What makes a regime and its ruler legitimate? The question has long been on the minds of the greatest philosophers and political scientists stretching from ancient Greece to the Enlightenment; from Plato to Kant; and covers an entire discourse within political science. Is a government or ruler legitimate solely through the democratic choice of the majority? Is legitimacy dependent on the rights that the government bestows on its subjects? Or is military might and the power over institutions the only real legitimacy there is?
When the civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, following the regime’s brutal crackdown on protestors, it revealed the fragility of the state and the lack of public support for the government of President Bashar Al-Assad. That is, of course, despite the 98 per cent of votes he received in 2007 and the 88 per cent in 2014.
As various groups emerged over the course of the conflict, particularly with the rapid territorial conquests made by Daesh in 2014, Assad’s grip on power over the country bequeathed to him by his father and the near-overthrow of his regime as the rebellion reached the gates of Damascus resulted in increasing scepticism in the outside world of his legitimacy to rule. He was suspended by the Arab League for committing atrocities against his own people, international ties were cut, sanctions were imposed on him and his affiliates, and the country he once had absolute rule over was preyed upon by a myriad of foreign forces and proxies.
Assad essentially became a warlord within a country overrun by warlords, with his legitimacy neither recognised by much of the Syrian population nor the international community. In 2012, a year after the protests began, the EU and US recognised the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the “legitimate representatives of the aspirations of the Syrian people” and, in 2015, the regime controlled less than half of Syria’s territory, focusing its dwindling resources on securing the western areas of the country closer to Damascus in order to retain its Alawite heartlands.
The foundations of legitimacy
With Assad’s recent victories and his near-domination of the civil war, his legitimacy is again being recognised gradually by those who, a mere four years ago despised and condemned him. The Arab League headquarters in Cairo echoes with talk of the possibility of re-admitting Assad back into its fold; the Omani Foreign Minister visited Damascus in July; Saudi Arabia has merely said it is “too early” to restore ties with Syria; and the UAE and Oman are currently attending and participating in this year’s Damascus International Fair.
Though they differ entirely in their current political situations, the governments of Israel and Syria can reasonably be subject to a very similar assessment of their legitimacy. Before and during Israel’s 1948 “war of independence”, what legitimacy did the nascent state with its trained militias and territorial foundations have? The Zionist settlers, prior to the establishment of Israel, laid down their foundations through a network of land purchases, agricultural projects in kibbutzim, and a sharp increase in Jewish immigration. The state of Israel prospered in territorial gains, military victories, government structures and diplomatic ties over the next few decades, and is now recognised as a “legitimate” state with which trade can be conducted and alliances can be made by all but a few nations. That status quo is strengthened year by year through the advancement of its industrial base, particularly in technology and spyware, and the dealings it conducts with states both regionally and abroad. Its ongoing ethnic cleansing of the people of Palestine, upon whose land Israel was created, is largely dismissed by its supporters in the West.
Assad, like Israel over the decades, is implementing and cementing his authority and legitimacy, with victories in the south of Idlib province and gradual re-acceptance in the region. Thus we have a once despised regime which is no longer condemned for the atrocities it has committed since 2011. This suggests that political Darwinism, with “survival of the fittest” (or strongest) at play in Syria. We are witnessing a manifestation of the inexplicable belief (and its acceptance) that “might is right”, a harsh historical reality that the global liberal order of a nuanced system of international unity manifested in the United Nations has never been able to crush.
Under such a concept, the idea of a state having no right to exist is a myth, as the control of territory, resources, military power and a potent sway over its people is what gives a state or regime its legitimacy, not morality or democracy. The government of a state which was born out of ethnic cleansing – the United States, Israel and even a potential state such as Daesh’s “Caliphate”, for example – are one day condemned, the next seen to have economic potential, and the next day recognised and settled with a stack of financial deals from foreign entities.
A double-edged sword
Consider also the situation in Turkey: there would be no such country had the Seljuk Turks under Sultan Alp Arslan not won the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, opening the gates of Anatolia. The War of Independence in 1922, had it not been won by the remaining Turkish forces, would have seen the Greeks and Armenians having their own legitimacy over parts of Anatolia.
Thus, whether a government or state is legitimate or illegitimate is subject entirely to the view of the one who is affected by it: a Palestinian who has been cast out of his native homeland will inevitably view Israel as illegitimate, while a government or business on the other side of the Atlantic would likely see it as a legitimate entity in its quest for economic gain.
Although the fact that legitimacy is not based entirely on the will of the people or on moral foundations is disheartening, there is an element of hope in such a situation, as it is a double-edged sword. If an opposition coalition was to turn the tide in Idlib and push back the Syrian regime forces and its allies, retaking much of its conquered territory and overthrowing Assad in the streets of Damascus, then any resultant government would eventually be viewed as legitimate in the eyes of the world. Similarly, if a Palestinian party was to garner military support from sympathetic countries and declare a State of Palestine, then that too would no doubt be deemed to be legitimate at some stage or another, unless, of course, the might of Israel and its allies continue to crush the right of the Palestinians to have a state of their own.
The gradual acceptance that Assad is still the legitimate ruler of Syria, along with the restoration of ties to his regime, follows the same path as Israel took seven decades ago and continues to tread: the moral deficiencies and human rights violations do not matter in the greater scheme of things; the ends justify the means when economic interests take priority. To counter such a narrative and prevent it from becoming normalised, the international community should focus on boycotting the Assad regime, condemn it for its breaches of international law, and stubbornly refuse to recognise it. Assad should be held accountable to the highest human rights standards, just as many have been trying to do with Israel for over half a century. Above all, justice is lost when the perpetrator of human rights abuses is normalised, legitimised and allowed into the community of nations.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.