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Russia-Iran Alliance Complicates U.S. Role In Syrian Conflict

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Russia-Iran Alliance Complicates U.S. Role In Syrian Conflict

Middle East

Russia-Iran Alliance Complicates U.S. Role In Syrian Conflict

Russia-Iran Alliance Complicates U.S. Role In Syrian Conflict

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/505892967/505892968" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, about Russia and Iran's roles in the Syrian war.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Syria, the evacuation of eastern Aleppo has been halted. That means thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of men, women and children have been trapped in the rebel-held part of the city. Pro-government media have blamed protesters and the rebels for breaking the agreement. On the other side, opposition activists say pro-regime forces turned back buses trying to leave the city and killed passengers. Abdulkafi Alhamdo is one of those activists. He posted this video online and said he was scared to join the evacuation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABDULKAFI ALHAMDO: Can you trust those people to save my life? I'm sure that I might be killed directly on the buses, maybe with my wife, with my daughter because they are my relatives. Maybe they start killing them before me. But this is what is expected from them.

CORNISH: At a news conference today, President Obama blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the violence against civilians.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Responsibility for this brutality lies in one place alone, with the Assad regime and its allies Russia and Iran. And this blood and these atrocities are on their hands.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Russia and Iran are both involved in the retaking of Aleppo, and they have cooperated in the war. Is their alliance likely to survive long, or is it a convenient tactical arrangement? We're going to ask Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Good to see you again.

VALI NASR: Thank you.

SIEGEL: First, what is it that both Moscow and Tehran find so important about saving the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?

NASR: Well, they both have interests in Syria in terms of where Syria is located, old-time relationship with the Assad family. The Russians wanted a base on the Mediterranean. Iran's want a relationship with Hezbollah. But something much bigger is at play here. They have their regional prestige and the regional stature at stake in Syria. From the get-go, the international community made the fall of this Assad regime about a defeat of Iran. And Iranians resisted being defeated in Syria. And similarly, the Russians saw an opportunity in Syria to assert themselves as a reliable, regional power broker. And I think the two of them now have emerged from the battle of Aleppo and from the survival of the Assad regime as reliable, strong regional actors.

SIEGEL: Well, if in fact the Syrian opposition is on the ropes and if they are defeated, then Assad might turn his attention to ISIS, which is farther east in Syria. Would the U.S. then find it has common cause with Iran and Russia and be part of a new triple alliance in the region?

NASR: I think that's what's on offer by President Putin to President Trump. In other words, I already have a security architecture in place. I can take care of your top priority called ISIS. If you sort of either get out of the way or, preferably, join this security architecture, we can get this done faster. But let's not forget that the United States and Iran have been in a tacit alliance fighting ISIS in Iraq. The question is whether that tacit alliance would survive the end of the Obama administration and the arrival of Trump and whether it can be extended to Syria.

SIEGEL: Does a successful alliance between Russia and Iran - does it detract from American influence and power in the region?

NASR: We have to be very careful about how we handle Iran. We either can push Iran in the direction of Russia. We can keep Iran much more a neutral position. The confrontational posture the Trump administration has taken with Iran and the threat of shredding the nuclear deal would only push Iran in the direction of Russia. The Iranians see - in Russian power, in Putin's posturing, in what the Russians have been able to deliver in Syria - a strategic depth that's going to protect them against American pressure.

SIEGEL: With the fall of Aleppo, would you expect to see Iran and Russia become more ambitious in what they can do together in either Syria or the region?

NASR: Yes. I think what - the outcome in Aleppo is seen as a victory. I think President Putin set out from a long time ago to make sure that northern Syria falls before there's a new president in office because that would basically settle the Syrian conflict by and large. They have achieved that. And in the Middle East, delivering on your strategic objectives constitutes power. And the winning of Aleppo is not just winning of Aleppo or winning of Syria. It really confirms Russia's ability to operate in the Middle East and reach its strategic objectives without resistance. And that's - that translates into order of power, and that's likely to allow them to do a lot more in other places.

SIEGEL: Vali Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, thanks.

NASR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAFT PUNK SONG, "VERIDIS QUO")

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