Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Asadism and Legitimacy in Syria

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Asadism and Legitimacy in Syria

Article excerpt

On July 11, 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad had lost his "legitimacy," presaging a U.S. policy favoring regime change in Syria. (1) In August 2011, President Barack Obama stated that the "future of Syria must be determined by its people, but [Asad] is standing in their way. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for [Asad] to step aside." (2) However, nearly 6 years later, Obama has left office, while Asad rules a contiguous stretch of population centers and the majority of Syrians left in Syria. Mainstream analysis explains Asad's resilience as a result of external factors, namely Russian and Iranian support, lack of alignment of foreign aid to opposition forces, and a subdued U.S. response to Asad and prioritization of fighting the so-called Islamic State. Likewise, analysis on the internal factors focuses the narrow but loyal support the regime enjoys from the ruling Alawite sect. (3) The illegitimacy of the regime is assumed.

Has the Syrian regime indeed lost its legitimacy? Scholarship on the concept of legitimacy has offered a variety of typologies for measuring a state's domestic legitimacy--external legitimacy being an entirely separate concept. A survey of this scholarship reveals two general themes. First, legitimacy, or the right to rule, is in the eyes of the ruled. (4) Second, the concept of legitimacy is fluid, and the factors that constitute legitimacy depend on the unique context of the state being assessed. (5) While in Western democracies legitimacy is conferred at the ballot box and measured by a government's ability to provide political goods like security or the rule of law, such legitimacy is a historic aberration. (6) For most of history, a ruler's heredity, religious credentials, or military strength have conferred legitimacy.

If legitimacy is the right to rule as perceived by those who are ruled, an assessment of Asad's legitimacy must be informed by Syrian history and society. But who is a Syrian? Historically, Syria has no national identity; it is, rather, a society of overlapping and competing identities--those of tribe, class, region, ethnicity, and creed--each vying for the loyalty of the people. (7) In 1945, the French Mandate ended, and the people living in a group of Levantine cities and their hinterlands sharing no national identity were proclaimed, by outside powers, to be Syrians. The new country lurched from coup to coup until Hafez al-Asad, Bashar al-Asad's father, consolidated his rule over Syria in 1970.8 Hafez al-Asad offered a new identity and bargain through a secular ideology of pan-Arab socialism called Ba'athism. Today, the regime's bargain remains. In exchange for absolute loyalty, Asad provides an ideological veneer of solidarity and unification that is the only hope for security and stability in Syria.

This bargain could be termed Asadism, and it redefined the diverse people of Syria as part a broader shared national identity. Indeed, it is the only uniting identity that modern Syria has ever known. The resilience of this identity seems at first strange; the Alawite Asad rules over a state that is perhaps 60 percent Sunni. (9) However, the regime's bargain is predicated on understanding that Syria is a majority-minority country. That is, while Sunnis are a religious majority, this is not their only identity. (10) They also belong to a minority: the urban elite, the military or Ba'ath party bureaucracy, a favored tribe, a regional identity--each identity adds complexity to the question of identity in Syria. In a land of minority identities, Asad's legitimacy is rooted in his ability to offer a veneer of cohesion that binds them together.

Moreover, Asad's legitimacy is not created or sustained in a vacuum. The inability of the opposition to offer a viable and broadly appealing identity in Syria confers legitimacy upon Asad. Asadism is the guarantee against the internal threat, fitna, which is societal discord and sedition. …

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