The intimacy of tyranny: Syria's de facto state legitimacy

26 January 2015

Estella Carpi

Estella Carpi is an Assistant Professor in Humanitarian Studies at University College London. Anthropologist and sociologist by training, she researches places which are part of her life. With a PhD in the Anthropology of Humanitarianism from the University of Sydney (2015), most of her work has revolved around the identity politics of humanitarian and welfare regimes, as well as urban and faith-inspired forms of aid provision. After studying Arabic in Damascus (2005 and 2007), she worked for several research and academic institutions in Lebanon, Egypt, the UAE, and Turkey. 

The legitimacy that the Syrian state can still boast has become a frequent discursive tool for Syrians and internationals that desire to confirm or discard other viewpoints or target political foes. To delve into the several layers constituting state legitimacy it is necessary to merge macro-politics with ordinary people’s perceptions, and look at the way it is intentionally pursued or unwillingly obtained.

American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in December 2011—as well as earlier in July 2011—that the Syrian government had lost legitimacy. Despite the official rhetoric of the “failed state”, which is often used by some western governments in regards to the Syrian crisis, the government, in practice, managed to uphold a de facto legitimacy.

In a similar vein, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague, a year after the outbreak of the uprising in Syria, declared that Great Britain was working to negotiate a UN Security Council Resolution that would order the use of all economic and diplomatic means to end the Syrian regime’s crimes.

Nevertheless, in late 2012, the American presidency declared a political—rather than a legal—state failure, while others wondered whether the international negotiations taking place regarding Syria’s chemical weapons, and promoted by the Obama administration, were somehow still conferring international legitimacy on Bashar al-Assad’s government.

In a bid to demonstrate their international accountability, the global decision-makers have since the time of the Russian veto, foregrounded International Law principles, therefore deciding not to militarily intervene in conflict-ridden Syria to topple the regime and stop the escalating violence.

It has been frequently observed that what this amounts to is a blurring of the line between such concepts as state recognition and legitimacy by an Obama administration that has pursued an ambiguous agenda. In this regard, it is important to note that the de facto legitimacy of the Syrian state has however not been accorded a deliberate act of recognition. As empirical evidence of this, the Syrian refugees I interviewed across Lebanon from 2011 to late 2013, predominantly coming from the areas of the political opposition, suggest that the Syrian government’s legitimacy has been maintained through the diplomatic moves of the foreign powers, as well as the need of Syrians themselves to preserve their own life chances, professional achievements, personal satisfactions - their desire to remain “legal citizens” despite their aversion to the government. Everyday life, sometimes sees no other alternative.

R., a Syria international scholar, argued that in many instances the legitimacy of the Syrian state was still being nurtured by its own citizens: “At the end of the day, if even some Syrian oppositin people that I know haven’t left their government positions, I can see why the revolution doesn’t exactly take off”. Meanwhile, some foreign supporters of revolutionaries in Syria reproach Syrians who have not broken off their relations with the state.

As a matter of fact, state legitimacy has continued to survive thanks to a state power that creates meanings of its own, regardless of the fact that they do not reflect citizens’ interests. This solipsistic state legitimacy, although rarely expressed in public, lest it cause unpopularity, has its roots in the Baath Party’s past and in Hafez al-Assad’s well-known policy of demanding a symbolic simulationof loyalty —rather than any actual feeling of love towards the state.

This elusive and convoluted relationship between the state and the citizens in Syria is well explained by a Foucauldian politics of coercion: abuse of state authority is rejected, reproduced and amplified by people in the structures of their everyday life; a paradoxical phenomenon which Achille Mbembe named “the intimacy of tyranny”.

A., from Daraya, recounts by contrast that she is unable to quit her job in the Syrian government once and for all, “since it’s the only source of income for raising my child, and, once I become jobless, I’d be hopeless and futureless. I wouldn’t have any longings to realize or objectives to achieve. If I ever decide to have no state at all, I’d cease to be a person”.

Likewise, Hozeifa, a Syrian political member of the opposition from Afamia, now resettled in Lebanon, argues: “Unlike my brother, I would still be allowed to enter Syria to see my family whenever I want”, clinging on to her ounce of pride for not being classified as an unwanted citizen, as opposed to his clear political stance against the state. This shows how both the stories people tell themselves about why they do what they do, and common feelings of passive reconciliation to one’s own state, end up giving rise to a de facto state legitimacy for even a dictatorial state, as long as the latter remains in power. The citizens’ desire to think of their life as institutionalized urges us to go beyond simplistic interpretations of domination by or disaffiliation from whatever remains attached to power.

In a nutshell, the controversies entangled in people’s everyday lives are often simplistically labelled as treacherous - a betrayal of the revolutionary ideology that anyone in their right mind would try to conceal. In fact, these various types of relationship, which keep some Syrian opponents of the regime tethered to considerations of their basic needs rather than the state itself, are rarely discussed by the range of opposition commentators who are relied upon for regular briefings on events in Syrian.

As for Assad’s loyalists, such still-existing connections between citizens in the opposition and the government—job positions, personal favours and the like—are proof positive of a general Syrian faithfulness to their state apparatus, and of a healthy desire to live within the current ruling system. In this view, state legitimacy is still seen as the product of a deliberate and straightforward act of identification.

In practice, people’s perspectives, together with the abovementioned ambiguity of international diplomacy, have gone along with the Syrian state's passion for Hobbesian self-preservation. It has survived throughout the uprising, its subsequent repression, and the present western intervention against ISIS.

In other words, the partial reluctance of people to reject state institutions does not equate with their voluntary acknowledgment of state sovereignty. By using the interpretative lens of those I interviewed, the only possible political life that either privileged or reluctant citizens could envisage was within the framework of a re-established de facto state legitimacy. This was not, therefore, necessarily something which amounted to a pro-active political will or emotional commitment.

Syrian sovereign authority remains the one who makes or takes life, by using the rhetoric of protection of its citizens against the “enemy”—revolutionaries portrayed as terrorists—while keeping people in awe of themselves at the same time. In the light of this, the Assad sovereignty has survived through its de factolegitimacy, which has been cultivated over the years through the very solipsism of the Syrian regime as described above. This is a de facto state legitimacy that has doomed many Syrians to live with anguishing indecision. The ambivalent relationship that many members of the Syrian opposition hold with the state, such that they still work with the central state by diverse means, has too quickly become the object of praise or reproach from other Syrian citizens and the international community. This has prematurely aborted a deeper understanding.

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