Argument

No More Half Measures

A compromise solution that removes Syria's Bashar al-Assad but replaces him with a crony is now fully off the table. It's time for Washington to back the opposition.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous declared on Tuesday what the world has long known: Syria is in a state of civil war. Ladsous noted that the government of Syria has lost "some large chunks of territory," and contended that we are seeing "a massive increase in the level of violence," with the mostly peaceful opposition increasingly fighting back. The world, however, is at a loss for what to do. U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan lies stillborn, with the Syrian regime refusing to honor a ceasefire, the first and easiest step of Annan's diplomatic effort. Meanwhile, the international community remains reluctant to intervene decisively, even though more than 12,000 Syrians have died, tens of thousands more are refugees and internally displaced, and the Syrian regime is executing children and indiscriminately shelling civilians.

It is clear that the Obama administration has no appetite for another aggressive intervention in the Middle East. Washington's European allies, who led the campaign against Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, are consumed with their collapsing economies. Moscow, whose support is needed to make sanctions more comprehensive and to gain U.N. support for any intervention, openly backs the Bashar al-Assad regime and has made it clear it opposes support for the Syrian opposition. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed on Tuesday that Russia is sending attack helicopters to Syria -- hardly an action designed to promote peace.

Seemingly anything is better than Syria sliding into civil war, and now a tempting middle course has emerged: The Yemen Option.

As violence grew in Yemen in 2011, Washington worked with its regional allies to ease President Ali Abdullah Saleh out from his two-decade rule, with power going to his vice president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Using such a model for Syria -- so the theory goes -- the United States would broker a deal to ease Assad and perhaps a few of his top cronies out and pass power to another, less controversial member of his regime. Moscow has signaled it might be open to such a deal, which would require only hard diplomatic work, not force, to implement.

Such a Goldilocks approach, however, would neither satisfy the aspirations of the Syria people nor advance U.S. strategic interests. Syria, in the end, is fundamentally different from Yemen, and a negotiated solution cannot, and should not, allow Assad loyalists to remain in power. The better option is for the United States and its allies to back the Syrian opposition more aggressively.

Saleh ruled by playing off Yemen's many competing power centers rather than dominating the country. When the Arab Spring hit Yemen, the battle was between Saleh and rival Yemeni elites, and the resulting power handover -- though it didn't happen overnight -- simply replaced an unpopular leader with one who was less prominent, and thus not blamed for Yemen's many problems. Hadi, who had been vice president for more than 15 years, was hardly a new broom, and cooperation on key issues like counterterrorism seems to have improved during his first months as president.

But in Syria, the choice between the opposition and the regime is far starker. Assad heads a kleptocratic government dominated by the Alawite minority that has co-opted key power centers in Syria and ruled the rest of the country through fear. His father killed tens of thousands of Syrians to stay in power, and as the bloodshed rises, Bashar seems willing to do the same -- or even worse. Saleh's fall was hardly peaceful, with perhaps several thousand dying in the violence. But it was far less bloody than Syria and did not involve horrors like the deliberate murder of children. Syria is also Iran's closest ally, and the two regimes have moved closer in the past year. The Syrian opposition, though divided, is anti-Iranian and hostile to Hezbollah, Assad's ally. We don't know what kind of government the Syrian opposition would produce, or even if it can get its act together enough to produce a government should Assad fall, but it is unlikely to be as bad as the current regime in terms of human rights abuses and hostility to the United States. Still, handing over power to a Syrian apparatchik, which would be part of a Yemen-like solution, risks generating a clone of Assad's government with a different name.

Such moral and strategic compromises might, perhaps, be justifiable if the only alternative is an increasingly bloody civil war. But a negotiated middle ground approach is likely to fail and do little to end the violence. Assad believes time (and might) is on his side. Although the opposition remains unbowed, Assad is trying to terrorize the Syrian people into submission through repeated demonstrations of brutal force. As he is doing now, he would make promises during negotiations he never intends to keep, using the breathing space he gains to continue his crackdown. Because the Syrian elite fears losing its privileged position and suffering payback for its decades of brutality, it is unlikely to support Assad's removal, particularly if they see the opposition as weak, divided, and thus unable to win in the long-term.

Moreover, the Syrian opposition would categorically reject a mere change in strongmen, reasoning, correctly, that their thousands of dead countrymen did not give their lives simply to change the name of the country's dictator. And the lack of opposition unity, which has proven so fatal to its success, makes it impossible to force an unpopular deal upon them. Complicating all this, Iran has weighed in on the side of Assad and would try to undermine any deal that risked its alliance with Damascus. Meanwhile, Russia's actions so far suggest its rhetorical openness to a Yemen-type option is false and that it intends to give Assad time to quell the rebellion by butchering his own people.

Led by U.S. allies in Europe, the Obama administration played an important role in ousting Qaddafi. But it is far more passive in Syria -- even though the country is of far greater strategic importance, the potential for the conflict to spillover into neighboring states is higher, and the bloodletting is escalating. For now, direct military intervention ( à la Libya) is not in the cards for political and diplomatic reasons, so the United States should instead more aggressively support the Syrian opposition in conjunction with its allies. The opposition, in the end, is the key to both ousting Assad and ensuring that any replacement regime is better for Syria and for U.S. interests. Most important is coordinating the flow of arms and money, working with key allies like Turkey and the Gulf states to encourage opposition unity and promote more pro-Western figures. Washington must also push its NATO allies to back Turkey and otherwise give Ankara support for hosting the Syrian opposition. If the Syrian opposition becomes stronger, it becomes a more potent threat to the regime.

Bolstering the opposition is part of a long-term strategy, and it does little for the besieged communities in Syria today. But laying the groundwork for a longer-term approach is better than chasing a compromise solution that is likely to fail and, even if successful, would not advance U.S. interests.

KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/GettyImages

Democracy Lab

Egypt's Constitutional Chaos

The process of drafting a new constitution is a train wreck. But there’s a way to get it back on track.

Today Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court issued a game-changing ruling that dissolves both houses of Parliament, effectively handing legislative authority to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Egypt's political landscape is in complete disarray, transformed by a military power grab that bears all the hallmarks of a full-blown coup. But perhaps the most devastating effect of the court's decision is the impact it will have on the process of drafting a new constitution.

It's understandable that much of the media attention is focusing on the final round of Egypt's presidential race, which is, after all, the most competitive and polarizing election in its history. But there is much more at stake right now than the country's highest office. Egypt's democratic transition cannot be completed without the drafting of a new constitution to institutionalize and protect the freedoms demanded by the protesters in Tahrir Square, and also restrain the powers of a military establishment and executive branch that have held civil society hostage for the past 30 years.

The stakes could not be higher, yet the outcome appears increasingly uncertain. Parliament is perilously close to scuttling its second attempt at forming the Constituent Assembly that will write Egypt's post-revolutionary constitution.

The first attempt at forming a body to draft the new constitution was made in March. But the 100-member assembly was dominated by Islamists, and political and religious minorities assailed it as unrepresentative. Liberals and leftists resigned en masse, leaving a third of the seats vacant. The dysfunctional assembly was dissolved by a court ruling on April 10, sending the constitutional process back to square one.

Then, after months of gridlock, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued a June 5 ultimatum that gave political forces 48 hours to agree on new criteria for selecting the members of the constituent assembly. Otherwise, the council warned, it would unilaterally intervene to expedite the process with a new constitutional declaration of its own. Under intense pressure from the SCAF, Islamists led by the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) reluctantly reached an agreement with minority liberal and leftist political parties on June 7, requiring a 50-50 ratio of Islamist to non-Islamist members. The agreement also reduced the number of assembly seats reserved for sitting MPs to 39 from 50, a concession to non-Islamists seeking to curb the Islamist-dominated Parliament's influence over the assembly.

The compromise was initially hailed as a breakthrough. But then it quickly broke down in a dispute over how the vague conditions negotiated in the unwritten agreement would be implemented in practice, leaving Islamists and non-Islamists to argue fiercely over the gray areas. For example, was the 50-50 ratio meant to apply only to the 39 elected MPs on the assembly, or to all 100 members? More importantly, neither the agreement nor the law specified how institutional representatives with an Islamist or partisan affiliation would be counted. For example, would a union representative belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood count toward the Islamists' 50-seat quota? If not, it would be entirely possible for Islamists to obtain a majority in the assembly simply by padding the 61 seats reserved for professionals, youth, public figures, and representatives of state institutions with salafis and members of the Brotherhood.

Although Parliament formally elected the assembly's 100 members in a joint session on June 13, the voting process was overshadowed by the absence of 57 independent, liberal, and leftist MPs who boycotted the session over allegations that the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is still determined to monopolize the Constituent Assembly.

If Islamists are not in fact seeking to dominate the Constituent Assembly -- as FJP leaders have repeatedly insisted -- they are certainly not helping their case by nominating Counselor Hossam Ghariani, head of the Supreme Judicial Council, to chair the Constituent Assembly. Ghariani has close ties to the FJP -- his name turned up on the party's short-list of potential presidential nominees in March -- and his leadership will not be reassuring to liberals and minorities.

For all these reasons, the two-day-old Constituent Assembly is already widely viewed as illegitimate, and non-Islamists are jumping ship. The Egyptian Bloc coalition, representing most of the non-Islamist forces in Parliament, has already vowed to forfeit its seats, and prominent independent MPs are following suit. Even Cairo's High Constitutional Court has withdrawn its nominee for the assembly to avoid "taking sides." But the most ominous harbinger of the assembly's imminent collapse is a rumor that the SCAF's own representative, Mamdouh Shahin, has decided to give up his seat -- even though the military has repeatedly intervened to expedite the constitutional process.

With the People's Assembly legally paralyzed until new elections are held -- leaving the SCAF with legislative authority in the meantime -- Parliament will be powerless to prevent the military from hijacking the constitutional process if and when the newly elected Constituent Assembly falls apart.

Even after new parliamentary elections are held and the legislature is reinstated, the legal authorities of the next Parliament will be in doubt. As Nathan Brown has noted, the election of a new Parliament would actually eliminate the mechanism for selecting a constituent assembly, since the interim constitution explicitly tasks "the first Parliament" after the revolution with choosing the body.

As if the SCAF weren't already salivating at the opportunity to issue a new Constitutional declaration -- recasting the rules of the transition in favor of the military -- this provision gives the SCAF or the next president a perfect excuse to clarify the confusion with a unilateral decree, a dangerously authoritarian move that could trigger a backlash as powerful as the one seen last January.

Whatever the status of Parliament, the SCAF will not stop trying to intervene in the drafting process. Although the SCAF no longer possesses the constitutional authority or political legitimacy to intervene blatantly in the process, the generals still hope to shape the content of the new constitution indirectly by negotiating with its drafters. The SCAF has been trying for months to build a legal firewall around its political and economic privileges, and its 48-hour ultimatum over the Constituent Assembly looks like the military's desperate last bid to hardwire its interests into the new basic law before relinquishing power to a civilian president. With the outcome of the election uncertain, the SCAF is hoping to secure a safe exit from the political scene, possibly including immunity from prosecution.

Although Egypt's next president will have no official role in the constitutional process, he is sure to wield considerable influence. While Mohamed Morsi, the FJP candidate, shares the Brotherhood's long-term goal of implementing a full parliamentary system, he favors a gradualist and pragmatic approach to reform. Morsi has publicly advocated the amendment of Article 5 of the 1971 constitution, which deals with presidential powers, to curb the executive's authority "in preparation for a full parliamentary system sometime in the future." But even if Morsi takes a relatively hands-off approach to the drafting process, a new Constituent Assembly once again dominated by Islamists might well push ahead with plans for a parliamentary system or a strengthening of the religious clauses with little resistance from the president.

Ahmed Shafik, a former air force head who briefly served as Mubarak's prime minister before his resignation in February 2011, is the candidate most closely associated with the former regime. As president, Shafik will be subject to intense scrutiny from those who view him as a supporter of the old order, meaning that any attempt to consolidate power in the executive branch could backfire explosively. But while Shafik will find it hard to obstruct efforts to limit presidential authority and shift the balance of power in Parliament's favor, he is nonetheless wary of adopting a full parliamentary system, which he views as too volatile. Shafik's views are a reflection of the military establishment's interest in curbing Parliament's power in order to shield itself from civilian regulation and budgetary oversight.

Either candidate, if elected, will need to play a constructive role in advancing the inclusive national dialogue necessary for producing a durable and legitimate constitution that reflects genuine compromise between the cornucopia of interest groups -- Islamist, liberal, socialist, revolutionary, and secular -- that must learn to share power peacefully in a new political environment of unfettered and unpredictable pluralism. Major points of disagreement -- the composition of a constituent assembly that has yet to be formed, the relative powers of Parliament and the presidency in the restructured political system, and the role of religion vis-à-vis the state and society -- will need to be thoroughly debated and resolved in order for the constitutional process to yield a document that is respected by all social and political forces.

After two disastrous attempts at forming a Constituent Assembly, Egypt's constitutional process is in danger of implosion, and Parliament cannot afford to fail again. Egypt's political forces should take the necessary time -- a matter of months, not days -- to choose a Constituent Assembly that is sufficiently diverse and neutral to rewrite Egypt's legal framework on a clean slate. The new constitution will provide the blueprint for a democratic system and new social contract built on rule of law, accountability, and justice. If it this document is to stand the test of time, it cannot be written at breakneck speed.

Daniel Berehulak /Getty Images