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Thursday, 8 December 2016

So, do we have troops in Syria or no? It’s the story that won’t die. Plus: Shoukry in DC.

Canard that won’t die? Or fire where there’s smoke? The most interesting string of stories runs beneath the surface this morning, and they’re all somehow about potential Egyptian involvement in Syria. All seem to have at their root this story from Assafir (the newspaper known for its pro-Assad stance) that Egyptian helicopter pilots had landed on the ground in Syria to support the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s army. The report was promptly denied by Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, but the piece lives on in the echo chamber that is the interwebs. “The Consequences of Egypt’s Potential Military Engagement in Syria” does the best job we’ve seen yet of tracking back the spate of stories that broke the story in the first place. This two-week-old piece by Israel’s Debka file continues to be cited, Al Monitor has its usually thorough roundup in “Is Egypt considering military intervention in Syria?”, and the Italians are getting in on the act with Ansa’s “Egypt ‘to send 200 officers to Syria’ to help Assad.”

Okay, so we’ve sent troops to Syria? No, says Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in two high-profile interviews in the US.

Shoukry sat down with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer for an interview to weigh in on US President-elect Donald Trump and Egypt’s foreign policy. The FM said Egypt is not picking sides in Syria, but is “very heavily involved in trying to alleviate the humanitarian difficulties that exist … Egypt sides with the Syrian people … we have to move on … to a political solution … Enough is enough.”

Shoukry also said that Egypt’s relationship with the US has “always been one that’s been valuable to both sides,” despite some difficulties faced with the Obama administration, adding “we’re always interested in developing and enhancing the relationship.” He refused to speculate on how the next US administration would implement Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims coming to the country and said he has not raised the issue with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi. On international criticism of Egypt, Shoukry said “there has always been a discussion and healthy debate between us and our American partners related to many areas of our development and our reform policies … we have a clear understanding of what our society needs and how it should proceed in terms of reform.” The piece is also telling (exasperating?) for Blitzer’s insistent on calling the 30 June revolution a “coup.” (Watch, runtime 08:02).

The Foreign Minister was also hammered on Trump, Syria and human rights by Judy Woodruff for an interview that aired on the PBS Newshour (watch runtime: 7:42; transcript available at the same link). Shoukry’s best answer:

Woodruff: If the Syrian government asked Egypt to also send forces of any kinds, and there have been rumors to this effect, would Egypt send some to help him?

Shoukry: Categorically not.

El Sisi has invited Trump to Egypt: While in Washington, Shoukry told Al Shorouk that President Abdelfattah El Sisi has invited US president-elect Donald Trump to visit Egypt, but said no dates have been set.

A message to Riyadh: The foreign minister told Al Sharq Al Awsat from the US that “a special bond connects Egypt and Saudi” and that both countries have to adopt a similar attitude to many of the issues and challenges the region faces at the moment, “especially when it comes to Arab and Gulf national security.”

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