MESOP OPINION : Putin Can Grant Assad Ground, Not Legitimacy

BY BASSAM BARABANDI AND RUDAYNA BAALBAKY – Bassam Barabandi served as a diplomat in the Syrian Foreign Ministry before defecting. He is currently an adviser to the Syrian opposition. Rudayna Baalbaky is a researcher at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut.

Russia’s military intervention has dramatically transformed the Syrian conflict, enabling the battered Assad regime to reclaim lost territory and helping broker a ceasefire that locked the regime’s gains in place. But while the Russian-backed Assad offensive is able to regain control of the country, the regime has lost legitimacy in the eyes of Syrians and the international community for its failure to uphold its duty as a state to protect its citizens. The lack of national and international legitimacy will continue to prevent Assad from uniting the country and cripple his ability to be part of a coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS).

The full-scale Russian military campaign is aimed at destroying all rebel factions opposing Assad. This fulfills Russia’s long-term strategy of leaving the international community no choice but to endorse the regime as the only partner to fight terrorism in Syria against ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front. However, the Assad regime has not been fighting a war against terrorists, as it claims along with Russia to justify their offensive. Both primarily target opposition groups that threaten the regime, and use brutal tactics such as targeting civilians and indiscriminate bombing to gain territory.

Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein says in his book World Systems Analysis that, “Sovereignty is more than anything else a matter of legitimacy.” The social contract theory according to Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacque Rousseau, asserts that a state has no right to coerce its people and if it does, is no longer a legitimate power. In September 2005, the UN World Summit adopted the norm known as the responsibility to protect, emphasizing that a state’s sovereignty is tied to it upholding this responsibility. The fact that the Assad regime is not willing or able to protect its population from suffering serious harm during the war, and is perpetrating war crimes to oppress its people, shows that the regime cannot meet the basic criteria of a sovereign state and will not have the legitimacy to unite Syria to fight ISIS.Even in the areas that the regime controls, it has lost legitimacy by turning all of its resources toward its own survival, even at the cost of its citizens. According to one Damascus resident, instead of protecting its citizens, the Syrian regime is endorsing a new principle: “Syrian citizens are responsible for protecting one another via the popular militias. In other words, your state is no longer able to protect you.”

The individual, who wished to remain anonymous, pointed to the regime’s conscription campaigns as evidence of this behavior. “Men in Damascus between the ages of 18 and 40 years old are disappearing. They are being arrested at regime checkpoints and forcibly taken to the military camp in Nabak, where they receive light training, for not more than 10 days. [This is occurring] without [anyone] informing their parents and loved ones. Sometimes they are taken by security service men when leaving their classes,” pointing out that previously, men could postpone their required military service until they finished their university studies. He added that, due to the large number of people being drafted, life has been further disrupted among education and public transportation sectors. In the city, “147 public transportation vehicles have stopped providing their services. There is even a huge shortage in school teachers and university professors, because the regime has been enrolling public sector employees in the army and [pro-government militia] National Defense Force.”

Further damaging the Assad regime’s legitimacy is the fact that he has labeled all armed groups that fight the state as terrorists groups. Many of these armed groups are supported by local communities and perform social services for the same communities they reside in. Rebel armed groups are undertaking the duties that are normally the state’s responsibilities, including protecting civilians and providing basic services. This break down of the social contract between a ruling party and its citizens means that even though the Assad regime, with Russian support, can regain control of these territories, it will not have enough legitimacy to rule in the long term. The Syrian citizens no longer trust or believe the regime is willing or capable of protecting them and this makes it likely that the civil war will reignite in the near future.

The international community’s willingness to consider the regime as a potential partner in the fight against terrorism is based on a false premise: the regime’s ability to reunite Syria. The regime’s ability to control Syria is based on its military force to coerce Syrian citizens to support the regime. Assad is dependent on external support from Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraqi militias to maintain this illegitimate power. Without external support, the regime cannot maintain its own existence, much less reunite Syria and regain popular legitimacy.

The regime and Russia are aware their position is shaky, especially after Syrians took to the streets on the first Friday of the ceasefire. The regime and Russia’s solution is as ironic as it is brutal: depopulate areas to render it possible for the regime to relocate populations and put people who support it, or at least unlikely to resist it, in key areas. Of Syria’s population of 23 million before the war, 4.8 million are refugees, 470,000 have been killed, and 6.6 million are internally displaced, giving the Assad regime the flexibility it needs to relocate people.

The Assad regime and the Russia government fail to understand that destroying the rebels will not remove the seeds of discontent that sparked the conflict. Rather, this method of removing dissent will help extremist groups recruit angry, marginalized, and disenfranchised Sunnis. If the International Syria Support Group will not push for a political transition that will make Assad step down, it is unlikely to empower a government that can regain legitimacy in the eyes of Syrians. Syria, as the war torn country it has become, will not be able to stabilize.