a Question of Sovereignty


The unfolding situation in and around Syria wonderfully illustrates the elements and limitations of national sovereignty.

Some view sovereignty as a legalistic concept – a country is “sovereign” if it has agreed upon borders and agreed upon status as a stand-alone state. Others in a moralistic light – a nation’s sovereignty is to be opaque to foreign manipulation. Still others from a political perspective – outsiders shouldn’t meddle in the internal matters of a sovereign nation. It turns out that “sovereignty” is a product of geopolitical Realism – a nation is sovereign as long the rest of the world says it is. Current Exhibit: Syria.

Several players are considering what degree of kinetic response to visit upon Syria in retaliation for Damascus using chemical weapons (Sarin) on its own people. Understand that “Damascus using,” “chemical weapons,” and “its own people” are all debatable variables. Assuming poisonous gas was used (some say), there is no proof which side used it (others say), and with all the foreign fighters in-country, it could have been militarily targeted (still others). The consensus, however, is that government forces used sarin neurotoxin against a rebel-held outskirt of Damascus. As area-effect weapons, gas attacks do not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants – indeed the thousand or so fatalities were top-heavy with women and children. It is the assumption that toxins were used by government troops against civilians that is driving the various Western states – the US, the UK, France right now – to discuss the use of some sort of military response.

And that brings us to a question of sovereignty.

Most sovereigns, as a rule, view the activity within another sovereign’s borders to be transparent to international diplomacy. There are examples of national behavior that have triggered international attention – Tiananmen Square, for example, generated widespread international ire, but Chinese sovereignty was never penetrated over the matter. Others have reached a tripwire: “ethnic cleansing” – Rwanda and Bosnia, for example – goading outside governments to act. Still others – the Arab Islamic government in Khartoum’s extermination of Christians in Darfur and the Muslim Brotherhood’s targeting of Coptic Christians in Egypt – have not generated outside military responses. Thus, it seems that a sovereign’s “permissible” behavior is a moving target, not bound by official language (even if some exists), rather by the ability and political will of other sovereigns.

One’s sovereignty, it turns out, is what everybody else says it is. And that’s a working definition of Realism – sovereign states maneuver to achieve desirable power-balances, and the amount of activity vis-à-vis Syria demonstrates that Syria isn’t the problem, Iran is. This is why the Saudis, UAE and Qatar are all privately counseling the West to act, even though they must publicly denounce Westerners striking Muslims. All three have been supporting and arming Syrian rebels for much of the two-year war, even after al Qaeda coopted the effort. Al Qaeda is, after all, Sunni.