JNN 27 Nov 2016 Cairo : Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi says he supports the Syrian military – a position at odds with his country’s Gulf benefactors such as Saudi Arabia.
Egypt has reportedly sent 18 helicopter pilots to Syria to support the war-torn Arab nation in its fight against terrorism, and mulls more deployments to the same end early next year.
The former army chief, who has overseen a warming of ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main backer Russia, made the comments during an interview aired on Tuesday with Portuguese broadcaster RTP.
“Our priority is to support national armies, for example in Libya to assert control over Libyan territories and deal with extremist elements. The same with Syria and Iraq,” he said, responding to a question on whether Egypt would contemplate a UN peacekeeping role in Syria.
Asked by the interviewer whether he meant the Syrian military, he responded: “Yes.”
The government of Sisi, who was elected in 2014 almost a year after overthrowing president Mohamed Morsi, had been supported by billions of dollars in aid from Saudi Arabia. But ties appear to have cooled between the two countries amid disagreements over Syria.
Saudi Arabia backs rebels trying to oust Assad, while Russia and Iran are supporting him militarily.
The Saudi kingdom suspended oil shipments to Egypt in October, a move announced after Cairo backed a Russian-drafted resolution on Syria in the UN Security Council, angering Riyadh.
In his interview, Sisi maintained Egypt’s broad position on resolving the Syrian conflict, saying the solution must be “political”.
“Our stance in Egypt is to respect the will of the Syrian people, and that a political solution to the Syrian crisis is the most suitable way, and to seriously deal with terrorist groups and disarm them,” he said.
On Thursday, Lebanese As-Safir paper cited “well-informed Arab sources” as reporting that Egypt had dispatched the pilots to an airbase in the western Syria city of Hama on November 12, adding that the contingent was joined by four senior Egyptian military figures upon arrival.
It added that two Egyptian major generals had also been operating at the Armed Forces Staff Headquarters in the Syrian capital Damascus since last month. They have been touring frontlines, including the “Southern Front” in the city of Quneitra.
The daily cited one source “close to the Syria file” as saying that a large deployment of Egyptian troops will arrive in Syria in late January 2017 to take part in military operations “not limited to air support at Hama airbase.”
Major General Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau, had paid an official one-day visit to the Egyptian capital, Cairo, in October and held talks with senior Egyptian intelligence officials.
The two sides reached an agreement on “coordinating political standpoints” and improving bilateral “cooperation in the combat against terrorism” during the talks, official Syrian Arab News Agency reported at the time.
A month earlier, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry had announced that Cairo and Riyadh did not share common attitudes vis-à-vis the ongoing crisis in Syria. Shoukry had said that terrorist groups cannot remain in Syria if peace is to be achieved in the conflict-stricken Arab country.
While Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Persian Gulf region, particularly Qatar, are financially and militarily supporting the extremists fighting to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Egyptian officials have reiterated that the crisis in Syria can only be solved through political means.
Despite having received billions of dollars in aid from Saudi Arabia, Cairo has refused to align itself with Riyadh on issues concerning Syria and also stopped short of joining the kingdom’s March 2015-present war on Yemen, which has killed thousands.
Cairo’s decision to play a role on the battlefield against terrorists, including Daesh, in Syria comes at a time when Egypt is also battling the Takfiri outfit’s branch at home.
Valayat Sinai, previously known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, as the group is named, has been leading a deadly campaign of violence against both Egyptian security forces and civilians in Cairo and the restive Sinai Peninsula.
On Thursday, more than a dozen people, including security forces, were killed in Sinai in two separate terror attacks.
There have been no claim of responsibility for the attacks, but Egyptian officials usually blame the Daesh-linked militants for such acts of violence.
Sisi, who has praised Donald Trump, also said a plan floated by the US president-elect to have a database for Muslims was understandable.
“Yes,” he said when asked whether he felt concerned by such rhetoric.
“But every country tries to provide security and stability for its citizen, and we understand that.”