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World leaders urged to look beyond Syria regime change
Jim Middleton speaks to global affairs expert Vali Nasr on whether Al Qaeda and Islamists are gaining a foothold in Syria.

The uprising in Syria was initially talked about as part of the Arab Spring.

But few now believe the bloody conflict will lead to the emergence of democracy.

And as the country frays, there are fears about the influence of Islamist extremists in any future Syrian regime.

Vali Nasr is professor of international politics at Johns Hopkins University and a foreign policy adviser to the White House.
JIM MIDDLETON: Vali Nasr, welcome to the program.


JIM MIDDLETON: President Assad and his father were able to impose their will on the Sunni majority in Syria for decades. But does the intensification of the fighting suggest that this is the beginning of the end for the regime?

PROFESSOR VALI NASR: Well it's the beginning of the end for the regime's control of all of Syria with Syrians acquiescing to that control. It doesn't mean that Assad will fall imminently or that the Alawite minority, political and military machine that has been supporting the Assad family since 1970, will actually surrender. So by and large it is a major turning point but it's not the end yet.

JIM MIDDLETON: but is there any chance there of anything resembling a liberal democracy emerging in Syria if the rebels do indeed win the military struggle?

PROFESSOR VALI NASR: Not at all. I don't think the chance of that is at all in the cards. The rebels are not democrats, they're too fractured. This is an uprising that is becoming increasingly bloody, it's now essentially a sectarian war between a minority Alawite regime and its Christian and Kurdish allies and the majority Sunnis. This is no longer really about democracy. And liberal democracy does not emerge in these kinds of circumstances of violence and fratricide.

JIM MIDDLETON: Does that mean, then, that if the Assad regime were to be defeated another version of authoritarianism and repression would be likely to take hold?

PROFESSOR VALI NASR: I think if the Assad regime were actually to collapse we're going to have a period of massive bloodletting in Syria. The international community has no troops on the ground, it's not clear how would you prevent a massacre of the Alawites and the Christians and those Sunnis who supported Assad. Secondly, there is likely that what will emerge in Syria will be some form of authoritarianism because that is where power is going to gravitate. There are no institutions, no foreign presence on the ground that would argue for democracy or push for democracy.

JIM MIDDLETON: And is it your best estimate at the moment that president Assad and his regime are effectively finished? Or could they still cling to power?

PROFESSOR VALI NASR: They can find a way to cling to power in parts of Syria.

I don't think the Assad regime can ever rule Syria the way it did. But it has still enough weapons, enough fire power and, you know, probably 40 per cent and maybe more of the population if you counted the Alawites, Christian, Kurds and a slice of the Sunni still support the regime. And therefore it can still hold on to pieces of territories, still can keep itself in power in Damascus and in various parts of the country, particularly where you have an Alawite concentration or a Kurdish concentration. But the Assad regime can no longer be able to rule Syria as legitimately with the consent of the majority of people, as the face of Syria, as the political system for Syria.

JIM MIDDLETON: There have been reports of jihadists flocking to the border with Turkey to join the rebel cause. Is this anything like when foreign militants including al-Qaeda adherents went to Afghanistan to join the Mujahedin in their struggle?

PROFESSOR VALI NASR: It's more like what happened in Iraq. When the Saddam regime collapsed, very quickly al-Qaeda began to arrive in Iraq and then to recruit among Iraqis and send Saudi, Egyptian, Syrians to come to Iraq to serve as suicide bombers and take over territory and confront US force. And they became a major muscle within the insurgency.

The same thing is happening in Syria. It actually started happening a while back. International media is only beginning to pick it up because suicide bombing has been on the rise. But the very jihadists who used to go from Syria to Iraq have started to come back from Iraq into Syria. And that's a worrying trend, because as the Assad regime begins to collapse, there is not going to be a successive government any time soon. You don't even have any US military on the ground the way you had it in Iraq. It's not clear as to who will prevent al-Qaeda from setting up shop in various little emirates across Syria the way in it did in western Iraq after the collapse of the Saddam regime.

JIM MIDDLETON: What then are the implications of all this for the broader Middle East? It would seem that instability and bloodletting in a key state like Syria would have shocking implications for the entire region?

PROFESSOR VALI NASR: It will not just be shocking news, it actually could have devastating implications. If Syria collapses in a bad way, and none of the countries around it will be immune from impact. And some like Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq would be vulnerable to much more than a minor impact; the reverberation and the aftershocks could completely destabilise those countries. If you look at a country like Lebanon, you already have tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. The Sunnis in Lebanon identify with the opposition in Syria or helping them, and the Shiites in Lebanon and Hezbollah in particular were very close to the Assad regime and identify with the Alawites.

The fight in Syria will not stay in Syria. It will go to Lebanon, to Iraq, to Jordan. And ultimately Syria is now too pivotal in the middle of the region not to have a long run impact on it.

JIM MIDDLETON: And where does Iran sit in all of this? It's been in a long running struggle for influence in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia. A change of government in Damascus would seem to reduce its influence. How would Tehran respond?

PROFESSOR VALI NASR: Well already its influence has diminished and it will diminish further, but the change of government in Syria is not going to be clean. It's not going to be that a pro-Iranian government steps down and a pro-Saudi one takes over. Syria is going in a direction that probably there will be no winners and everybody will lose, Iran included.

JIM MIDDLETON: There's no real surprise that Syria has chemical weapons. But what do you read into the regime's admission of their presence at this moment?

PROFESSOR VALI NASR: It means don't even think about a Libya scenario. Don't think about intervening. Don't think about no-fly zones. That if you think of coming into Syria, that then you will have to be prepared for confronting a potential chemical weapons usage. So you know the regime is not using this as a deterrent against foreign intervention. I think Assad backed military will try to hold on to all the stock piles of the chemical weapons and then use them as a bargaining chip in any kind of a final negotiation with the opposition and the international community.

JIM MIDDLETON: In these very unstable and uncertain circumstances, given the lack of preparedness of the international community, what should the international community be doing now to minimise the fallout?

PROFESSOR VALI NASR: Well I think the international community has generally been behind the curve on this conflict. It has constantly been trying to react to developments and it has made continuously false assumptions or faulty assumptions about which direction it's going.

It assumed that it would be resolved quickly, that was not the case. It assumed that, you know, international pressure would bring Assad down, it didn't happen. And it also has made this focus too much about Assad and him stepping down personally. I think now the conflict is past Assad alone. The international community has to get together and think about how do you stop the fighting on both sides, and find a solution that would bring about cease-fire. And then create a circumstance in which you could deal with how can you transition Syria into a circumstance that is past the Assad government.

But if Assad were to leave tomorrow, it's not going to stop the fighting. And I think the international community has not come to terms with that reality. It's still too focussed on the fight against Assad. It should be really focussed on how to bring cease-fire to Syria.

JIM MIDDLETON: Vali Nasr, thank you for your insights.

PROFESSOR VALI NASR : Good to be with you.
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