WASHINGTON - With international negotiations proceeding over Syria's chemical weapons program, some questions have been raised in recent days over whether by endorsing these talks, the Obama administration is conferring international legitimacy on Bashar Assad's government.
The Washington Post's Max Fisher pushes back, writing that "Obama never actually sought to remove Assad from power against his will and has consistently acknowledged him as Syria's head of state." On the other hand, the Obama administration has actually questioned Assad's legitimacy. As early as July 2011, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Assad has "lost legitimacy."
Last December, Obama himself took what he called a "big step" in announcing that "We've made a decision that the Syrian Opposition Coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime."
So does that mean the administration has flip-flopped on its earlier position and is now engaged in negotiations with a government it previously didn't recognize as legitimate? Well, sort of. The problem is that even by the standards of international law, recognition and legitimacy are nebulous concepts and the Obama administration has actually muddied the waters even further.
The traditional practice of the United States government has been to recognize countries rather than governments. With a few notable exceptions such as Woodrow Wilson's brief non-recognition of Mexico's dictatorship or the years during which the U.S. recognized Taipei as the legitimate government of China, the U.S. just generally recognizes whoever controls all of, or at least most of, the territory of a given country.
This isn't the same thing as diplomatic relations. The U.S. may have a chilly to non-existent relationships with Raul Castro and Kim Jong Un, but much as we don't like them, we do in fact recognize them as the rulers of Cuba and North Korea.
This is why it was a bit of a surprise in 2011 when Clinton announced that the U.S. would recognize the anti-Gadhafi Transitional National Council "as the legitimate governing authority for Libya, and we will deal with it on that basis." The rebels took over Tripoli a month later so this unusual state of affairs didn't last very long.
In the Syrian case, the State Department made it clear that Obama was talking about a "political recognition, not a legal recognition," which would entail essentially treating the rebels as the Syrian government and Assad as an opposition military force. This is in contrast to the Arab League, which has actually allowed the opposition to take over Syria's seat at summit meetings.
All the same, Assad is the one with (at least most of) the chemical weapons, so if your priority is removing them from the battlefield rather than putting Syria on a path to better governance, he's the one you need to deal with, "legitimate representative of the Syrian people" or not. Diplomatic moves like unrecognizing a dictator make a lot more sense when you assume he's going to fall within a few months. That doesn't really look like a safe assumption anymore, so for now, the legitimate ruler is the guy holding the sarin-packed rockets.
The bigger concern, of course, is not Assad's legal or diplomatic status, but whether the U.S. will find itself in the position of making concessions that strengthen his position within Syria in order to accomplish the goal of chemical weapons removal.
Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.