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Interview: Elliott Abrams, is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC -

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EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: Elliot Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC. He's a former senior adviser to George W. Bush and the Reagan administration.

Elliot Abrams is in Australia as a guest of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council and he joined me in the studio a short time ago.

Elliot Abrams, welcome to Lateline.


EMMA ALBERICI: Should Australia join the air strikes in Syria?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Yes. This is a vicious, brutal group, ISIS: beheadings, treatment of women, murders, executions. And we should all be joining together to fight it. I don't think that's the only thing we should be doing, but we should be doing it.

EMMA ALBERICI: Bashar al-Assad was killing his own people; has been doing so for four years. But we didn't go in to intervene and stop that humanitarian crisis?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Right. And that was a mistake. And I think the other thing we need to do in addition to fighting ISIS is getting rid of Assad, because I think that regime which, as you say, is unbelievably brutal. I mean, it's 300,000 dead, 8 million refugees.

That regime is a jihadi manufacturing machine. There wouldn't be an Islamic State if it weren't for that regime's attacks on Sunnis in Syria. They look around for protection and we've done nothing: we in the West. So they turn to the Islamic State, which is Sunni and which is saying it will protect them.

So I think there's two parts to this. The first part is attacking the Islamic State. The second part is doing something about Assad.

EMMA ALBERICI: But if we're in there and we're bombing Islamic State targets, aren't we necessarily emboldening president Bashar al-Assad and his regime?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: We are, because we're fighting its enemy. That's why I think we need to do more and we need to be serious about something president Obama said years ago, which is: Syria needs a new government.

Obviously the question then arises of: well, if you get rid of Assad, doesn't the Islamic State take over? What's the follow-on? We need to be talking about that amongst ourselves now, not when it's too late. We need to try to figure out a way to get rid of that regime without destroying the Syrian state entirely.

EMMA ALBERICI: It's almost already destroyed, though, isn't it?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: There is still an army, for example. There are still police. And one question is: can any remnant of that force, can pieces of it - some pieces of it are Sunni, for example - can that be saved?

And it is, you know - at least, it was before all the refugees left - it was a 75 per cent Sunni country and it should legitimately have a Sunni government.

EMMA ALBERICI: Russia has admitted that it is sending arms and advisers to help Bashar al-Assad's regime. Doesn't that have the potential to escalate this conflict into something that we might not want to fathom: and that is the US and its allies on one side; Russia, Syria and Iran on the other?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Well, we may get there. We already have Iran, certainly, on the other side. There are about 5,000 or 6,000 Hezbollah soldiers fighting for the Assad regime in Syria and there are no doubt some hundreds of Iranian troops, Revolutionary Guards as well. It's very dangerous for the Russians to intervene in this.

But the question I think we need to ask ourselves is: does Vladimir Putin have veto power? Does he get to say who is going to be the government of Syria? I don't think we need or should allow him to cowe us; to drive us out. I don't think we should allow - again, it's a Sunni Arab country - I don't think we should allow the Russians and the Iranians to outbid us and say, "Oh, we'll determine the fate of Syria."

EMMA ALBERICI: As a former member of the Bush administration, how much personal responsibility do you feel for the rise of Islamic State?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Well, in all candour, not much. You know, president Obama withdrew American soldiers from Iraq, saying at the time, starting in 2009, "Iraq is now stable." That was as a result of the surge that came in the last couple of years in the Bush administration.

If you go back to the days when Obama became president - 2009 - there was no Islamic State dominating all of this region. It arose from what then happened: the sectarianism in Iraq and very largely from this murderous group, this murderous regime in Syria, the Assad regime.

EMMA ALBERICI: But it was the Bush administration's decision in 2003 to disband the Iraqi army, following the toppling of Saddam Hussein's government, that left on some estimates 200,000 or 300,000 angry Sunnis unemployed, armed and with vicious intent against the US government and others. Isn't that where a lot of recruits came from for the Islamic State?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: But it took 10 years to get from there in 2003 to the Islamic State in the form in which we know it today. It didn't exist when Obama came to office, when Bush left office. I think what you really have to look at is...

EMMA ALBERICI: But in 2011 - pardon me for the interruption - but in 2011, when this group really began to take shape, that sort of coincided with the Arab Spring and certainly with the Sunni revolt against Bashar al-Assad in Syria?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Yes. So you had the Arab Spring, you had the Sunni revolt against Assad. Instead of moving aside he decides to kill; to put it down violently. We in the West - and this is the Obama administration - we do nothing. We do nothing.

And by the way, secretary of state Clinton, secretary of defence General Petraeus, who were in the Obama administration, argued to him, "We've got to do something about Syria." He rejected her advice, their advice. We did nothing. And so you began to have these massacres: the barrel bombing, the use of chemical weapons. It is a reaction to that, I think, that the Islamic State grew so big.

EMMA ALBERICI: And you don't think the Bush administration should accept any responsibility whatsoever for casting aside these many who are in the Iraqi military, who were then angry and armed?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Not much, I have to tell you. What was the alternative? This had been a vicious, brutal, Sunni-led regime of Saddam Hussein. How could you just simply leave that army in place in what was going to be a Shiah country, a Shiah-dominated country, because they dominate the population?

EMMA ALBERICI: But then the prime minister who came in his wake was a highly divisive figure?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: And the one who came in his wake is now today a divisive figure as well.

Look, the Bush administration made many mistakes. One could argue that going to Iraq was a mistake. But the creation of the Islamic State, I think, is very largely connected to the slaughters in Syria and the fact that none of us have done anything about them.

EMMA ALBERICI: And just lastly: what are the lessons, then, from Iraq in terms of the way forward in Syria?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Not to allow an ungoverned space. To think ahead to what form of regime would be there if you were going to remove a regime. And if we agree that the Assad regime is so brutal and so awful that it needs to go; before we do that, we need to figure out: and then what comes?

EMMA ALBERICI: Yes. And considering there's no real credible evidence that a coordinated opposition exists in any great number, that makes it very difficult, particularly when you start to launch air strikes - and the very real potential that, for instance, an Australian airman might be shot down and there's no ally on the ground to help?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Well, there are some. You know, even now, though we've given no help for years to these Syrian rebel groups that are not part of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda - its Jabhat al-Nusra affiliate in Syria - they exist. They exist in their thousands. And I think...

EMMA ALBERICI: But they're also designated terrorist groups.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: No. Some of them are and many of them aren't. And I think that if we actually went to work there to build up a rebel force, which is what Obama's advisers were advising him to do in 2012...

EMMA ALBERICI: So inevitably boots on the ground?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Some boots on the ground: mostly Syrian boots on the ground. And after all, the Islamic State is not mostly Syrian. But we need to train, we need to help, we need to arm, we need to advise, we need to finance. I don't think we need many of our own people there.

EMMA ALBERICI: Elliott Abrams, we're out of time. Thank you so much.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: My pleasure.