Norms of Sovereignty, Part 1: Syria

There is a literature out there about norms of sovereignty, that tends to draw on grand historical narratives and old, well-trodden examples to support its arguments. But rarely do we see norms of sovereignty addressed in discussion of current international politics. We see the term sovereignty used in a unidimensional way, as a stand-in for related concepts, such as internal control or international legal personhood. But we tend not to see the idea that norms of sovereignty change over time examined in the context of contemporary events, nor do we often ask what effects current events and political decisions are likely to have on norms. But to the extent that norms of sovereignty define the context of international politics, we should be asking how current events might affect them. There follows a series of three posts to help remedy this lacuna. This post is about policy toward Syria, the second is about Russia’s recent tendency to nibble off corners of its neighbours, and the third is about China’s maritime claims.

Two weeks ago Bashar Assad cruised to an easy and expected victory in Syria’s presidential elections. Why bother, when nobody sees the election as credible? Because it adds, however marginally, to the impression that Assad is the legitimate ruler of Syria. We would expect him to try to reinforce this impression. We would not necessarily expect the United States government to do so. But US policy during the chemical weapons crisis last year did just this.

The US decision to negotiate a commitment with the Assad regime to verifiably eliminate its chemical weapons stockpile may well have been the most effective way of addressing the proximate issue of the use of chemical weapons against civilians in the Syrian civil war (or it may not – this isn’t the point of the post). And it may have been a more effective way of reinforcing norms against the use of chemical weapons than punitive bombing would have been. But it may at the same have reinforced Assad in his position in the Syrian civil war, by reinforcing his claim as the legitimate locus of Syrian sovereignty. In the contemporary international system, states negotiate with other legitimate sovereigns in the context of multilateral fora. But states punish the criminal (illegitimate) use of force. To negotiate in this context, therefore, is to engage in a sort of norm trade-off – strengthening the general norm of multilateral cooperation through negotiation, but at the same time strengthening the position of the Assad regime as the legitimate counterparty to those negotiations, as the voice of Syrian sovereignty.

The chemical weapons negotiations are themselves unlikely to be the determining factor in the war. But at the same time the Syrian chemical disarmament seems to have marked a turning point in the war – it seems unlikely that the regime could have pulled off an election beforehand. More to the point, before the negotiations the international community, with the exception of a core of Assad allies, was increasingly coming to treat the regime as a criminal. Since then the international community has seemed more often to treat it as distasteful, but as nonetheless the government of record of Syria. This cannot but make a difference at the margins in the regime’s ability to prosecute the war effectively.

The point here is not to argue that the policy chosen by the US government during the chemical weapons crisis last year was the wrong one. Rather, it is to point out something missing in the discussion of the policy, both at the time and since. Legitimate sovereignty is a useful resource, an effective source of power, for those able to claim it successfully. And it isn’t dichotomous – it can be strengthened or weakened at the margins. Dealing with odious political actors as legitimate sovereigns, as counterparties in multilateralism, legitimizes them at the margins, and thereby empowers them.