Shock Legal Judgement shakes Egypt/Syria and International Interests

Jun 15, 2012

Shock Legal Judgement shakes Egypt/Syria and International Interests

Update from AIJAC

June 15, 2012
Number 06/12 #04

The Egyptian political scene has been shaken up by a surprise court decision leading to the dissolution of parliament by the ruling military council – just days before the crucial second round of presidential elections were due to take place. Below, Washington Institute scholars David Schenker and Eric Trager look at the implications of this development, predicting instability and the likelihood of a military backdown on the dissolution if there is mass popular unrest. They stress that the key to what happens will be the attitude of the Muslim Brotherhood, and take a look at what Brotherhood leaders are saying so far. For their analysis, CLICK HERE. Noted analysts Michael Rubin and Barry Rubin (who are not related) both have comments on the court outcome warning that matters are beginning to look in Egypt like Algeria before that country’s bloody civil war began in 1991.

Next up, Washington Institute head Robert Satloff makes an argument that allowing the civil war in Syria to drag on indefinitely is not in the interests of the US, and by implication, allies of the US who have similar goals in the Middle East, such as Australia. In addition to the humanitarian argument, he makes the case that an extended, bloody conflict in Syria would risk the security of Syria’s massive chemical and biological weapons stores, possible spill-over effects involving Kurdish PKK violence in Turkey, instability in Lebanon and Palestinian refugee flows into neighbouring states –  plus an increased likelihood of the takeover of the insurgency by extreme jihadist elements already flocking to the country. He argues that while Assad might well eventually fall anyway, and what will follow him in Syria is unlikely to be either democratic or peaceful and stable, there is an overwhelming case that it is in Western interests to implement policies to speed up the pace of regime change in Syria. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE. An opposing view of Western interests in Syria comes from Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, with a response from Jonathan Tobin.

Finally, veteran American Middle East mediator Aaron David Miller argues that little is being done in Syria, not because key actors do not know what to do, but because their interests, as they currently interpret them, require them to act in the limited ways they currently are acting. Miller reviews the perspectives on Syria of Turkey, Russia, the Saudis, Iran and the US, as well as the relatively inconsequential role the UN can play. He concludes that the Syrian crisis is being acted on by a coalition “not of the willing but of the disabled, the unwilling, and the opposed” and foresees little chance of this changing in the short term. For this detailed look at the calculations being made by all the key players, CLICK HERE. More on the calculations behind Russia’s role as a spoiler on Syria so far are here, here, here and here.

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Egypt’s Shocking Legal Judgments

David Schenker and Eric Trager

Policy Watch, June 14, 2012

New unrest in prospect after high-court rulings appear to back military council.

Today, Egypt’s Constitutional Court made two key rulings, confirming that former prime minister and air force chief Ahmed Shafiq is allowed to run in this weekend’s presidential runoff and invalidating one-third of the seats in the Islamist-controlled legislature. The surprise move throws the country’s political transition into further upheaval.

There may have been some legal basis for the decision to nullify election results for 166 legislators — party-affiliated candidates won seats that should have been allocated to “independents.” In the wake of the ruling, the military has announced that it is dissolving the legislature and assuming law-making powers in its place. Indeed, the timing of the court’s decision — just two days before the final round of the presidential election — has many observers casting it as a soft coup that will allow the military to remain the key power center. In short, the rulings undermine the credibility of this weekend’s balloting, further jeopardize the reputation of Egypt’s traditionally respected judiciary, and raise the specter of a new round of mass demonstrations.

The biggest loser in these decisions is the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which controlled 47 percent of the parliament. Its presidential candidate, Muhammad Morsi, will face off against Shafiq, a retired general who is widely seen to be aligned with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Since March, when it first nominated Morsi, the MB has warned that the SCAF would engineer electoral fraud in favor of a former regime official. Today’s court decisions seemingly validate these concerns.

The Brotherhood’s initial reaction has been mixed. On one hand, spokesman Muhammad Ghazlan indicated that the MB would accept the decision on Shafiq: “It’s a reality now, and we must deal with it as such.” At the same time, however, the organization signaled its rejection of the legislature’s dissolution, a move that MB parliamentary leader Essam al-Erian warned would take Egypt into “a dark tunnel.”

No doubt, the rulings will result in some Egyptians taking to the streets. The key question, though, is how the Brotherhood — Egypt’s most potent and well-organized political force — responds. Although the MB might demonstrate in significant numbers on Friday as it has done routinely for the past several weeks, it might also choose a less confrontational posture with the SCAF. According to Egyptian press reports, senior Brotherhood officials have been meeting with top SCAF generals, including discussions earlier this week between MB deputy supreme guide Khairat al-Shater and armed forces chief of staff Sami Enan. This suggests a deal could be in the works, perhaps securing an MB premiership under a Shafiq presidency.

Even absent a deal, the Brotherhood has other reasons to act with caution. On Wednesday’, the SCAF-appointed Ministry of Justice essentially ignored the recent repeal of the much-hated Emergency Law by decreeing that military intelligence officers and military police were authorized to arrest civilians. And earlier this week, Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm published a picture of the military police formations in new riot-control gear. Should the MB come out in force against the judicial decisions and challenge the SCAF, violence could ensue. Even without the MB, some clashes between liberal protestors and the military may be inevitable. To date, however, military leaders have not shown a consistent willingness to order deadly force against demonstrators — perhaps because such orders might not be followed.

More likely, should sustained mass protests ensue, the military will back down, as it has done in almost every confrontation with the Brotherhood to date. Perhaps the two best examples of such concessions are April 2011, when the SCAF relented in the face of large demonstrations and arrested former president Hosni Mubarak, and November 2011, when large rallies compelled the council to produce a timeline for its formal withdrawal from power.

For Washington, the prospect of an unstable Egypt is deeply troubling. Even worse is the extent to which developments surrounding the presidential election are seemingly undermining ‘the country’s political institutions and the legitimacy of ‘its leadership at this pivotal moment. Taken together, the judicial rulings will further exacerbate growing domestic insecurity and economic problems, ensuring that Egypt’s turbulent transition will continue for the foreseeable future.

David Schenker is the Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute. Eric Trager is the Institute’s Next Generation fellow.



Why a Syrian Civil War Would Be a Disaster For U.S. National Security


Robert Satloff

New Republic

June 8, 2012

Speaking Thursday before the U.N. General Assembly, just one day after the latest massacre of civilians by government-affiliated forces, Kofi Annan warned that the crisis in Syria was on a disastrous course. “If things do not change, the future is likely to be one of brutal repression, massacres, sectarian violence and even all-out civil war,” he said. “All Syrians will lose.”

Annan, of course, is not the first to evoke the term “civil war” in reference to the crisis in Syria, which has already resulted in more than 10,000 dead and 50,000 missing. The term has become a favorite of opponents of intervention in Syria, who use it to conjure up the image of a human swamp of chaos, destruction and mayhem that is bloodier than what Syria has suffered over the past sixteen months, less tractable to resolution, and violently inhospitable to outsiders. The unspoken assumption is that while such a scenario may be horrible for Syrian civilians, it would not rise to the level of an international crisis — at least not one that would have much impact on the United States.

But if commentators have mostly been justified in raising the specter of civil war, they have mostly been wrong in assessing its consequences. If Syria descends into the chaos of all-out civil war, it’s not only Syrians who will lose out, as Annan suggests. Very clear American interests are also at stake.

Consider the many plausible scenarios that could yet transpire. They include:

  • Syrian army units responsible for the control of the regime’s substantial chemical and biological weapons stocks leave their posts, either through defection, mutiny, attack from insurgents or orders from superiors to fight elsewhere, and these weapons of mass destruction go rogue.
  • Syria lashes out at Turkey’s hosting of anti-Assad rebels by offering aid and comfort to a rejuvenated PKK insurgency against Ankara, reigniting a hellish Kurdish terrorist campaign that has claimed more than 30,000 Turkish lives over the past 30 years.
  • Syria pushes hundreds of thousands of hapless Palestinians still living in government-controlled refugee camps over the Jordanian, Lebanese and even Israeli borders as a way to regionalize the conflict and undermine the stability of neighboring states.
  • Syrian soldiers, Alawi thugs and their Hizbollah allies take their anti-Sunni crusade to the Sunnis of Lebanon, reigniting a fifteen-year conflict that sucked regional proxies — and U.S. Marines — into its vortex.
  • Thousands of jihadists descend on Syria to fight the apostate Alawite regime, transforming this large Eastern Mediterranean country into the global nexus of violent Islamist terrorists.

None of this is fantasy. The threat of loose chemical and biological weapons tops the agenda of American and Israeli military planners. In late May, the PKK took responsibility for a suicide bombing attack by a cell that crossed the Syrian border and killed a Turkish policeman and wounded 18 others. A senior Jordanian intelligence official alerted me recently to his abiding fear of Assad using Palestinian refugees as political pawns. Already two Lebanese have been killed and many wounded by Syrian troops shooting across the border or hunting down escaping refugees on Lebanese territory. And although only a few hundred al-Qaeda-type militants have joined the Syrian opposition movement so far, the jihadization of the Syrian uprising has been on everyone’s mind for more than a year.

With the passage of time, each of these scenarios — and others — have become more likely, and the occurrence of any makes more likely the occurrence of others. To make matters worse, the current U.S. strategy — incremental tightening of sanctions, provision of non-lethal goods to the unarmed opposition, ad hoc supply of weaponry by cut-outs to certain armed rebel units, no direct involvement by outside armed forces either in protecting Syrian civilians or degrading Syrian regime assets — stands a good chance of triggering precisely the worst possible outcomes. This “half pregnant” strategy projects the oozy aura of American commitment without the force to make it real; at the same time, it signals to regime loyalists that they need to take extraordinary measures to counter the possibility of greater intervention. The likely result will be that the Syrian regime begins to expand the conflict to ward off an intervention that they may fear is coming while increasing numbers of jihadists who flock to wage the fight that other outsiders refuse to wage.

For Washington, the potential fallout of these scenarios is truly frightening. Chemical or biological weapons in the hands of Alawite vigilantes, Islamist terrorists or criminal gangs. Full-scale fighting along Syria’s borders. The release of pent-up ethnic and religious hatreds in Lebanon or Jordan. A renewal, after forty quiet years, of shooting between Syria and Israel. Military victory for what might eventually become the jihadist-dominated rebels leading to the establishment of Taliban-style rule in Damascus and the possible creation of a breakaway Alawite canton in the mountains of Latakia. Throw in weakness and division among Western allies, a possible face-off with muscle-flexing Russia, and the wild card of how Iran may exploit the Syria crisis to press ahead with its own regional ambitions — and its nuclear program — and this is a witch’s brew for U.S. interests that would consume the energies of the president and could put any strategic pivot to Asia on hold for a decade.

Preventing these calamitous outcomes should be a high priority. But it is reasonable to ask whether prevention — in the form of outside intervention — will itself trigger some of these scenarios. Might it be better to let the current fighting take its course and not stir up the hornet’s nest even more?

The answer is no. Left to its own, the Syrian rebellion may eventually succeed in bringing down the Assad regime, but the key to preventing these negative outcomes is speeding up the pace of change. A slow, grinding conflict in which the regime continues its merciless but ultimately futile whack-a-mole strategy is the most likely backdrop for these nightmare scenarios. In contrast, swift and decisive action to hasten Assad’s departure is the best way to immunize against this set of terrifying outcomes. While Assad may unleash some of his fury in the face of assertive international action, chances are more likely that a clear display of resolve in support of the opposition is the key ingredient to fracturing his surprisingly resilient governing coalition and bringing the regime tumbling down.

Such resolve could include a mix of cyberwarfare, to interfere with Syrian government communications efforts; unmanned drones, to target key installations and weapons depots; air power, to establish and defend safe zones; and a manned element based in neighboring states, to execute a train and equip mission to support rebel forces. At the same time, it is essential that the United States, teamed with Arab, Turkish and other allies, inject urgency and energy into the task of upgrading the cohesion and message of the Syrian political opposition, so that there is a clear answer to the important question of what comes in the wake of Assad’s demise.

Even with all-out effort, a dose of realism is warranted. Syria is going to be a mess for years to come; a peaceful, inclusive, representative Syria anytime soon — one hesitates even to use the word “democratic” — is a fantasy. In a post-Assad world, inter-ethnic reconciliation will be an uphill battle, and the inclusion of some Islamists in a successor government is — regrettably, in my view — a necessary fact of Syrian life. Still, policymaking is often accepting bad outcomes when the alternatives are worse, especially when the worse outcomes have the potential to wreak havoc on American interests.

Beyond the humanitarian disaster that Syria has become, the strategic damage that could result from the nightmare scenarios that could transpire in Syria should concentrate the minds of U.S. strategists. If it takes American-led intervention to prevent them, then that is where discussion of U.S. policy should begin. Time is not an ally.

Robert Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute.

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Everything in Syria Is Going to Plan

It just depends on whose plan you’re talking about.


Foreign Policy, JUNE 13, 2012

If you don’t know where you’re going, the old saying goes, any road will get you there.

The conventional wisdom on Syria has it that the external actors to the tragic drama playing out these many months don’t know what to do, have no end game, and are thus incapable of acting alone or in concert to end the killing and create an effective transition to the post-Assad era.

But that’s wrong. The key actors — America, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the Arabs — know precisely what they’re about (or at least what they want to avoid) and are acting quite willfully to attend to their own interests.

In short, we have a coalition not of the willing but of the disabled, the unwilling, and the opposed. And each has a clear agenda. The tragedy for Syria is that it’s just not a common agenda. And here’s why.

The United Nations

 We can dispense with the idea that the United Nations is a consequential player quite quickly. The U.N. is only as strong as its member states, and in this case that means the five permanent members of the Security Council. The U.N.’s relevance in any global emergency occurs either at the front end of a crisis — as a legitimizer of action — or, if the powers that run the place agree, as an implementing arm once they do.

When there’s no consensus, as in the case of Syria, the U.N. is relegated to articulating rather than acting. Enter Kofi Annan, whose six-point initiative was dead before it was born. Not only are the great powers divided, but the gap between the regime and the opposition is a galactic one that renders any diplomatic approach — either on confidence-builders or on an end game — pointless. The fact that the former secretary-general is trying to expand his contact group to include the Iranians has only added to the confusion, allowing the Russians (who have adopted the idea) to avoid any serious action.


Vladimir Putin’s motives on Syria are a mix of principle, pragmatism, and his own persona.  Like Howard Beale, the frustrated anchor in the movie Network, Putin’s mad as hell and he ain’t gonna to take it anymore. No more Western interventions. No more American diktats or schemes to crowd out Russian influence. There’s nothing more insufferable than the leader of a great power that isn’t so great anymore (see: France).

Russia has seen all of its former friends — Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and now Bashar al-Assad — undermined and deposed by the Americans. We even want his help to squeeze the Iranians on the nuclear issue, too. And he’s pushing back. He knows Assad can’t be saved and doesn’t want Russia identified with massacres, but he wants to avoid a made-in-America settlement that puts Barack Obama in the driver’s seat or leads to a post-Assad era where Russia has no influence or, worse, is holding Washington’s coat.

Putin also fears — genuinely, I think — a post-Assad Syria dominated by radical Sunnis. He doesn’t trust the Saudis, who are looking to counter Iran and the Shia. He worries about his own Muslims in the North Caucasus. (Indeed, Saudi support for Chechnyan rebel Wahhabists is a painful reminder of the Quran’s long reach.) Finally, as with Nicolas Sarkozy, all life for Putin begins with the personal. Putin is both entitled and insecure — a bad combo. He’s just not going to let Obama roll him again after what happened in Libya. If there’s a deal to oust Assad, Russia will have to be central to it.


On paper, you’d think the Turks would have been willing by now to assume a greater leadership role on Syria. Geography, Sunni affinity, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership pretentions in the region would have all argued for much deeper involvement. But leadership requires standing up, and that can make people unhappy, or worse.  The Turks’ “we want to be loved by everybody” approach (minus the Israelis) — represents their preferred soft-power strategy. It’s about adding countries to the Turkish fan club, not subtracting them.

Yes, it’s hard to sit idle while Assad kills fellow Sunnis. But guess what? Everyone else is doing it. Why should Turkey stand up and press for safe zones or military intervention without an Arab consensus? That might anger Iran, the Kurds, and even the Alevis, a minority sect in Turkey that feels persecuted by the Sunni majority. Better to play it safe and watch carefully. Maybe somebody else will take the lead and fix the problem.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Iran and the Saudis

The new Arab-Iranian cold war has been on for some time now. The Syrian crisis has only made it worse. Led by the Saudis, the Sunnis are determined to do what they can to check what they see as rising Iranian and Shia power. I’m sure the Saudis blame the Americans for the Shia government that now sits in Baghdad and for Bahrain, where Washington pressed for reform of in the early days of the Arab Spring, seemingly inattentive to Saudi concerns.

Iraq may be lost, but the game in Syria is still on and the stakes are high. Turning the Shia-affiliated Alawi regime into a Sunni one that can be influenced would be a tremendous victory for the Gulf Arabs. It would weaken the Iranians and break the exaggerated but still very real threat of Shia encirclement — Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. And that’s why Riyadh is backing the rebels with money and arms and allowing individual Saudi clerics to sermonize about jihad and encourage non-Syrian foreign fighters to carry it out. This, of course has a potential downside. We saw the blowback in Afghanistan, where Saudi-inspired Wahhabi doctrine motivated a cadre of Arabs to fight first against the Russians and then against the West.

Tehran, on the other hand, is pushing back: propping up the Assads with concessionary oil, money, arms, and whatever the regime can contribute from its own large bag of repressive techniques. The Iranians may be out of touch on some issues, but it’s hard to believe they don’t sense that the bell is tolling for the Assads and for the four-decade-old strategic relationship with Syria. If and when Assad falls, Iran’s window into Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict is going to be much harder to keep open, particularly its key relationship with Hezbollah. But that doesn’t mean Tehran is going to cooperate on keeping Syria quiet and stable. Indeed, the fear of Sunni encirclement will intensify, and Iran will want to meddle even more to keep the pot boiling (see: Iraq). Iran might even cling tighter to its nuclear program to enhance its leverage and own sense of security.

The United States

The American agenda on Syria completes the circle. Sure, the president is outraged by Assad’s brutality, and yes he’d like to do more. But bad options and electoral politics provide little incentive or leeway for heroics on Syria. The president is more focused on the perpetuation of the House of Obama than on the fall of the House of Assad. And rightly so. Americans are tired of costly military interventions, and the election is going to turn not on foreign policy but on the economy. And the Republicans can’t find a way to make political hay from an Obama foreign policy that on balance has been smart and competent.

The only issues Americans care about abroad these days are terrorism and high gas prices. The president may pay for the latter but has been very tough on the former. Foreign policy will not help him in November, but a costly stumble abroad could hurt him. And the Syrian crisis offers plenty of opportunities for that. If the president acts, it will be cautiously and in the company of others.

Next month, there will be another Friends of Syria meeting. And most likely, there will be a lot of talk and some ratcheting up of the pressure on Assad, but little else. The only thing that could alter this passivity is a spike in the killing and violence that goes qualitatively beyond the horrors we’ve seen so far. A successful intervention would require a grand concert of powers all focused not just on ending the killing but on creating and nurturing a post-Assad Syria. Right now, the external players are too divided, too self-interested, and too committed to their own narrow concerns for that. Syria may be fixable, but certainly not on the cheap. And nobody’s yet willing to pay the price.

Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published this year. “Reality Check,” his column for Foreign Policy, runs weekly.


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