Will The Legitimate Syrian Government Please Stand Up?

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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.