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Moscow's Marines Head for Syria

The Russians have dispatched a naval task force to Syria. As if the place wasn't enough of a mess already.

The Russian defense ministry has dispatched a group of ships to the Mediterranean. Among their destinations is the Syrian port of Tartus. The vessels include at least three amphibious landing craft, capable of transporting armored vehicles and dozens of marines. If the force actually reaches Syria, it will represent a significant increase in Moscow's involvement there beyond delivering arms (whether new or refurbished) to the beleaguered Assad regime. The Kremlin clearly wants America and others to understand that maintaining its presence in Tartus is a very high priority for Moscow. But far from ensuring continued Russian influence in Syria and the region, this move may serve to undermine it instead.

It is not hard to understand why Moscow would want to retain this port, which its navy has been using since 1971. Russia cannot rapidly deploy its Black Sea fleet into the Mediterranean and beyond because of international agreements that limit the number and timing of naval vessels transiting the bottleneck of the Turkish Straits. Russia's other main ports -- in the Baltic, the Arctic Sea, and the Pacific -- are far away. Thus, for Moscow to be able to rapidly bring to bear its forces in the eastern Mediterranean and vicinity, it must be able to maintain a naval presence outside of the Black Sea. And to do that, it needs access to port facilities. Tartus is currently the only naval base that Russia has outside of the former Soviet Union. (Russia has reportedly taken steps to acquire naval access to Venezuela, but it is not clear whether Moscow can actually sustain one so far away from its own shores.) Hence the vital importance of Tartus to Moscow.

Had the Russian government been more evenhanded about the uprising against the Assad regime that broke out in early 2011, it might have had at least a chance of persuading a successor Syrian government to let it retain access to Tartus. A Syrian National Council official who participated in talks with the Russian government said that the SNC made this offer to Moscow last year. But because the Kremlin has so firmly backed the Assad regime in the latter's efforts to crush its opponents, it is highly likely that the regime coming to power after the downfall of Assad will expel the Russians from Tartus. While Moscow certainly has other motives for continuing to back Assad, one of the most important is the need to secure access to Tartus.

In conversation, Russian international affairs specialists say that they see Washington's objections to Russian support for the Assad regime as yet another example of the U.S. applying one standard to Russia and another to itself. While the U.S. acquiesced to (or more actively worked for) the downfall of longstanding authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, Russian observers note that Washington did nothing to prevent Saudi forces from crushing the Shia majority opposition movement calling for the reform (and not the downfall) of the Sunni minority regime in Bahrain, where the U.S. 5th Fleet is based.

Moscow, of course, saw tacit American support for the crushing of the democratic opposition movement in Bahrain as motivated by Washington's desire to retain its naval base there. Nor did Moscow object to this. Washington, then, should reciprocate by not objecting to Russian support (which Moscow claims is limited) for the crushing of the Syrian opposition movement (which Moscow insists is less than democratic) so that Russia can retain its naval base in Syria. The fact that Washington isn't doing this suggests to Moscow that while the U.S. seeks to preserve its naval presence in the Middle East, it also seeks to eliminate Russia's.

Whether Moscow accurately understands American intentions is a matter of debate. Of more immediate importance to Western and Middle Eastern observers is the question of what Moscow might hope to achieve by deploying Russian marines to Tartus. Last month, when sources in the Russian navy told the Russian Interfax news service that a deployment to the Eastern Mediterannean might be in the offing, the aim of the mission was to protect Russians in Syria and, if necessary, to remove equipment from the port. Moscow might also hope that deploying its marines there will bolster the Assad regime's efforts to crush its opponents or preserve Russian access to Tartus if these efforts fail.

Whether Moscow can achieve these broader goals, though, is highly uncertain. If the Assad regime falls, the presence of a few hundred marines will not enable Moscow to retain access to Tartus if the new Syrian regime insists that the Russians leave. It is far more likely, of course, that the Assad regime will remain in power -- at least in the near term. But this could result in a problem for Moscow that is also far more likely to occur.

Even if the Kremlin's deployment of marines to Tartus has the limited aim of protecting Russian citizens and evacuating Russian equipment, Syrian opposition groups are likely to see this as a sign of increasing Russian support for the Assad regime's efforts to crush them. It would not be surprising, then, if they responded by attacking these marines as well as other Russian personnel in Syria. Such a move would certainly be popular in Syria and the Arab world as a whole, where there is growing resentment toward Russia over its support to the Assad regime. If the Syrian opposition were more unified, its leadership might well conclude that it has an interest in good working relations with Moscow should it achieve power, and thus would not condone such attacks. But given that Syrian opposition forces are divided and that the power struggle among them may well increase if the Assad regime falls (or appears likely to fall), one or more of these groups may well see attacking Russian forces in Syria as an excellent means of bolstering their popularity and legitimacy vis-à-vis the others.

Such an outcome is far from certain. But if Russian personnel in Tartus are attacked, Moscow will face a dilemma. Does it respond by withdrawing the marines, and thus risk not only appearing weak but also undermining the Assad regime by demonstrating how limited Russian support for it is? Or does Moscow respond by sending even more forces to protect the ones already there, and thus risk providing the Syrian opposition with even more targets as well as getting Russian forces bogged down in Syria? Either choice could prove extremely damaging to Putin's standing both internationally and domestically.

If Syrian opposition forces wanted to attack Russian targets in Syria, they would not need to wait for the arrival of these marines in Tartus. There are plenty of Russians present in Syria even now -- including those already at the naval base. Up to now, though, the Syrian opposition has not focused on them. However, the arrival of armed Russian marines -- who can, and will, be portrayed as there to help Assad continue to oppress the Syrian people -- may well prove too tempting a target for the Syrian opposition to resist. If so, Putin's decision to send them to Tartus may not serve to protect Russian naval access to this port as he undoubtedly intends. It could, instead, end up creating more problems for Moscow in Syria than he can afford.



Train Wreck Along the Nile

The battle over Egypt's parliament is more than just a legislative disaster. It's a legal nightmare.

A little over a month ago, I surveyed the array of lawsuits and other legal pretzels littering Egypt's political landscape and wrote a commentary titled "Judicial Turbulence Ahead in Egypt, Fasten Your Seat Belts." In June, when the country's Supreme Constitutional Court forced the dissolution of parliament, that title seemed prescient. Now that newly elected President Mohamed Morsi has summoned that Islamist-dominated parliament right back into session, it is clear that I may have erred seriously in my choice of transportation metaphors. We no longer have a bumpy airplane ride. Instead we have a train wreck in slow motion. Well, actually, forget slow motion.

Let's begin by reviewing what Morsi did -- not that it will help clarify where things stand. Instead it will make clear that at this point, significant actors are no longer acting with any clear strategy or even a defined set of tactics. They seem to be lurching ahead, grabbing any tools conveniently available to advance their short-term interests. If we want a gentler metaphor than a train wreck to describe Egyptian politics, we should realize we are not watching chess or even checkers -- this is a game of bumper cars.

Here's how we got into this mess. Last year, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued an electoral law that allowed for two-thirds of the parliament to be elected by party lists. The other one-third was supposed to go to independents. Because civilians feared that old regime elements would be able to dominate the independent races, the SCAF agreed to permit members of legal political parties to run for those seats as well. One judge from the Constitutional Court said he spoke up at the time that this would cause legal problems, but he was ignored.

What was the problem that only constitutional cognoscenti saw early on? The Constitutional Court had struck down similar systems in the past because, it said, independents were squeezed out in the process. When the case finally got to court last month, the Constitutional Court -- basing itself on its previous jurisprudence -- found the entire parliamentary election system unconstitutional, leading the body to be dissolved.

Was the court acting at the SCAF's behest? Probably not in terms of the substance of the ruling -- those who know the court best were not surprised by the ruling, only by the speed. The justices were very proud of their past jurisprudence on the subject and had taken the trouble to anchor past rulings broadly and not in any specific language, so the change in the constitution did not change its attitude toward the electoral system. What raised eyebrows was the timing: The court had taken much longer to issue its rulings in the past. This time, however, the haste may have owed more to a Tombstone, Arizona, system of justice: The court was drawing its weapon before the parliament could pull out its more potent one (of gutting the court through legislation).

If the SCAF didn't instigate the ruling, it certainly acted on the ruling with alacrity. Immediately following the verdict, it ordered the parliament dissolved and locked up the building. It also amended Egypt's interim constitutional order to take on the parliament's legislative authority, clip the soon-to-be-elected president's wings, and prevent any attempt to elect a new parliament anytime soon. The intent was clearly to correct the flaw that the SCAF itself had inserted a year earlier: Had it not acted as it did, according to the SCAF's own rules, its authority would have ended when the new president took office.

So what did Morsi do? He canceled the decree dissolving the parliament. Can he do that? His arguments do have a veneer of plausibility -- but only a fairly thin one. First, he says he is not overturning the court's ruling. That ruling didn't dissolve the parliament; it only struck down the law by which the parliament was elected. That is all that the Constitutional Court can do. This may seem like splitting hairs, but in Morsi's eyes, it means that it was the SCAF that actually implemented the ruling. Now Morsi -- replacing the SCAF, which had been serving as acting president -- has canceled that implementation.

In fact, his legal advisor Mohamed Fouad Gadallah claims that Morsi had almost no choice: Nobody has the right under the interim constitution to dissolve parliament. So that body is still there, and necessity requires that it continue to sit with its full authority until a new one is elected. Morsi is generously ordering elections for the new parliament to be held as soon as the constitution is approved, which is what the SCAF itself has said is the right time for new elections. But the old parliament, according to the president, stays until that time. His decree cited all kinds of domestic and even international sources for its authority, but pointedly refused to mention the SCAF's supplementary constitutional declaration last month.

So Morsi seems to be picking a fight with both the judiciary and the SCAF. What's the Muslim Brotherhood's strategy for coming out on top? And how are its various antagonists working to stop it?

The Brotherhood's game plan is hard to parse because its modus operandi in the past was to elbow its way ahead -- hard enough to annoy others but not so hard that it would unite all its opponents. It has shown plenty of clumsiness to date, but the movement seemed to be showing its cuddlier side over the past week -- it had just won the presidency and wanted to show that it could govern. Indeed, Morsi's post-election rhetoric was not simply designed to reassure political opponents, but also to reassure the Egyptian state. In a speech at Cairo University on the day of his inauguration, he had some conciliatory words for the state's institutions: "To fully preserve the country's independence and territorial integrity," he said, "it is necessary to keep up the armed forces, police, and judiciary, and to protect all the people of Egypt." It was a strange experience -- imagine if a U.S. president took office reassuring the Joint Chiefs of Staff, FBI agents, and the federal bench.

But now the Brotherhood finds itself instead in a potential cold war with a host of institutions of the state it is now trying to lead -- not simply the SCAF and the judiciary, but also the official Islamic religious establishment and the state-run media. The move is far more confrontational than most Brotherhood watchers expected and seems to be based in part on a principled insistence that those who won the election should be entitled to govern -- a kind of naked majoritarianism that Egyptian state institutions seem almost designed to resist.

What of the judiciary? While a few individual judges sympathize with the president, the bulk of them will likely circle the wagons to protect their colleagues. Indeed, Morsi's decree prompted Egypt's Judges' Club to shoot back with a 36-hour ultimatum for the president to retreat on his decision. "Otherwise, we will have to make much firmer responses," the head of the club warned. What those are as yet remain to be seen.

What can judges do other than issue rulings? Perhaps not much, but in Egypt that can mean a lot. The justices of the Constitutional Court stand apart from the judiciary in many ways, but most of their colleagues in other courts -- most notably the administrative courts -- will take up their cause. And they can wreak havoc, dissolving the constitution-drafting body the parliament put in place, moving against the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament, encouraging legal moves against the Brotherhood (which has no legal status itself), and even dissolving the Brotherhood's legally recognized political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party. And, of course, the courts can simply ignore every single action the reconvened parliament takes.

And the SCAF? Its response so far has been circumspect, but the stakes are high. Its June supplementary constitutional declaration is being ignored, its assertion of legislative authority is being challenged, and the constitution writing process is proceeding -- at least so far -- with the military having few levers to affect the outcome as long as the courts leave it alone. The military's autonomy is safe for now, but its ability to shape the political process over the longer term is suddenly much less certain. If there is any time for the SCAF to learn subtlety, this may be the moment. The threat posed to its interests by Morsi's action is real but not necessarily immediate, and it might make most sense simply to wait for a misstep or other opportunity.

Other political forces -- Egypt's motley assortment of nationalists, leftists, liberals, and others outside the Islamist camp -- are caught in the middle by Morsi's move. Those with seats in the parliament certainly would love to have them back, but they hardly want to stumble into a position in which both the legislative and executive are in Islamist hands. They are already reacting by lurching in several directions at once, unable to formulate a coherent position toward Morsi's decree.

A collision between Egypt's powerful political forces is not simply inevitable -- it is occurring. Whether it is a train wreck or bumper cars remains to be seen. The first better describes the noise and suddenness of events. The second better describes the limited damage thus far: Nobody has been hurt, and in fact, each collision has led only to a further one. So far, Egyptians have been fortunate enough to come out of most political conflicts jostled and confused -- but largely unscathed. They will probably do so this time as well. But if various political actors continue to choose confrontation over consensus, the country's luck might eventually run out.

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