Assad and Legitimacy

During the Obama administration, one of the many public throw-away lines designed to paper-over an adamant refusal to protect civilians from a homicidal regime was that the President of Syria—Bashar al-Assad—“lacked all legitimacy.” Russia, on the other hand characterized Assad as the paragon of legitimacy: as the chief of a state represented in the United Nations; a state allegedly subjected to the regime-change machinations of that well-known militarist, Barack Obama. What is the truth? What are the practical implications of legitimacy—or the lack thereof—in Syria?

The Arab Spring uprisings of 2011—including the protests in Syria—boiled down to the issue of political legitimacy. Although motives varied, there was a common thread running through the 2011 events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Syria: popular sentiment that the political systems dominating the lives of citizens were rejecting totally the notion of deriving power from the consent of the governed. Yes, the protests, uprisings, and rebellions did indeed reflect ‘report cards’ on the performances of Mubarak, Ben Ali, Qaddafi, Saleh, and Assad. But they also reflected something far more fundamental: the illegitimacy of political systems that substituted the will of the few for the consent of the many.

The view here is that a political system reflects legitimacy when something approaching the entirety of the citizenry regards that system as right and just. When a system is legitimate, good and bad presidents, prime ministers, kings and kahunas come and go: the system remains essentially unchanged and fundamentally stable because the citizenry recognizes its government’s right to govern; the citizenry consents to be governed by a given system even if a majority considers the incumbent chief of state and/or head of government to be deficient.

In the United States, for example, the right of Donald Trump to serve as president is not challenged, regardless of what public opinion polls say about his performance. Yet historically there have been challenges to American systemic legitimacy. The controversy over President Obama’s place of birth was the most recent such challenge: it disputed the constitutional right of Mr. Obama to serve as chief executive. Although that controversy (unlike the one over slavery that produced a civil war) was largely a fringe phenomenon that did not render the political system unstable, it was disturbing nonetheless. Had the electoral results of November 2016 been different, one wonders if there would have been a sustained effort (perhaps emanating from Moscow) to paint those results as invalid and to render the American system itself illegitimate.

Yet the subject here is Syria. If the consent of the governed is the key to political legitimacy, can the supporters of Bashar al-Assad—Syrian, Iranian, or Russian—justifiably argue that the system dominated by the Assad family and its entourage is or can be legitimate?

This writer knows Syrians who (for a variety of reasons) have supported the Assad regime against its enemies over the past six years, but who nevertheless regard the system as illegitimate. They support the family and the entourage under conditions in which they perceive no viable or safe alternative. Yet they have no illusion about their consent being solicited. Indeed, they recognize that the Syrian state is an authoritarian, predatory, family business. Some accept it because they have experienced nothing else since 1970. Some support it because they have seen much of the regime’s opposition fall into the hands of regional powers that have supported loathsome sectarian alternatives.

Who, however, will argue that Syrian citizenry consensus regards the Assad-imposed system as legitimate? Is there consensus that Assad has the right to rule Syria? Will any Syrian claim that his or her consent to this matter has been solicited? The answer, quite obviously, is “No.” A different answer might have been possible prior to March 2011. But when the regime chose to respond to protests mainly peaceful and almost entirely non-sectarian in nature with lethality—when it elected to wage war against its own citizenry—widespread sentiment that a young, well-educated president was sincerely interested in reforming a corrupt system and attracting systemic consent all-but-disappeared.

The Assad regime’s total embrace of illegitimacy created governance vacuums in wide swaths of Syria. Some of those vacuums were filled by al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-derivatives. Others were filled by local councils which enabled Syrians to experience self-government and civil society. But the regime’s relentless war on civilians, producing as it has millions of displaced, hundreds of thousands of deaths, countless maiming and psychological trauma, tens of thousands of illegal detentions, disease, torture, starvation and rape, has rendered any claim or hope to legitimacy utterly unsustainable and unattainable. Indeed, Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle are fit subjects for criminal prosecution.

One can—as Russia is inclined to do—deny all the specifics having to do with regime mass homicide, including the regime’s use of sarin gas. Or one can take the position of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, that Assad can do as he wishes to Syrians so long as Syria remains a corridor to and strategic depth for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Yet neither of these powers possesses the political alchemy required to create for its client the gold of systemic legitimacy from the lead of a self-serving, self-enriching family business imposed on supporters and enemies alike.

No one in Russia or Iran truly believes that Assad is a paragon of legitimacy in terms of the consent of the governed. Indeed, leaders in both places have legitimacy issues of their own. The operational questions now being parsed by the Trump administration are whether Moscow cares enough about governance in Syria, extremism in Syria, and the future of the Syrian state to consider doing something about the crippling illegitimacy of the Assad system, and whether it has the leverage to force changes to which the regime and Iran would certainly object. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the preservation of Assad and what it presumably says to his domestic audience about the return of Russia to great power status may well outweigh all else.

Yet the illegitimacy of the Assad system—if that system persists—imperils Syria’s future: its territorial integrity, its physical reconstruction, its status as a unitary state. Many Syrian citizens who have stuck with the regime would leave Syria en masse if given the opportunity to do so: many already have. Few of the six-million who have already left would return if the regime that either drove them from their homes or obliged them to leave through corrupt incompetence were to remain in place.

Consent of the governed is the gold standard for systemic political legitimacy. If Syria is to be something other than a carcass to be fed upon indefinitely by a family business, by sectarian extremists of all stripes (including Iranian), and by garden-variety criminals exploiting lawlessness from top to bottom, then the issue of illegitimacy must come front-and-center. Otherwise Syria will hemorrhage people and host bad actors for decades to come.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

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Image: Photo: A view of Raqqa's Old City destroyed during a battle with Islamic State militants, Syria October 1, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro