Back in Control, Syria’s Regime Tries to Build Its Legitimacy

 Families walk through the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Syria's Idlib province as members of Russian and Syrian forces stand guard. Photo: Getty Images.
Families walk through the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Syria's Idlib province as members of Russian and Syrian forces stand guard. Photo: Getty Images.

After successful operations to retake territory, supported by its allies, the Syrian regime now governs over the vast majority of the country’s population once again. In parallel to this military strategy, it is now trying to boost its legitimacy among that population and to present itself as the ‘saviour’ of the Syrian state.

A legitimate political regime means that people have faith in its capacity to protect their rights and maintain their state’s foundations. In general, a legitimate regime is accepted by the international community, and it is able to make people willingly obey its order as the sole representative of their interests. Hence, legitimacy is crucial for any political system to sustain its control over a country.

The regime in Syria is aware that its legitimacy, which was controversial even before 2011, has been deteriorating due to the drastic socioeconomic consequences of the conflict and the loss of political sovereignty. Thus, it is eagerly trying to prove its legitimacy to both the people and the international community by claiming its capability to conserve and protect the state’s main foundations of territory, population, and the state apparatus.

But in all three, its claims are brittle.

A false legitimacy

Regaining control of various regions through military intervention has given the regime good cause to present itself as the only authority that is capable of unifying the country’s territories – including the Golan Heights, which is a sensitive and vital aim that plays on the heartstrings of Syrians.

But the gaining of territories was not without a large economic loss (estimated to be at about seven times Syria’s GDP in 2010), deterioration in social cohesion, a massive destruction in health and education facilities and a call for external intervention in the country.

Syrians may disagree over the necessity of the regime’s violence, and whether it is fundamentally a fight against terrorists or suppression of a defiant civil movement. However, many believe that in perpetuating the country’s violence, the regime is implicated in the destruction of Syria’s wealth and potential.

Among the population, the regime is keen to present areas it controls as safe regions in order to promote the return of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees. This claim is supported by the recent return of a few hundred refugees from Lebanon in coordination with Hezbollah, the regime’s strong ally.

However, the half million people dead and more than two million disabled, along with millions of refugees and IDPs and thousands of detainees and missing persons, refute the regime’s claim to be a protector of the Syrian population and their rights.

Then there is the state apparatus, which the regime has been abusing since the 1970s by claiming that this apparatus would not function without its existing authority. During the conflict, the regime has continuously relied on its dominance of civil state entities and public service providers. It has strived to provide the minimum level of public services and to facilitate minor reconstruction activities in its controlled areas.

Yet corrupt high-ranking officials, crony capitalists, and ‘loyalist’ warlords have abused public entities and issued laws that weaken the state apparatus for their own benefit.

Creating real legitimacy

Given the fragility of these three pillars of legitimacy, the regime has reverted to a different strategy to build weak but willful political support from the people: deepening their state of fear and frustration.

The regime is intolerant of dissent and has tried to stamp out all civil movements and activism. It claims that it is the only alternative to chaos and extremism. But even if this manages to generate short-term stability, fear and frustration cannot lead to sustainable peace.

Instead, the first step towards a legitimate authority must be creating free and protected space for interactive dialogue on Syrian soil. This is not an easy step, and it needs to be achieved gradually as it requires the efforts of both local and international actors.

The participation of civil society is crucial. Despite many challenges, there is still active civil society in Syria, and its needs and aspirations should be the core of legitimacy for any ruling authority.

The regime cannot continue as that authority, unless structural changes are made to break the dominance of the regime over the state institutions and then transform the role of these institutions from one of tyranny and oppression to one of inclusion and participation. Without such steps, the regime will fail to gain real legitimacy, and the country will continue to face conflicts and future uncertainty.

Zaki Mehchy, Academy Asfari Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.

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