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Research Project: Assessing the Impact of External Actors in the Syrian and Afghan Proxy Wars

Long-running proxy conflicts have significantly undermined peace and security in the Middle East and South Asia. This combined research and policy project, funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York (grant number: G-18-55949), undertakes a comparative analysis of the proxy wars in Syria and Afghanistan, two case studies notable for the depth of foreign interference, the diversity of external players involved and the longevity of each conflict. The project examines the impact that external players have had in the theatres of conflicts and beyond, with the aim of facilitating effective and timely policy responses to the wars and their regional repercussions.

Research team: Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh, Dr Zahid Shahab Ahmed and Dr Dara Conduit

The project utilised a multifaceted research methodology to produce an interactive map of events in Afghanistan and Syria. Deakin University worked in collaboration with three local partners: Pak Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS) in Pakistan; Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) in Pakistan; and the Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies (AISS). These partners played a key role in data collection involving archival research and in-person interviews of high-profile persons in Kabul, Islamabad and Peshawar. Data collection was led by Dr Zahid Shahab Ahmed and Dr Dara Conduit.

The project team has since been highly productive in participating in a range of events and producing numerous outputs, as follows.

Islamabad conference

Project agenda and priorities were established with a gathering of policymakers and scholars from across South Asia and the Middle East in Islamabad in February 2019. A concurrent conference organized in collaboration with PIPS on ‘Strategic dimensions of peace and conflict in South Asia and the Middle East’ saw experts on Afghanistan and Syria from Australia, Qatar and the UK present research papers. The event received wide coverage in the Pakistani media, including in the Daily Times, The Express Tribune, The News and The Local News.

Online seminars:

The project team hosted a number of researchers to share their theoretical and practical insights with audiences across the globe.

  • Discussion with Professor Andrew Mumford (University of Nottingham) on the proxy wars against ISIS, 3 September 2020.
  • An examination of theoretical developments in research into proxy wars with Dr Vladmir Rauta (Reading University), 17 September 2020.

Policy dialogues:

Our policy dialogue series brought together a range of expert voices from those working on the ground and within academic and policy-making circles. Offering their insights on Afghanistan were Afghan politicians and political advisors, Indian diplomats and policy researchers, advisors to the Pakistani prime minister and members of the Pakistani military. On Syria, a range of academics, alongside Syrian development consultants, conflict resolution practitioners and civil society activists, shared their perspectives on the prospects for peace.

  • Policy discussion with diplomats, military figures and academics from Pakistan and Russia on the prospects for peace in Afghanistan, 10 September 2020.
  • Round table dialogue with Afghan political figures and Indian analysts on Afghanistan’s evolving attempts at conflict resolution, 30 September 2020.
  • Conversation between Syrian activists and Syria researchers on proxy dynamics and their implications in the Syrian conflict, 15 October 2020.
  • Discussion with Syria analysts on the development of policy to bring peace to Syria, 4 November 2020.

Published analysis:

The research team has shared with the public and across policy circles their research findings and broader perspectives on issues confronting Syria, Afghanistan and ongoing implications throughout South Asia and the Middle East via a range of media.

  • Reflection on Russia’s impact on the Syria war, published in The Strategist, 3 September 2020.
  • Examination of the Taliban’s engagement with regional powers, published in Melbourne Asia Review, 10 September 2020, later translated into Dari and published in Nebesht, 27 September 2020.
  • Commentary on the impacts of external actors on peace in Afghanistan, in Australian Outlook, 21 September 2020.
  • Consideration of the shifting positions of the Taliban during peace talks, published in Fair Observer, 1 October 2020.
  • Analysis of Iran’s impact in the Middle East and beyond, published in The Interpreter, 8 October 2020.
    • Observations of the delicate international balance maintaining peace in Syria’s Idlib, published in Fair Observer, 15 October 2020.