On February 1, a military transport plane left a Russian airbase in Latakia, Syria, landed at an airfield near Egypt’s border with Libya, then returned to Syria. For months there had been unconfirmed reports that Cairo had sent forces to assist the Syrian regime in the country’s civil war and at first glance the flight appeared to have corroborated those suspicions. That now looks unlikely—the jet’s final destination was Russia, where it had reportedly brought wounded fighters, loyal to the Kremlin-allied Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, in for treatment. But the very fact that Cairo is coordinating with the Damascus-Moscow alliance on such an operation underscores one of the Middle East’s worst-kept secrets: Cairo supports the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Back in November, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi essentially admitted as much. Cairo’s priority “is to support national armies, for example in Libya,” he told Portuguese state television. “The same with Syria and Iraq.” The host then pressed Sisi over whether he meant the Syrian regime. “Yes,” Sisi replied plainly.
It was the first time that Egypt, a longtime U.S. ally, openly acknowledged that it sides with the Syrian government. The Assad regime is not only allied with U.S. adversaries Iran and Russia but is also loathed across much of the Arab world for its scorched-earth attacks and the refugee crisis that its civil war has spawned. Sisi is now one of the only Arab leaders to explicitly back Damascus, which since late 2011 has been suspended from the Arab League and which Al Jazeera—by far the most watched television network in the Arab world—incessantly rails against.
Of course, hints of Sisi’s sympathy for his Syrian counterpart have been visible for years. Back in July 2013, just weeks after then-army chief Sisi led the military in removing Cairo’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government, Egypt and Syria agreed to revive diplomatic ties. (The Brotherhood regime had cut them to protest Damascus’ heavy-handed crackdown on dissent.)