Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi’s secret decision to intervene militarily in the Syrian war on the side of the Syrian President Bashar Assad is revealed here by DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources. The precise details of that intervention vary from source to source.
1. According to one version, a group of Egyptian helicopter pilots – 18, according to one estimate – landed secretly a few days ago at the Syrian Air Force base in Hama and were pressed at once into service for strikes against Syrian rebel forces.
Some sources describe the Egyptian flight crews as taking over the cockpits of Russian attack/reconnaissance Kamov Ka-52 helicopters, with which they were familiar, having trained on them since the end of 2015.
2. Others say that the Egyptian airmen flew those helicopters from Egypt to Syria over the eastern Mediterranean.
3. There is also a claim that their arrival was preceded by a preliminary inspection of the Syrian front lines by two major generals from the Egyptian general staff operations division, who later submitted their recommendations to the Egyptian president. It is not clear if they met the Russian commanders in Syria during that trip.
4. Others say the Egyptian generals headed a military delegation, which has set up a permanent mission in Damascus.
But every one of those sources agrees that, one way or another, Egypt has secretly entered the Syrian war in support of the Bashar regime – a development which has raised a firestorm in Arab capitals.
Saudi Arabia is particularly incensed over El-Sisi’s move. For years, Riyadh granted Cairo billions of dollars in aid, hoping this was an investment for procuring the Egyptian army as the stalwart protector of the kingdom and the Gulf emirates against Iran.
But towards the end of last year, Riyadh was affronted when the Egyptian ruler turned down an appeal for ground troops to support the Yemen campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. An eye-opener came when Egypt showed sympathy for Assad’s fight against extremist Islamist groups in the rebel movement, especially those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which El-Sisi has outlawed in Egypt as the sworn foe of his regime. Then, when Cairo supported Russian pro-Assad diplomacy at the United Nations, Saudi Arabia abruptly cut off financial assistance to Egypt and discontinued its oil shipments.
Donald Trump’s election this month as the next US president has already become the catalyst of a major reshuffling of Middle East alliances and stakes.
Some of its rulers, including El-Sisi, see the landscape changing and may be gambling on Trump reaching a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin for joint military operations in Syria against the Islamic State and other Islamic terror groups, including the Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front. The new bandwagon about to roll appears to favor Bashar Assad and his army.
The US president elect’s take on the Syrian ruler is expected to be markedly different to that of outgoing President Barack Obama, who castigated Assad, but held back from fighting him on the battlefield.
DEBKAfile reported exclusively on Nov. 21 that clandestine talks between Jerusalem, Amman and Damascus were afoot for the restoration of the demilitarized zone on the Golan and steps to stabilize their common borders in southern Syria.
Those talks are taking place with the knowledge of the Trump transition team and the Kremlin. They have already produced results in the return of UNDOF observers to their former posts on the Syrian Golan.
There are grounds to speculate now that the deployment of Egyptian aviators to Syria may be one more product of the secret inter-power diplomacy swirling in recent weeks over Syria’s bloody and intractable five-year war.