May 4, 2010 | Scripps Howard News Service

The Myth of the Arab Triangle

The last couple of weeks have shed the spotlight again on the tensions between Egypt and the regional Iranian axis, which includes Syria. The tensions surged with the conviction of Hezbollah cell members by the Egyptian judiciary, as well as with Cairo's friction with Hamas and the persistence of its strained relations with Syria. Despite talk of reconciliation between Cairo and Damascus, the gap dividing the two states remains wide, as they have conflicting objectives and opposing strategic alignments.

The possibility of Egyptian-Syrian reconciliation had received ample airtime ahead of the Arab Summit in late March, but it amounted to very little. During the summit, the political differences dividing the two states were on display, pitting Egypt and Syria in opposing camps on key issues such as Palestinian politics, the resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, its stand on “resistance,” and, in general, Syria's strategic position within the Iranian camp.

In the end, the Egyptians and Syrians only agreed to stop media campaigns against each other, which had reached a fevered pitch. It was speculated that the freeze in media wars was to pave the way for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to visit his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, who had undergone surgery.

A host of Arab papers kept talking up the prospect of such a visit throughout last month. The Kuwaiti paper Ad-Dar claimed that the visit was due in mid-April. It was soon followed by similar reports in a number of Kuwaiti outlets, as well as in the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi and the Lebanese Al-Liwaa, which announced everything from a visit within a “few hours,” to a readjusted “in the next two days,” all the way to a more vague “very soon.”

Al-Quds al-Arabi's widely-recycled April 21 report claimed that Assad's visit would be to participate in a tripartite summit along with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. Perhaps reflecting a Saudi push in that direction, one unnamed Saudi source, quoted in a separate report, went as far as to declare that the summit would signal the return of the so-called “Arab triangle” of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria. The men were also reportedly set to discuss the growing tensions with Israel as a result of the crisis of the Scud missiles, which Syria is said to have smuggled to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Cold water was quickly poured over this story, as both the Egyptians and the Syrians denied it. A couple of days later, during a trip to Lebanon, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Gheit diplomatically told reporters that Assad's visit, while welcome, “has not yet been scheduled.” Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Mubarak yesterday.

Moreover, the Saudi monarch has also yet to pay a visit to Egypt. Instead, King Abdullah dispatched a letter to Mubarak with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faysal, who traveled to Cairo to participate in the meetings of the Arab League's Peace Initiative Follow-up Committee.

Evidently, there was no change in the political status quo to warrant even a pro-forma photo op. There were several sources for the continued strain, not least being the Scud story, and they quickly bubbled to the surface.

For instance, one of Bashar al-Assad's closest Lebanese associates, former Minister Michel Samaha, unleashed a scathing diatribe on Al-Manar TV against Egypt immediately following Abu al-Gheit's visit to Beirut. Samaha rehashed all the issues dividing Syria and Egypt (specifically Cairo's position on Hezbollah and Hamas), strongly criticizing the Egyptians and accusing them of seeking to sow dissent among the Lebanese and the Palestinians, to sabotage the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement and to lend Arab cover for an Israeli attack on Lebanon. He added, “Egypt is still holding on to its position, and we [sic] to ours.”

Indeed, Hamas officials have also come out criticizing Egypt's rigidity over its proposed solution for the inter-Palestinian conflict. Hamas, backed by Syria and Iran, wants to introduce amendments (for example, on the issue of “resistance”) to the Egyptian document, while Egypt refuses any change. Hamas and its sponsors in Tehran and Damascus have also railed against Egypt's increasingly tight border measures with Gaza. Most recently, Hamas accused Egypt of gassing smuggling tunnels from Gaza.

Then came the Egyptian judiciary's conviction of members of the Hezbollah cell caught operating in Egypt, which revived tensions with the Party of God, including public condemnation by the party's secretary general and a vow to work to set free the incarcerated cell members. And finally, at the Follow-up Committee's meeting last week, Syria repeated its objection to granting Arab cover for renewed talks between the Palestinians and Israel, and its ambassador to the Arab League strongly attacked the committee's resolution.

Therefore, the issues dividing Egypt and Syria remain unresolved, regardless of whether Assad ends up visiting Cairo or not. These are strategic differences highlighting how, in the regional cold war between Iran and pro-American Arab states, Egypt and Syria are entrenched in opposing camps. This reality exposes the fallacy of the theory of the “Arab triangle” – a variant of the “returning Syria to the Arab fold” argument.

The Jordanian analyst Saleh al-Qallab made this keen observation in his As-Sharq al-Awsat column last Thursday. The calls for reviving the “Arab triangle” are badly misplaced, he wrote. In fact, this “triangle” never really existed, he added. Contrary to the common wisdom about Syria's supposed “marriage of convenience” with Iran, in reality, it was the so-called “Arab triangle” that was the transient, ad hoc arrangement that faded, whereas Syria's alliance with Iran endured for three decades. Egypt sees Syrian policies as subverting Cairo's regional clout, which Damascus holds as its own entitlement. That is partly why, as Qallab noted, the idea of an “Arab triangle” was always unsustainable.

It is Egypt's ongoing conflict with Iran's regional axis that lies at the heart of the divide, all visits of protocol and wishful thinking about a Syrian “strategic realignment” notwithstanding.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Egypt Iran Syria