The war in Syria is an “unmitigated disaster” and the best way forward may be an interim peace deal that allows Bashar al-Assad to stay in power for a short period, former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair said.
“Two years ago, I said we had to intervene and take tougher measures otherwise Syria would disintegrate and we’d be left with increasingly tough options,” Blair said in an interview with Bloomberg TV in London today. “Right now, all the options are ugly and difficult in Syria but the best option is the one that allows us to evolve with some kind of peaceful transition to a new constitution.”
If such an accord is unacceptable to President Assad, “we should consider active measures to help the opposition and force him to the negotiating table, including no-fly zones,” Blair had earlier told an audience at Bloomberg’s London offices. Extremist groups fighting in Syria, where 150,000 people have been killed since 2011, “should receive no support from any of the surrounding nations.”
Blair, who is Middle East envoy for the quartet of the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, argued in his speech that world leaders must support governments and movements in the region that back religious freedom, pluralism and open economies. Islamist extremism needs to be countered as it is spreading and destabilizing societies, he said.
“At the root of the crisis lies a radicalized and politicized view of Islam, an ideology that distorts and warps Islam’s true message,” Blair said in his speech. “The threat of this radical Islam is not abating. It is growing. It is spreading across the world.”
Blair’s 2003 decision to join the invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein cost him popularity, eventually leading to his resignation as premier and Labour Party leader in 2007. Blair defended his role before a 2010 inquiry into Britain’s role in the war, saying he had no regrets about removing Saddam from power.
Blair said today that the experience of Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan had made governments reluctant to get too involved in conflicts in the Middle East.
“It may well be that in time people come to view the impact of those engagements differently,” he said. “I completely understand why our people feel they have done enough, more than enough.”
More than a decade after U.S.-led troops entered Iraq, suicide bombings and insurgent activity there continue to kill hundreds of people each month.
In discussing Egypt, Blair reiterated his support for the July ouster by the army of Islamist Mohamed Mursi, the country’s first democratically elected president. Former Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah al-Seesi, who led Mursi’s removal, stepped down as armed forces chief in March to run for president in next month’s election.
“What actually threw the Muslim Brotherhood out of power was a vast popular uprising,” Blair said. The group “was systematically taking over institutions in the country and changing Egypt in fundamental that would render it unchangeable for the future.”
If the outcome of Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections “is as we expect, it’s essential we get behind the new president and realize that if he can succeed in taking Egypt in a religiously tolerant direction, with a reformed economy, that is the best outcome not just for Egypt but for the West.”
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a report last month that the period since Mursi’s removal has seen “a use of violence that is unprecedented in Egypt’s modern political history.” It cited estimates that more than 2,500 Egyptians have been killed in protests and clashes, and several hundred more in terrorist attacks. Scores of security personnel have also died.
The U.S. said yesterday it’s resuming some of the military aid to Egypt it halted last year, including delivery of 10 helicopters.
With assistance from Guy Johnson and Francine Lacqua in London.