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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.

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