Iran's Regional Interest in the Syria Conflict

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: I'm Aaron Schachter. This is "The World". Intense fighting was reported again today in Syria's commercial capital, Aleppo. Government forces shelled rebel-held neighborhoods, determined to flush the fighters out. The army claims to have retaken one key district in the southwest part of the city, but the rebels say that's not true. Meanwhile, the United Nations says some two hundred thousand civilians have fled the fighting in Aleppo. In a few minutes we'll hear from the Archbishop of Aleppo, a leader of the Christian-Orthodox community there. First, we turn to Vali Nasr. He's the dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and over the weekend he wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled "Syria after the Fall." In it, Nasr argues that those hoping to quell the violence have to look beyond the likely fall of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

Vali Nasr: It's time for the international community not to delude itself that this is just a democratic uprising against the dictatorship and as soon as Assad goes the fighting is going to stop and Syria is going to get back to business under an elected government. That's not likely to happen. This is already a civil war. It's about much more than Assad. It's about the balance of power between communities in Syria and which ones are going to run the country. Assad's departure from power does not resolve the larger issue of Alawites controlling the military, the economy, the bureaucracy, and various other aspects of the government and whether or not they would be willing to hand those over to Sunnis who come to power and whether they will feel trust that even if they did that there wouldn't be a massacre of the minorities who supported Assad as a reprisal for the violence that has been going on.

Schachter: Now, the way things are going, you paint a kind of Iraq-like or Lebanon-like scenario. Is there a way to avoid that at this point?

Nasr: Well, it is very much like Iraq. Iraq was also a minority regime ruling over a majority population, and when Saddam left we found out that it was not about Saddam, it was about distribution of power. The way to resolve this is to try to not be focused on Assad alone, but try to arrive very quickly at a power sharing agreement that would make the fighting unnecessary. We understood this in Iraq after a lot of violence and eventually got the two communities to agree to a power sharing agreement which was part of the reason the war in that country stopped. And similarly in Lebanon, the only reason the fighting stopped was after the Saudis brokered a power sharing agreement about twenty years ago. So the international community ought to focus and how to get Syria to a power sharing agreement. It's going to be difficult, but ultimately that's the only way to avoid a bloodbath.

Schachter: Are you optimistic that it will happen that way?

Nasr: I'm not for two reasons. That the international community has not really shown a willingness to engage in the kind of diplomacy and brinkmanship that would make this happen. Secondly is that there are no troops on the ground to at least force a ceasefire and convince both sides that the fighting cannot go on and they better get to the table. And therefore we ought to be prepared for Syria going in a direction of greater violence and bloodletting for some time to come.

Schachter: Well, one of the problems is that the diplomacy that you're talking about requires sitting down at the table with Iran. I mean how likely is it that the West would speak with Iran?

Nasr: I think it's unlikely in an election year in the United States and also generally there has not been a good track record of talking to Iran on any issue other than the nuclear issue. But the reality of the matter is that the Iran is the most important supporter of the Assad regime and the one with the greatest influence on it and is the one that has a relationship of trust with the Assad regime. Ultimately, the role of the international community is not to negotiate necessarily a final deal, but is to force, compel, cajole, and persuade the two sides to go to the table and to negotiate. So if were thinking of a negotiated end to this conflict, it can not happen without Iran's involvement.

Schachter: Now, there are a lot of players in Syria, as you point out, and a lot of minorities there who are really afraid of what comes next. You know the situation therein. They can't condemn Assad for fear that he stays and they can't condemn who might come next for fear of who that might be. How do you assure these different groups that things will be OK post-Assad?

Nasr: It's not that they're caught in the middle. They don't like Mr. Assad, but they are much more worried about what the opposition will do to them because at least under Assad they had certain degrees of freedom and rights and social and political position, all of which is in jeopardy now. And there is no guarantees to be given to them unless there is a deal according to which some of the rights and privileges will be protected, as should also those of the Kurds, Alawites, and those Sunnis who've supported the regime. That's ultimately what a deal would mean.

Schachter: Vali Nasr is dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.