Will The Legitimate Syrian Government Please Stand Up?

Bashar Al-Assad: Time’s Up

A draft declaration from talks in Marrakech on the situation in Syria from the Friends of Syria has recognised the opposition as ‘the legitimate representative of the Syrian people’.  Which is nice for them, I guess.  Not so nice, one would presume, for the president of Syria, Bashar Al-Assad and his friends.  Syria has generally been on the wrong side of US foreign policy, and even when the US has needed its support, for example in the lead up to the Invasion of Iraq in 2003, the extent to which it was willing to court Syrian support was arms length and defensive.  President Obama’s declaration of support for the opposition coalition yesterday was not unexpected, and is likely to hasten the demise of the ruling family in Syria, which has been in place for over forty years.

It’s a funny language that’s used, though.  In essence, this is more of a negative statement about the legitimate government (i.e. Assad) than it is a positive statement about the pretenders.  France has been offering hard support to those fighting the régime, while Russia may be creating the space necessary to stand down its support for Assad, not withstanding a public persistent support.  The Assad government is legitimate (or at least has been legitimate in the past) because of its erstwhile monopoly on the use of force, international recognition through institutions such as the United Nations and the Arab League, and bilateral acknowledgement even in the management of hostile relationships, such as that with the US.  Domestically, the Syrian government had been taking steps in recent times to accede to popular demands for increased democratisation in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.  The new constitution was passed in February this year, in a much criticised plebiscite, but it has not been able to take hold give the upheaval in the country – cynics would argue that it was never going to be anything more than a bauble to throw at the critics in any case.  China, people would argue, has a constitution with an exhaustive bill of rights, for all the good it does.

There is no doubt that should the opposition groups find some cohesion amongst the factions, tribes, and interests that drive them, and present some kind of unified front, then the pronouncement in Marrakech will afford them some prospect of power in post-Assad Syria.  There are almost certainly spooks and diplomats from the West scouring the ranks of the opposition for sound leaders, people with whom they can work, people who they can influence, and reason with.  There are efforts being made to cajole and coerce, to shape and to influence the machinations of the opposition, and to try and find some points of agreement, some common platform upon which a stable régime can be constructed.  The West, should such an infrastructure be forthcoming, will legitimise such a government once Assad has been deposed, and will bolster the position of the fledgling administration by ensuring financial and military support in order to suppress dissenting voices, in particular those of the old order.

That, in effect, delivers a legitimate government.  It is legitimate because it has control; it is legitimate because it is recognised; it is legitimate, because it is in the interests of those in the region, and those with interests in the region, to be legitimate.  As for the people of Syria themselves, the ruling elite will be protected by the process of legitimation.  They will bring with them the people who they represent, and apportion power and gold as appropriate to secure the bulk of support.  There remains a question beyond that, however.  Syria is a very large country, with over twenty million people in an area more than four times the size of Switzerland.  Bringing everyone along will be tough, and just as with the Ba’athists in post-Saddam Iraq, any small minority will in absolute terms remain potentially very large.  They will not be without support, especially if the new régime is seen as being a puppet of the US.

The question then remains whether the new government will be genuinely legitimate from the perspective of the people themselves.  The protection of fundamental human rights – and by that we’re talking very fundamental – security, access to food, shelter, water – will afford the government some cover.  Civil and political rights will be harder to guarantee, but in the absence of civil war, that is likely to be OK for a little while.  Regional and border relations will be important too – relations with Israel and Iran, two firebrands in the region, and with Egypt, will be telling.  The new government, legitimised by the international community, will need to build its legitimacy over time with the people.  And to torture some metaphors, it will take baby steps, while walking on eggshells.


37 thoughts on “Will The Legitimate Syrian Government Please Stand Up?”

    1. How long does it take to build a country? If you’re specifically referring to the demise of Assad, then I agree – it looks imminent. Watching the Russian position is interesting, they’re increasingly less vocal in their support of Assad. That’s telling, I think.

  1. This topic caught my interest a while back…I forget how good I have it. Prayers for Syria and their government, for sure. Thanks for sharing, maybe sheading more light on the subject will inform people. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  2. A stable government in Syria would have huge impact on not just Syrians, it would impact surrounding areas and hopefully it will help straighten out the bumps they have come across. Great post, congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    1. You’re right. A change in the Syrian government would not only bring “peace” for the residents in Syria, it will also settle down tensions in surrounding countries such as Turkey which have been clashing with Assad’s regime recently. Btw. Congrats for being Freshly Pressed.

      1. Remember though that that was the theory in Iraq – create an Arab democratic heartland that would spread like a virus in the region. Look how that turned out :-/

        Thanks for the congrats – ncie to have the encouragement to forge ahead!

  3. The administration is probably happy this arm’s-length relationship dulls the public’s urge to intervene. I’m sure the CIA has feet and $ on the ground there, but I prefer that Obama restrict his public role to cajoling/reprimanding from the sidelines—while pressuring the Arab League to step up. Like in Egypt, the Middle East needs to hash out its own political future to achieve real progress. Calling on the West to intervene so they have someone to blame for the mess won’t produce lasting change.

    1. I agree – there needs to be an Arab, a Syrian answer. I also think however that the questions need to be local questions. It’s not important how the West secures stable economic conditions in the Middle East, or even protection for Israel. It’s important that the people of the region find a path for themselves to develop and protect their human rights (though as a concept, human rights may be an inappropriate construct – I intend to blog on this shortly based on a recent reading of Cohen’s Globalization and Sovereignty)

  4. So from this article regarding ‘legitimacy’, I deduce that you support the use of mercenaries/terrorists to topple so called illegitimate governments? Assad et. al. are hardly ones to sing kumbaya with their supposed people (subjects). The slaughter incurred during his father’s rule is hardly a secret, but how does it compare to the amount of collateral damage being inflicted by the guerillas/terrorists who are destroying the country at the moment?

    My reason for asking is primarily because it seems that many discuss these matters in flowery academic language but avoid discussing the terror/destruction being dished out by the supposed opposition (who elected them to represent Syria?). Clearly this game of marbles is for keeps and major geopolitical players are doing all to facilitate the ‘success’ of these terrorists.

    If these events unfolded in your town, or neighborhood, I believe perspectives and narratives would change drastically.

    1. @Jason – for some reason your comment was picked up as spam, hence the delay in approval.

      Addressing your comments, I abhor all violence. That said, there is a particular poignancy to state violence. The state has a very solemn duty to protect all of its people all of the time, even the criminals. Terrorism is an extremely difficult thing to manage, but if the State is to retain it’s legitimacy then it needs to act in accordance with its mandate, and the wishes of its people. It’s hard to see how air-strikes fit into that.

      The purpose of my blog is academic, hence the academic language! It is not a political, or activist site. I’m not taking one side over the other, but rather seeking to understand how state legitimacy is constructed – and deconstructed.

  5. No one knows what’s going on in Syria more than the syrians>…there are thousands of terrorists who are destroying our country burning everything even the trees,slaughtering the innocents -in the name of islam- they are terrorists and the goverment’s duty is to protect us from them .unfortunately the west and their office boys(the arabs) are supporting them and support their horrible actions. unfortunately,so many people don’t know or ignore this truth.

    1. I’m not sure that I agree – the State has an obligation to protect all of its people and represent as far as is possible everyone’s interests. Whatever about minority oppression, which happens to a greater or lesser degree in every country, it seems that a government that launches airstrikes on its own people has lost its right to rule, its effective legitimacy. Of course terrible things happen in circumstances such as those Syria finds itself in – I have no doubt that terrible things have been done in the name of righteousness on both sides.

  6. I recall that at one time, the US Founding Fathers were rebels and the British Empire was the legitimate government of the American colonies. That took what, eight years to sort out?

    And the Czar ruled over Russia until 1917-18. Were the Soviets better off under the Czar or the Communist Party of Russia?

    Then there was Cuba with Castro and China with Mao.

    How do we measure the quality of life from one government to the next?

    Instead of looking at freedom of expression and the right to vote, maybe we should look at the average life span and infant mortality before and after. Under the Czar 4 out of 5 people were peasants. Nearly half of the children under 5 died and life expectancy was only age 55.

    Between 1938-1939 and 1958-1959 in Russia, life expectancy increased by over 20 years for both sexes–from 40 to 62 for men and from 47 to 70 for women. It was a period of successive efforts by the Soviet centralized health care system against infectious diseases using new antibiotics and mass vaccinations. By the mid-1960s, the gap in life expectancy between Russia and the United States dropped sharply to only 3 years for men and 1.5 years for women.[11] In the 1960s, when excess mortality from infectious diseases had already diminished greatly and the “civilized ills” (alcoholism, smoking, traffic accidents, environmental pollution) were rising, progress in life expectancy both in Russia and in the United States nearly stopped.

    Source: http://www.rand.org/pubs/conf_proceedings/CF124/cf124.chap4.html

    In China, even with the famine of the Great Leap Forward and the insanity of the Cultural Revolution under Mao, life expectancy increased. In 1949, the average lifespan in China was 35 and by 1976 it was up to about age 55.

    As for Syria, once Assad is gone, it may take years or decades for history to decide if Syria is better off. The same may be said of Egypt and Iraq too.

    Is the quality of life in Iran better now than it was under the Shah? Under the Shah in 1976, the infant mortality rate was 116.4 per 1,000 births and life expectancy was about age 58. Today infant mortality is 27.2 per 1,000 births and life expectancy is more than age 80.

    How do we measure the true quality of life — by measuring concrete numbers or abstract ideals?

    1. Interesting comments, especially the stats on life expectancy. It’s a tricky subject. Some of the literature on human rights law and in particular the right to life is instructive – some are beginning to argue in the last few years that life itself, devoid of a minimum qualitative standard, is insufficient. Many people in non-western countries see western human rights, and neo-liberalism generally, as heinous. The Randian individualism and capitalist dominance of the last century or so has led to extraordinary disenfranchisement, and a massive gap between rich and poor that is growing all the time. Democracy seems to have an in-built self-destruct mechanism, that we are unfamiliar with, and unwilling to address, partially because those who lead tend to fall into the rich category, not the poor. While there are many attractive features of democracy and human rights, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we have found some panacea, as Francis Fukuyama pre-emptively declared in his since discredited The End of History and The Last Man.

  7. As far as I’m concerned, the country of Syria has very little legitimacy in the first place. England and France carved up the Middle East behind closed doors after WWI. As a result, Syria became a country for the first time. So most of the Middle East was the result of Western colonialism which hasn’t changed much, even today. Oil is still important but there are other geopolitical reasons why the Middle East is deemed to be critical to Western interests. Whenever the West feels that their hand-picked guy is no longer playing ball (e.g. Gaddafi, Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran), we replace them. So we are asking the wrong questions to the wrong people.

    1. Couple of points in there – you’re right about the borders, most of the borders drawn in the middle east (and indeed Africa) were done so arbitrarily (witness vast straight line borders in Africa in particular) and without reference to the local peoples, splitting tribes and imposing an entirely inappropriate government architecture. That said, the indigenous people of the middle east in particular were substantially nomadic, and western notions of land and property rights were inapplicable. So it was always going to be a difficult struggle to shoehorn Middle Eastern concepts of civilization and community into the emerging standard of so-called Nation States.

      As for the West and its control over leaders, I’m not so sure we’re in as much control as you might think. Even Israel doesn’t do what the US wants all the time. The post-invasion Iraq fiasco showed just how poorly the West understood the country, its resources and its politics. The West certainly tries to influence events, and clearly has its favourites. But the people of the middle east are strong, and strong willed. They are more sovereign today than I suspect at any point in the past, even though there are indications that such power may not make them more ‘free’.

      1. I think Israel is in control of the US ,btw. US is the face, Israel is the brains. But what do I know 🙂

  8. The situation worries me .

    1. If the Ruling Family is thrown of their throne , how are their allies going to react ? ( Read: Russia , Iran, … )

    2. Like you said , will a new government be legitimate from the people’s perspective or is it going to be Egypt 2.0

    3. If everything remains the same as it is today, how many more deaths will the world be watching?

    I don’t know… I’m often in the middle east & it feels like something is going to kick off. Something that will affect us(the rest of the world) more than we know…

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed & thank you for posting this !

  9. I agree that legitimacy is a relative concept as it has always been.
    The question is who gets the privilege of deciding what is legitimate and what is not? And based on which criteria?

    It would be interesting to first put the events in Syria and in the Arab world into a concrete context and understand what is really happening there. To me, concrete analysis comes first and ideals come after.
    Questions I would ask myself: why there and why now? Why not in Saudi Arabia or in Qatar? Why not in Israel? Who’s funding the Arab revolutions? And to whose interest?
    Isn’t Syria the only powerful Arab regime that is still hostile to Israel? Could it be that the earlier fall of the Egyptian regime was a loss of what used to be an essential ally to the US and Israel interests in the Middle East?
    And is it really the Syrian people who are leading the revolution? Or is it actually terrorist militias formed of religious extremist groups funded by oil money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar under the blessing of United States intelligence?

    Now coming back to talk about ideals: seeking legitimacy among Arab governments is like seeking unicorns in the desert. Talk about women in Saudi Arabia who are officially and by law the property of their male protector! Why not support a revolution there? The standard of life of the average Syrian is actually orders of magnitudes better than that of the average citizen from an Arab “oil” country.
    And what about children in Gaza and south Lebanon? Twenty something children are killed in Connecticut and the president of the United States could not hold his tears till the end of his speech. It is a tragic incident and a moving event even to the coldest hearts. But in which way the Connecticut children are better than those of Gaza? Why don’t those children deserve the tears of the most powerful man on Earth? Or is it because they are killed by a “legitimate” government?

    1. So many questions! On Syria, and the Middle East, there will always be influences, groups, money and support the same as any other place in the world. In America, some say the Jewish lobby run the White House. Others say Big Oil. In Europe it’s Germany, or the French trades unions, or the Eurozone bondholders. All power is relative, and peoples and societies and institutions organise and influence and associate in sometimes competing or overlapping ways, making truth a nebulous concept. And that’s OK.

      The point about Gaza’s children, and those of Connecticut, is a difficult point well made. I won’t try and rationalize Obama’s tear, if that’s what it was. Moral relativism is human, but flawed. My own belief is that no child’s life is comparable in any way. So we need to move past that and ask how the children of Gaza can find peace, and how the children of America can find safety.

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