lines reined in the ideologues.

When Mubarak cemented Egypt's place in the Western ledger, the distance from the generally Soviet-leaning Syria of Hafez al-Assad could not have been greater. That Morsi comes from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood does not earn him favors amongst the Syrian Ba'ath, whose fight against the Brothers goes back to before the Ikhwan's attack on the Aleppo cadet school in 1979. The brutal assault by the Assad regime on the Brothers from Hama (1982) to the present must weigh on Morsi. Nonetheless, Morsi has brought Syria a gift that it cannot refuse on its face: the first chance of a non-Western backed "intervention" to save the country from absolute destruction.

To ease the Assad regime, Morsi asked Iran's government to take one of the four chairs of his Syria Contact Group. Iran remains close to Damascus for geo-strategic (and perhaps confessional) reasons. There is credible evidence that Iran's aircraft have been flying over a willing Iraq to supply the isolated Assad government (whether with arms or not is yet to be established).

When the Arab Spring was in high gear, Iran sought to take advantage of it for its own political gain. Tehran's intellectuals dubbed the Spring an "Islamic Awakening" and sought to link it to a dynamic opened up by the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Iran and Egypt broke relations over the Israel-Egypt peace deal in 1979, and links have only recently begun to be fixed. Tehran is eager to impress Egypt with its diplomatic flexibility, as long as this does not mean that it sells its few remaining allies down the river. There is considerable motivation in Iran to break out of its own strangulation by the West through new ententes with the Arab states.

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