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Trinity College’s Vijay Prashad discusses how no Syrian voices were represented at the Vienna peace talks, but geopolitical interests were front and center

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad could be on his way out soon. At peace talks in Vienna on Friday Iran signaled a six-month transition period in Syria, followed by an election to decide Assad’s fate. Iran is one of Syria’s closest allies, so we want to uncover what is behind this move. Now joining us to discuss all of this is Vijay Prashad. He is a professor of international studies at Trinity College. Thank you so much for joining us, Vijay. VIJAY PRASHAD: Pleasure, thanks. DESVARIEUX: So Vijay, let’s get right into it. Why would Iran agree to this deal, and is there a real shift in strategy here? PRASHAD: Well look, the most important thing to bear in mind is that the issue here has never been Assad as far as the Iranians are concerned. The issue here has been the destabilization of the order that was emerging after 2003. From 2003 when the United States went and took out Saddam Hussein, it enabled Iran to have a forward policy in the Middle East. And this forward policy, the West attempted through various mechanisms to stop, to put a halt to. Even though it was the American attack on Iraq that enabled Iran to have access to Syria, have access to Lebanon. So there was the Syria accountability act pushed by the United States government in 2005, which essentially was to try to break the link between Syria and Iran. And then in 2006 Israel went to war against Lebanon, trying to hit Hezbollah hard and send a message to Iran. So for Iran the issue here has been more maintaining the status quo after 2003 rather than merely keeping the Assad government in power. So for a very long time, at least for a year, Iranian diplomats have said that what they are most interested in is ending the war, and what they are least interested in is what the West accuses them of doing, which is essentially protecting the Assad regime. DESVARIEUX: Okay, let’s dig into that a little bit more. Because as you said, they want to sort of maintain that balance of–or way the power structure was post- the invasion of Iraq. So how do they propose to do this now with this new agreement? What do you see transpiring? PRASHAD: Well you know, firstly it should be said that the Vienna meeting was a meeting about the geopolitics of Syria. It wasn’t a meeting about Syrian politics. In other words, there were no Syrians at the Vienna meeting, as such. This was a meeting that brought the regional actors together with the two major global powers, the United States and Russia, and then Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, et cetera, was sitting around the table. Including, of course, the European Union and others. So there were no Syrians here. This was a meeting that was to settle the geopolitics of the Syrian war. That is precisely why I’ve always believed the Russians intervened. It was to put pressure on the geopolitics. It doesn’t directly address the question of Syrian politics. So the only thing they’ve said about what this means for Syrian politics is that there would be an election. We can come back to that. As far as your question of how this is going to maintain the balance post-2003, I think that’s precisely what this meeting was held to settle. That’s why the Russians were eager to have the Iranians at the table. That is why people in the region had been talking about a so-called grand bargain between Iran and Saudi Arabia which would put into place things like Yemen, also Syria. But of course a grand bargain hasn’t been struck. What we have instead is a kind of acceptance by the various powers, and Turkey was signaling this last week, an acceptance by the various powers that yes, Iran will have a role to play here. The size of its role, the scale of its role, that will be determined. DESVARIEUX: Okay. Vijay, let’s pivot and talk about this peaceful transition and the elections that you brought up. I can imagine after years of fighting, I don’t anticipate that this is going to transpire with a lot more violence on the ground. So can you speak to that a bit? What is going to, what do you foresee happening with the different Syrian factions? PRASHAD: This is not the first election held during the civil war. There was an election held last year. Mr. Assad, of course, was reelected. I reported that election and met people who had voted. Many of them said they voted essentially for stability. They didn’t vote for any political party. Really it was Mr. Assad or nobody. But they voted for stability. They wanted the war to end. That was in the context already when almost half the Syrian population had been displaced. You cannot run a credible election in that context. Now over half the Syrian population is displaced, it would be impossible to run any kind of election. I think the language of election is being used to signal the question of a political transition. Now, there are several political actors inside Syria, including a former head of the Syrian National Council, a Mr. Moaz Khatib. There are people who were in the secular wing of the opposition, five of whose parties met in August in Cairo. They discussed a question of transition. They talked about the need for a patriotic attack on ISIS. These are the kinds of forces I believe that will have to be brought in to the fold. Syria has neglected or denied the political process for much too long. And I think bringing in some of these people into the political fold will be very important. At the same time, the Russian intervention, military intervention, was to do two things. One, it was to basically forestall or to cancel out the possibility of regime change in Syria, that it succeeded with by its very presence. Secondly, by entering into a conflict where they started hitting the proxies of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, they’ve put a great deal of pressure on these groups. And I feel like if Turkey and Saudi Arabia start to draw down some of the support to their proxies, many of these young fighters might decide to go elsewhere, to join other kinds of groups or to come to terms with the new politics. So I mean, there is going to be an enormous amount of unraveling among these groups, let alone the question of ISIS. I mean, the theory I think here is that first you have to solve the political question with those who are not necessarily given to arms. You have to draw in sections of the people who are with remnants of the Free Syrian Army. You’re going to have to draw in people who are with the Turkish and Saudi proxies. The Al-Qaeda groups, ISIS, et cetera, that’s going to be a prolonged struggle. So I don’t think there is any naive expectation that this agreement on a six-month timetable means that six months from now Syria is going to be absent any kind of war. DESVARIEUX: Okay. Thank you so much for joining us, Vijay Prashad. Always appreciate your analysis. PRASHAD: Thanks a lot, Jessica. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.