kerry, brahimi
Tough Job: US Secretary of State John Kerry next to United Nations-Arab League special envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

Twelve months ago it seemed inevitable that Bashar Al-Assad had no future in Syria, that it was merely a matter of time before his reign – and his dynasty – came to an end.  What has been consistent also, however, is that there has been no clarity in terms of who should replace him.  Furthermore, this has never been an internalised, isolated civil war; it is regional, strategic, and symbolic.

Syria's borders are all fraught
Syria’s borders are all fraught

Six months ago, it appeared obvious that Bashar Al-Assad was on his way out of Syria.  What was less clear, however, was who was likely to succeed him. And it is this particular point – the absence of a clear opposition – that has kept him in place. The various countries that have an interest are both local and global, and the rationale of each bears thinking about.

Let’s start with the neighbours.  Immediately surrounding Syria are Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.  Hizbollah – and therefore Lebanon – is supporting Assad, primarily one suspects because they think he will win. Syria has long been a friend of the Palestinians.  Assad himself put it thus in 2002: “As far as an occupier is concerned, there is no distinction between soldiers and civilians… There is a distinction between armed and unarmed, but in Israel everyone is armed. In any case, we adopted the following concept: resistance to occupation is a legitimate right.”

stealth of nations
Bob Neuwirth’s book on the economies that operate completely independent of the State is an indictment on State effectiveness, and State Legitimacy.

In considering the concept of state legitimacy, we need to understand why is it so important?  I’ve mentioned before that there are two kinds of legitimacy as I see it, an internal legitimacy and an external legitimacy.  External legitimacy is that conferred upon a sovereign state by the international community, affording it standing in the community of nations, making it entitled to trade and interact in international affairs.  Internal legitimacy is that internal relationship between the state and its people, wherein the state is recognised as representative, or authoritative in matters such as justice, taxation and (to a greater or lesser degree) morality.

In order to understand why legitimacy is important, we should consider what happens when it disappears.  We need to consider this in respect of both internal and external legitimacy.  External legitimacy is perhaps easier to consider, as there are so many well documented examples, and because the legitimating forces are clear and easily measurable; when the international community describes a country as a failed state, it is primarily in relation to its external legitimacy.  Sanctions are usually the first indicator.  The International Community decides, in its wisdom, that due to some breach in the rules – formal or otherwise – a State, and in particular its régime, needs to alter its behaviour in order to be considered persona grata.  The State becomes isolated, trade opportunities become limited, and economic progress is retarded.  This happened in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria, Somalia – the list goes on.

Bashar-al-Assad-310x233
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.

Google Trends on Syria
The Syrian Conflict became a Civil War on September 16th, according to Google. At, emm, about tea-time.

State Legitimacy is an amorphous thing.  It’s difficult to measure, difficult to assert, and relative.  Not only is the legitimacy of the state relative to other states, but it is relative across other dimensions too – relative to its citizens, or subjects, relative to its power or to the effectiveness of its power (an admittedly cyclical compare), and relative to the context of its actions.  In other words, it’s tough to pin down.  If we think of it another way, if we could measure state legitimacy, and we could similarly measure state illegitimacy, or the extent to which a state is failed, what would be the point at which we recognise one polarity from the other?