By Jonathan van de Gronden
“Egypt and Syria are the core actors around which the Arab state system revolves.” Since the Cairo-Damascus axis crosses the very heart of the Middle East and encloses the disputed Israeli-Palestinian territory, Egypt and Syria quickly came to play a key role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has set the terms for the region’s geopolitics ever since 1948. Although united by Islam, Pan-Arabism, developmentalism and anti-Zionism, Egyptian-Syrian relations gradually developed in an increasingly ambiguous manner. They have been characterised by both periods of strong unity and severely diverging – even opposing – interests, also at the same time point in time. This paper seeks to understand these relations, focusing on the cases of the United Arab Republic, the Arab Triangle and Egypt’s separate peace with Israel.
In the first two decades of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Egypt and Syria aligned themselves under the banner of Pan-Arabism, fighting Israel from the very day it declared its establishment on the 14th May 1948 and quickly moving to occupy large parts of the Palestinian Territories in conjunction with Transjordan, Iraq and Lebanon. However, Israel struck back in early 1949, regaining all of the territories that Egypt and Syria had taken, except for the Gaza Strip. Tensions between Israel and the Arab states were further stirred by the Suez Crisis. Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and, in so doing, closed the gateway to Israel’s main port. This led to a joint attack by Britain, France and Israel, initiated by the latter, leaving the Arab states with yet another memory of an Israeli invasion, on top of the one from 1949. However, the joint aggression by Britain, France and Israel, although resulting in a military defeat for Nasser, became a political victory: the three aggressors withdrew under American pressure, which meant, from an Egyptian perspective, not only a triumph over the illegitimate Israeli state, but also loss of face for former colonial powers Britain and France. These events greatly contributed to the rise of Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser as leader of the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Apparent Heyday of Egyptian-Syrian Unity: The United Arab Republic
It was especially in this “Age of Nasser”, from 1952 to 1967, that the Egyptian-Syrian tandem dominated the politics of the region, with its culmination in the establishment of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in February 1958. With the political preeminence of the figure of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, combined with the ideology of the Ba’th Party that rose in Syria, this union turned out to dominate the pursuit of the Pan-Arab goal, which also seemed to attract other, surrounding Arab countries. This Arab nationalism was combined with a developmentalist approach to domestic economics and politics, which is based on the idea that the state drives both the economic and social development of the country. Massive public expenditures aimed to improve social welfare, which went hand in hand with building a voter base among big parts of the populace. This combination of Arab nationalism with a developmentalist regime became the leading trend in the Middle East and North Africa.
However, as dramatic and sudden as the UAR came into being, so quickly the union collapsed as well. Despite stating to the outside world how logical the validity of the unification was as part of the gradual development of Pan-Arab nationalism, the union was actually in disarray from its very beginning. The countries’ governance structures were completely out of balance. While Nasser made a name for Egypt as leader of the Arab world, the relatively new Ba’th Party found itself unable to govern the political chaos in Syria. Syria’s turmoil derived from the toxic mixture of the French divide and rule politics during the Mandate era, the subsequently established political party system that exacerbated the pre-existing fragmentation, the dissent within the army and the ongoing battle for leadership in the Arab world. The army was divided between those officers who wanted to side with Egypt’s Nasserism and those who wanted to increase cooperation with Iraq’s conservative and pro-Western Hashemite monarchy prior to its demise in the 1958 revolution.
This imbalance in governance structures – with Egypt on the one hand being strictly organised under Nasser’s rule, while Syria was divided by different military factions – was further encouraged by the presidency of the former. The UAR turned out to be an Egypt-centric state, as Nasser got rid of Syrian party politics, dismissed most of Syria’s officers and introduced a derivative of Egyptian land reform laws. This made tensions within the Syrian military rise again, which ended in the termination of the experimental union of the two countries by Syria. Subsequently, “the complexities of Syrian-Egyptian relations as they developed in the mid-sixties also led to the 1967 war.” In an attempt to regain legitimacy from the Arab world, Syria started to support the “fedayeen” – meaning ‘self-sacrificers’ – which were groups of activists who had embarked on a guerilla war against Israel. To avoid staying behind, Nasser significantly increased his anti-Israel rhetoric, denying the Holocaust and inviting 300 German engineers and scientists formerly employed by the Nazi-government to develop intermediate-range missiles. Moreover, “Nasser, attempting to maintain his credibility as a leader of militant Arabism and maintain control over events, reestablished his alliance with Syria, and hence set in motion the chain of events which would drag him, along with Syria, into the devastating 1967 defeat.”
So, it was precisely the “shotgun marriage” of the UAR that came to characterise Egyptian-Syrian relations. This led Fouad Ajami to state: “As Nasser discovered, the Syrians can make formidable rivals and difficult friends.”Not only would the failure of this short period of common statehood cast a shadow over the countries’ diplomacy up until this day, but it also prescribed the recurring pattern of momentary unity, followed by longer periods of rancour towards each other.
The Arab Triangle Recreates the Cracks in the Cairo-Damascus Axis
The shameful defeat that the Arab states suffered following less than a week of fighting in June 1967 pushed Egypt and Syria in the direction of Saudi Arabia. To rebuild their countries and militaries, funding was needed. Moreover, Nasserism had lost face, sowing the seeds for a new stance towards Israel. Therefore, the three countries aligned in the pursuit of negotiations to establish peace and the restitution of the territories lost in 1967.
As was the case for the UAR, the detente with Saudi Arabia first appeared to herald a new chapter in Arab and therefore Egyptian-Syrian unity, with the three countries forming the so-called “Arab Triangle”. However, also along the same lines of the UAR’s fate, it was the Arab-Israeli conflict that undermined this trio’s bond. Israel, at that point perceiving itself as outstandingly more powerful than the whole Arab world following the 1967 War, prioritised territorial expansion over peace. In response to Israel’s unwillingness to negotiate, Egypt started emphasising domestic politics over military revenge against Israel. Syria, however, held on to the goal of the full recovery of territories that had been lost in 1967. It was here that the beginnings of the wedge driven between Egypt and Syria, that would reach its height after the 1973 October War, started to become visible. Saudi funding has, up to this day, played a role in exacerbating this tension in providing both countries with the means to drift away from each other.
However, it was not only for the Saudis that the Cairo-Damascus axis started to show cracks. Increasing doubt was rising in Syria with regard to Egypt’s willingness to pledge loyalty to the Arab cause in the Arab-Israeli conflict. At the same time, Egypt only grew more anxious and distrustful of Syria’s war strategies, afraid that Syria’s rogue behaviour and errors would cause new tensions with Israel and implicate Egypt. So, in bringing new military possibilities, the Saudi funding oddly enough also increased the distrust between Egypt and Syria. While striking back against Israel after the disgrace of 1967 started to become an increasingly viable possibility, underneath their unity, it was not clear to what extent Egyptian and Syrian strategies would align.
The Reverberation of the October War: Egypt’s Separate Peace
The situation became even more unclear after Nasser’s death. His successor, Anwar Sadat, changed both Egypt’s domestic political-economic and foreign policies. His goal was to develop Egypt in a similar way to the Four Asian Tigers – Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and South Korea. In fact, in the 1990s Egypt actually came to be called the “tiger on the Nile.” To this end, Sadat had to overcome the Arab-Israeli conflict, so he believed, because this would be the only way to open up the Egyptian private sector to the markets and capital flows of Europe and the United States. Zooming in on this second case, one could say that Sadat only participated in the October War to gain more negotiating power in an Egyptian-Israeli detente. It could be said, therefore, that the seeming synchronisation of the Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal into the Sinai and the Syrian attack on the Golan Heights in the October War of 1973 was premised on huge differences in strategy between the two countries. Just like in the case of the UAR and the Arab Triangle, the newly re-established unity of Egypt and Syria on the regional and international level turned out to be the prelude to frosty and tense relations.
Indeed, Syria unequivocally stuck to its initial position of enmity towards Israel. It kept viewing the Palestinian question as the dominant issue in the region, especially in the handling of their international relations, in particular with the US. Whereas Syria’s position was mainly stirred by its material interest in the Golan Heights at first, its motivation changed into an ideational one after Egypt’s turn to peace negotiations with Israel. The Arab-Israeli conflict became the way to commit the country to Arab nationalism, dissenting from Israel’s “imperialism and Zionism.” The ideological nature of Syria’s motives and foreign policy clashed even more with Egypt’s pragmatism that brought it closer to Israel and the US. This was most clearly displayed as Hafez al-Asad severed all diplomatic relations with Egypt following the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979.
Moreover, tensions were further stirred by the vacuum of Arab leadership after Nasser’s death which remained unfulfilled as Sadat looked west. Cleveland goes even as far as to say that Asad “was seen as a possible successor to Nasser in the drive for Pan-Arab unity.” So, the ever recurring competition for the leadership of the Arab world returned to the stage. The competition was noteworthy as the Arab leadership came with huge benefits. The succeeding candidate would not only stand as the Pan-Arab spokesman in foreign relations, but also enjoy the economic advantages of becoming a hub via which all sorts of goods and financial services are distributed. Aforementioned benefits were among the reasons for Syria’s dramatic proclamation of its leadership as the last hope for the Arab world against Israel. However, Syria failed to coordinate the different foreign policies of the Arab states, as they explicitly refused to align under the Syrian flag. As a result, Israel took advantage of this Arab fragmentation, embarking on the Lebanese war in 1982.
This new chapter in the Arab-Israeli conflict gave rise to the Lebanese militia named Hezbollah. Moreover, the outcome of the Lebanese war was a new uprising of Palestinian protests which led to a stricter Israeli regime, which, in turn, facilitated the first intifada. Amidst this violence, another faction rose to the stage: Hamas. Both Hezbollah and Hamas would start to gain the support of Syria, however, given the Egyptian-Israeli peace, they found themselves opposed to Egypt. Therefore, these groups further increased the complexity of Egyptian-Syrian relations. Given the fact that both groups were born as a response to the Egyptian-Israeli separate peace treaty of 1979, Hinnebusch stated: “Thus, from Sadat’s policies flowed a chain of consequences which have fragmented and rendered powerless the Arab world.”
Ongoing troubled relations
It took Syria until 2005 to reestablish diplomatic contacts with Egypt. However, even with Hafez’s son Bashar in power, relations stayed troubled. When the Muslim Brotherhood gained power in Egypt in 2013, they supported the Syrian rebels against Asad’s government. It was only after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s coup d’état that state relations were restored. However, although Egypt explicitly supports the Syrian government, under al-Sisi, Egyptian national interests tend to prevail over the Arab bond between the two countries. This is demonstrated by the close relations Egypt tries to maintain with Saudi Arabia, the biggest funder of the armed rebels in Syria. However, Saudi Arabia is also the provider of the so-called “financial aid” that has become of major importance for Egypt’s state budget. Stemming from the Arab Triangle and initiated at the very moment that Egypt and Syria started to diverge under the regime of Sadat, Egyptian-Saudi relations endure to be a divisive issue in Egyptian-Syrian relations up until this day.
In short, the cases of the UAR, the Arab Triangle and Egypt’s separate peace process with Israel, show how the Egyptian-Syrian relations are linked to the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is a continuing paradox that runs through these three cases: appearing as showcases of their unity, they actually hide the tensions between Egypt and Syria that interacted with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Their diverging interests and strategies in fighting Israel, the ongoing struggle for Pan-Arab leadership and the imbalances in the Arab world that this brought about, complicated the situation in the region. Thus, these power asymmetries fed into the involvement of Western countries, whose presence kept prolonging and exacerbating the conflict’s devastating effect on the Middle East. However, it is an ambiguous balance: the antagonism between the two countries was always displayed within the shared ideals of Pan-Arabism. To lead the Arab world, therefore, could be seen as one of the main motives for Egyptian-Syrian rivalry. Therefore, their ambiguous relationship also sparked Arab unity under the banner of Egypt and Syria’s cooperation. In the end, then, it could be said that Egypt and Syria together highly influenced the region’s domestic and international politics, both by unity and division.
Fouad Ajami, “Stress in the Arab Triangle,” Foreign Policy, Winter 1977-78, no. 29 (New York: Slate-Group, LLC, 1977-78): 90-108.
Michael N. Barnett, Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
Asef Bayat, “Activism and Social Development in the Middle East,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 34, no. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 1-28.
Yehuda U. Blanga, “Saudi Arabia’s Motives in the Syrian Civil War,” Middle East Policy, 24, no. 4 (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017): 45-62.
William L. Cleveland & Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, 6th ed. (New York: Routledge, 2018).
David T. Dumke, “Congress and the Arab Heavyweights” Questioning the Saudi and Egyptian Alliances,” Middle East Policy, XIII, no. 3 (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006): 88-100.
Raymond A. Hinnebusch, “Egypt, Syria, and the Arab State System,” in The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Two Decades of Change, ed. Yehuda Lukacs & Abdalla M. Battah (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988): 179-193.
Michael Kuntzel, “Nasser’s Antisemitic War Against Israel,” Fathom, Spring 2017 (London: British Israel Communication and Research Centre, 2017) https://fathomjournal.org/1967-nassers-antisemitic-war-against-israel/.
Mustafa El-Labbad, “Egypt: A ‘Regional Reference’ in the Middle East,” in Regional Powers in the Middle East. New Constellations after the Arab Revolts, ed. Henner Fürtig (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014): 81-99.
Tony Rea & John Wright, The Arab-Israeli Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
Panayiotis Vatikiotis, Nasser and His Generation (London: Croom Helm, 1978). Stephen M. Walt, The Origin of Alliances (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990).
 Raymond A. Hinnebusch, “Egypt, Syria, and the Arab State System,” in The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Two Decades of Change, ed. Yehuda Lukacs & Abdalla M. Battah (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988): 179.
 Ibid., 179-180.
 William L. Cleveland & Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, 6th ed. (New York: Routledge, 2018): 252-53.
 Panayiotis Vatikiotis, Nasser and His Generation (London: Croom Helm, 1978): 277.
 Cleveland & Bunton, A History, 320.
 Ibid., 286.
 Ibid., 310.
 Asef Bayat, “Activism and Social Development in the Middle East,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 34, no. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 1.
 Cleveland & Bunton, A History, 307-09.
 Ibid., 298.
 Hinnebusch, Egypt, Syria, and the Arab State System, 181.
 Tony Rea & John Wright, The Arab-Israeli Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993): 43.
 Michael Kuntzel, “Nasser’s Antisemitic War Against Israel,” Fathom, Spring 2017 (London: British Israel Communication and Research Centre, 2017): https://fathomjournal.org/1967-nassers-antisemitic-war-against-israel/.
 Hinnebusch, Egypt, Syria, and the Arab State System, 181.
 Michael N. Barnett, Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998): 128.
 Fouad Ajami, “Stress in the Arab Triangle,” Foreign Policy, Winter 1977-78, no. 29 (New York: Slate-Group, LLC, 1977-78): 94.
 Hinnebusch, Egypt, Syria, and the Arab State System, 182.
 Ajami, “Stress in the Arab Triangle,” 99.
 David T. Dumke, “Congress and the Arab Heavyweights” Questioning the Saudi and Egyptian Alliances,” Middle East Policy, XIII, no. 3 (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006): 98.
 Cleveland & Bunton, A History, 380.
 Cleveland & Bunton, A History, 429.
 Stephen M. Walt, The Origin of Alliances (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990): 144.
 Cleveland & Bunton, A History, 431.
 Hinnebusch, Egypt, Syria, and the Arab State System, 187-88.
 Cleveland & Bunton, A History, 451-53.
 Hinnebusch, Egypt, Syria, and the Arab State System, 183.
 Yehuda U. Blanga, “Saudi Arabia’s Motives in the Syrian Civil War,” Middle East Policy, 24, no. 4 (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017): 45
 Mustafa El-Labbad, “Egypt: A ‘Regional Reference’ in the Middle East,” in Regional Powers in the Middle East. New Constellations after the Arab Revolts, ed. Henner Fürtig (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014): 82-85.
 Hinnebusch, Egypt, Syria, and the Arab State System, 179 & 192-93.