Bashar Al-Assad’s Legitimacy and Syrian Sovereignty: Analysis
March 15, 2011: On this day, the Syrian chapter of the Arab Spring began, and for many, it demarcates the point at which the irreparable harm to the Syrian state began. Still, Bashar Al-Assad, who has been president of Syria for the last seventeen years, has consistently faced threats to the legitimacy of his authority and to Syrian sovereignty throughout his tenure. Upon being elected president in 2000, Assad was confronted by the ‘Damascus Spring’. This period of political and social debate was short-lived, as activists who initially felt empowered to discuss their progressive ideals and viewpoints were suppressed. While Assad made promises to his voters to protect freedom of the press, to grow a state-run economy, and to free political prisoners, he ultimately had to answer to the military and political establishments.
Many people of Alawi descent make up a significant portion of the military and political branches in the Syrian state. This is allegedly due to Assad’s decision to fill positions in a way that ensures sectarian loyalty. This is the case despite the fact that the minority group accounts for roughly 12% of the population in Syria. This significant military and political power is sometimes referred to as the “entrenched old guard”. Assad, an Alawite himself, undoubtedly remains partial to the concerns of the ethnic group in general, and more specifically does so because the group wields immense military and political power. As the Alawites have historically been a minority group in Syria, the majority of the population – Sunni Muslims – has often found itself at odds with the powerful minority. Furthermore, given the passionate advocacy for change that followed the ‘Damascus Spring’, the repression of such change was a source of contention for the Syrian masses that desired it. This effect was amplified because many believed that the Alawites, who carried such immense sway, were responsible for tying Assad’s hands and for his ultimate repression of progressive efforts. Whatever the cause, cycles of uprising and repression have persisted. With these complex issues, the turmoil that has defined the Syrian Civil War also illustrates how Assad’s legitimacy and Syrian sovereignty have suffered tremendously.
In an interview, Asad stated: “We are a sovereign country; we are independent. We have the right to tackle our problems….” This was in reference to the Civil War, as the leader emphasized why foreign nations should not meddle in the war being waged between the government and the internal Syrian oppositional forces. Assad has purported that it is a two-sided conflict, in an effort to distance his regime from the stigma of a “failed-state”. However, the war contains a multitude of irreconcilable state and non-state actors, which inherently demonstrate that Syrian sovereignty has, in fact, been compromised. Russia, Iran, the United States, and Turkey, to name the major international players, have continuously intervened in the broiling conflict, making public statements and employing actual military force. What is more, these state actors, among others, have waged “proxy wars” through supporting one of the two sides in the Civil War. Further, the two “sides” (i.e. Syrians in support of the government or Syrians against the government) are far more complex than those typical to an intrastate conflict and, in actuality, exemplify that the alleged two-sided war is best described as a multi-faceted conflict. Considering the extent of the proxy wars, and the extensive foreign support and intervention, the sovereignty of Syria has been substantially breached, perhaps to the point of no foreseeable return.