At first glance, the ongoing efforts to remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria and the unrecognized referendum held in the majority-Serbian areas of northern Kosovo would not appear to have much in common. But both are symptoms of a larger problem that has accelerated in recent years: the delegitimization of the territorially defined state.
The classic definition of a state in the international system, as provided by Max Weber and incorporated into international law by the 1933 Montevideo convention, gives the national government the exclusive right to use force to secure its existence and territory. But that norm is running up against another one that has been gaining in currency in recent years -- the attempt to put strict limits on the ability of a state and regime to use violence to crush internal challenges to its legitimacy. In cases where such internal challenges either involve or create the possibility of separatist enclaves, this means that a state would no longer have carte blanche to take whatever steps are necessary to preserve its territorial integrity.
In 1982, the international community turned a blind eye to the violence unleashed by Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, against an insurrection in the Syrian city of Hama, a crackdown that left tens of thousands of Syrian civilians dead in a matter of weeks. In contrast, many countries now make the case that the use of force by the current Syrian government, which has led to thousands being killed over a period of months, has, in effect, delegitimized the younger Assad’s regime and its claim to exercise sovereignty over the territory of Syria. Indeed, some commentators have seemingly taken the position that by having to use force at all, the Syrian government showed that it had no legitimacy to begin with.