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. Continue reading “Syria, Now”
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.”
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.
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.
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?
The coincidence of the Syrian crisis with the Jubilee Celebrations in the UK for the 50th anniversary of their Queen’s accession to the throne may appear at first instance to be entirely separate news items in a pretty busy news schedule. But underneath each story is a crisis of legitimacy, and attempts by key protagonists – Bashir Al-Assad in the first instance, and Queen Elizabeth in the second – to maintain their weakining legitimacy. Henry Kissinger waded into the Syria crisis with a strongly worded criticism of US policy in the crisis. With an argument rooted all the way back in The Treaty of Westphalia, Kissinger railed against the default interventionism that has characterised the Arab Spring as breaking with centuries of – essentially – respect for national sovereignty. Of course one could argue that the proxy wars of the Cold War and more recent interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan – and even in Yemen, Somalia, and Kosovo – pre-dated the Arab Spring and clearly established an option of pragmatic interventionism, moral hazard be damned.
The integrity of the state, the sanctity of its sovereignty, and quite literally the neck of Syria’s leader, are all on the line. A question arises about where the state itself gets its legitimacy. While Assad held recent elections, it appears pretty clear that those elections did little to legitimise his position. The opposition and self-proclaimed oppressed people within Syria are looking to the International Community to intervene and protect their human rights. Now, when we legitimise a political institution, we offer up our freedom to that institution so that it will secure our individual rights and freedoms. If the oppressed peoples of Syria are looking to the international community to secure their rights, and if interventionalism (humanitarian or otherwise) has become a default position, are we witnessing a transition of sovereignty and / or legitimacy to “The International Community”?
Meanwhile, closer to home, the sun is stubbornly refusing to make an appearance in London for the pomp of the Jubilee. Quite literally, it is raining on their parade. As if the British weather wasn’t enough, Poly Toynbee decided to have a pop at the Royal Family, as she is wont to do. Her assault is more wide ranging than that – she attacks that fading vision of Britishness, a decrepit and anachronistic national identity that bears no resemblance to who the British actually are. Perhaps the legitimacy of the State is not undermined by the extraordinary edifice that is the Monarchy; it is more tourist attraction / museum piece than something that geniunely represents Britain. But its position is increasingly detached from the State, and one suspects that the next accession could well be strained.