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Iran seeks diplomatic role in Syrian conflict
Anatol Leiven, Professor of War Studies at Kings College in London, discusses new developments in Syria's 'civil war'.

As the pressure on Syria's Assad regime intensifies the international ramifications of the conflict become ever more obvious.

Tehran has declared Syria a fellow member of what it terms "the axis of resistance" to US influence, meaning American hopes for an end to president Assad may prove premature.

And then there's the other geopolitical struggle, Afghanistan, and the startling news that the Taliban might just countenance a continuing American military presence.

Anatol Lieven is Professor of War Studies at King's College in London

He has a new edition of his book, 'America right or wrong: An anatomy of American nationalism' on the shelves and he's in Australia for the US Studies Centre at Sydney University.
JIM MIDDLETON: Anatol Lieven, we come to the program.


JIM MIDDLETON: Let's talk about Syria first. Iran is calling Syria a cornerstone of the axis of resistance. Hillary Clinton says the world should be planning for a Syria post-Assad. This does not seem to be a formula for international negotiation, let alone agreement, does it?

ANATOL LIEVEN: No, it certainly doesn't. And of course, what all this reflects, amongst other things, is the underlying struggle in the Middle East. Really a three cornered struggle in a way between Iran and the Syrian regime on the one side, the United States and Israel on a second side, and Saudi Arabia and some of its Sunni conservative allies on the third side.

JIM MIDDLETON: So is this now in effect a conflict by proxy between two of the region's heavyweights, Iran and Saudi Arabia, between Shi'ites and Sunnis.

ANATOL LIEVEN: I'm afraid that to a considerable extent, it is. I mean it isn't only that of course, there are other factors involved too. But clearly, Iran sees itself as having not just a very major strategic stake in Syria but also as having certain religious and cultural affinities with the Alowite minority in Syria.

JIM MIDDLETON: But it's also trouble for Saudi Arabia, is it not, which is having problems with its own Shi'ite minority; can it afford to give way either?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well I think the Saudis are putting themselves into a position where it will be very difficult for them to back off. They've now made commitments to the Free Syrian Army and the opposition which if they were to give up on them, would be seen as a very major blow to Saudi prestige. So I'm afraid one of the dangerous things in Syria is that the Iranians on the one side and the Saudis on the other are becoming more and more committed.

JIM MIDDLETON: In these pessimistic circumstances, can you see any way to minimise conflict and enhance the prospects of a negotiated resolution.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, the way out always seemed to be some compromise involving the departure of the Assad dynasty as such, and some sort of guaranteed power-sharing arrangement which would on the one hand allow much greater democracy and a much greater soul for Sunni Arabs in government, while on the other hand guaranteeing some of the power and all of the safety of the Alowites and other minorities. The problem is that that might perhaps have been possible a year ago. Whether it's possible now when so much blood has been shed, and when atrocities have been committed not just by the Syrian military and security services but also by informal Alowite militias and of course on the other side, informal Sunni militias and of course Sunni extremists from elsewhere in the Middle East have also become involved with their own ideological agendas. I mean, it is for me the only way that we can possibly have a peaceful solution in Syria. But I have to say I'm not at all optimistic about it happening.

JIM MIDDLETON: And what's your assessment of the situation inside Syria at the moment? Can the Assad regime survive in some form or other or is the country now in a state of civil war which is likely to be quite protracted?

ANATOL LIEVEN: I think we're in a state of civil war. And I think that the Assad dynasty at least, and most probably the entire Ba'ath structure of power, is doomed. They are a small proportion of the Syrian population, even if they have some support from other minorities including the Christians. And of course they now they have ranged against them not just a very large part of the Syrian population but also regional backers, most notably the Saudis, who are channelling in, obviously, now large sums, large amounts of weaponry to the other side. It's difficult to see how in protracted conflict, the regime will not ultimately simply be worn down by a process of attrition.

JIM MIDDLETON: Let's turn to another geopolitical conundrum and your fascinating discussions with Taliban interests in the last week or so. This seems to be the essential equation, the Taliban would cut al-Qaeda loose and agree to the existing Afghanistan constitution, but the United States must dump Hamid Karzai and his government. What's the Taliban's thinking behind this deal?

ANATOL LIEVEN: It seems to me and from what my colleagues and I were told that the Taliban realise that they will not be able to conquer the whole of Afghanistan militarily as they were able to do in the late 1990s. There are other nationalities in Afghanistan, other political groups which will fight against that and they will have enough military help from the Americans and probably the Russians and the Indians as well to make it militarily impossible for the Taliban to succeed.

So basically, by military means the most the Taliban can do is sweep most of the Pashtun areas in the south and east. But to go beyond that the Taliban would have to fight for years, decades to come, and wouldn't win. Now if the Taliban leadership, enough of the Taliban leadership have recognised that, it does make sense to try to negotiate.

JIM MIDDLETON: And are there any signs that Washington would or could agree to such a deal?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well look, just at the moment, until the November elections, Washington can't agree on anything or decide anything. The whole process in Washington is on hold, until we have either a return or the Obama administration or a Republican administration. In the longer run, it will of course be extremely difficult for the United States to agree to much of this. Not perhaps to get rid of Karzai, because Karzai has to step down constitutionally in 2014 anyway. And certainly he and his clan have so disgusted people in Washington that there is very little desire to keep them in power. But clearly giving the Taliban the predominant share in government would, even if they agreed fully to exclude al-Qaeda, you know, be seen by many in Washington as a very serious humiliation.

JIM MIDDLETON: And I guess that brings us to the other piece of bait revealed in your discussions, that the Taliban might not object to the Americans maintaining bases in Afghanistan. And of course that would make it easier to continue drone attacks on al-Qaeda operatives across the border in Pakistan, wouldn't it?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well it would. I mean that was really a very surprising thing that we heard. And it reflects, amongst other things, two things, that the Taliban are very afraid of the army disintegrating again into the warlordism and you know, well, almost separatism that you got in the 1990s. And it seems that some at least of the Taliban leadership are even prepared to accept a continued a US military presence, at least until 2024 according to the present agreement with the Afghan government, if this essentially helps to hold Afghanistan together.

The other thing which came out was, you know, Pakistan is accused and to some degree rightly of sheltering the Taliban and their allies, but there's no love lost there. The Taliban fear and loathe the Pakistanis and they also fear Iranian influence in Afghanistan. And so it seems that they would also be able to accept a continued US presence essentially to defend Afghanistan against its neighbours. But whether they could really accept these American bases still launching drone attacks inside Afghanistan or on areas of Pakistan; when we asked the people we were talking to about that, I must say they became very evasive.

JIM MIDDLETON: There is the deeper question of Pakistan but wouldn't the possibility of such a development massively maximise Pakistan's outrage and indeed paranoia about these developments, what they might really mean; that it minimises Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, and also increases the prospects of them facing hostility on two fronts, from Afghanistan as well as from India?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well the Pakistanis will be very worried about that, and that's why it would be so important to keep the Pakistanis fully briefed and involved in any peace process. Because of course, through their own even closer allies, the Haqqani network, they do have the ability to wreck a settlement if they want to. On the other hand, the Pakistanis would not be unhappy with a power sharing in Afghanistan which on the one hand pacifies the Pashtuns by giving the Taliban a major share of power, but which doesn't give the Taliban the unilateral power which might allow them then to turn on Pakistan and help to stimulate still further the Islamist revolt within Pakistan.

JIM MIDDLETON: Fascinating stuff. Anatol Lieven, thank you very much.

ANATOL LIEVEN: It was a pleasure.
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