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Blair warns Syria conflict could spread outside region


Blair warns Syria conflict could spread outside region


Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair, now a Middle East peace mediator, has been attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where we spoke to him about the Geneva II Conference on Syria. The United Nations-backed international peace talks are aimed at ending the Syrian Civil War.

Sarah Chappell, euronews: “Hopes for Geneva II talks are low. Do you expect any results at all to come out of this week?”

Tony Blair, Middle East mediator: “Obviously, the situation is incredibly difficult on the ground. The likelihood is that, unless President Assad feels under real pressure to come to an agreement on the ground, then the likelihood of a solution is… let’s say is going to be difficult.”

euronews: “How do you think the international community can help bring together two sides that are so bitterly opposed?”

Blair: “Over these past six-to-nine months, I think the situation on the ground has shifted back towards the regime. They are obviously getting a huge amount of help: from Iran, from Hezbollah – who are really fighting on the ground, and who have given them that ground force capability that they lacked a couple of years ago. Therefore, I think that for us in the West, I think that what we have to ask ourselves is: ‘how do we put the opposition in a position where they are going to be able to be bargaining on equal terms.’ Now, the complicated factor, of course, is that the opposition has also got elements within it that we feel deeply unhappy about — al Qaeda-linked groups, jihadist fighters, and so on. This is why the situation has become very, very complex. But we should never forget that there is probably a majority of people in Syria who want a sensible solution to this, and who realise that the different religious groupings have got to live in peace together — but at the moment they are not… they don’t have the strength to make their voice count.”

euronews: “Do you think that the UK and other western powers should be looking into arming the rebels, and would it even be possible when the groups are so disparate?”

Blair: “I think the first question for us is, ‘are we prepared in any way at all to intervene?’, in order to alter the balance of power on the ground. I think we should be prepared to do that. I have argued for two years that we should at least be trying to create a no-fly zone, not just to give some respite to the civilian population but to send a signal to the regime that ‘you are not going to keep the country under your control by pulverising the civilian population.’”

euronews: “We hear now of more than 100,000 deaths and a massive refugee crisis. Do you think that the international community bears some responsibility for not stepping in, so far?”

Blair: “I know from my time as prime minister how difficult these decisions are. [If] you intervene, you get one set of problems; we have seen that in Afghanistan and in Iraq. On the other hand, [if] you don’t intervene, the situation doesn’t sort itself out. The problem is, all the time, when you’ve got this combination of [a] dictatorship that is prepared to use extraordinary and horrific force against the civilian population on the one side, and extremist groups sponsored either by Iran on the Shia side or groups like al Qaeda on the Sunni side. When you have that situation, it’s going to be very, very hard and tough to take the decisions necessary in order to shape that situation. There is a reluctance in the West to do that. I understand the reasons for that. But the fact is that we can see today the consequences of non-intervention are also very serious.”

euronews: “Why do you think there has been this reticence in the West?”

Blair: “It is as simple as this: it is tough. You go into a situation where… you know, a group like Hezbollah, they are prepared to lose scores of fighters in a day, then go straight back in again and fight. So, when you are up against people… Likewise, the reason why the jihadist opposition elements in Syria have started to get traction on the ground is that they are prepared to go and kill and die. That makes them a tough enemy to defeat. My only plea is, when you look at what is happening in the region right now, I think that there is basically one fight going on, that is between those people who believe in a future for the region — that is open-minded, tolerant, with economies that are modern, societies that are modern — and those people who want various forms of extremism, based on, frankly, a wrong-headed view of religion. So, that is the fight, and what I think is important for us in the West is that we are on the side of the decent people, who are probably a majority but they are not organised and they are not the ones who are prepared to go and kill.”

euronews: “What do you think the fallout will be across the region if Syria continues to disintegrate?”

Blair: “I think will be disastrous, and I don’t think it will stop at the region, so that’s why I think it’s such a serious situation. It is not just countries. We can see what is happening in Iraq again now… Lebanon, obviously countries like Jordan, who are standing up to the pressure very well, but they come under enormous pressure, too. But I think outside of the region. Look, we’ve got hundreds of UK citizens who have gone and have been fighting in Syria. They are UK citizens; they are going to come back. So… we’ve got a large Muslim population in Europe. So, I think this is very difficult and challenging, and I understand why the leadership today finds it tough and challenging.”

euronews: “I’d just like to finally touch on Iran and the UN’s taking-back of their invitation to Tehran to attend the Geneva II talks: President Hassan Rohani spoke to euronews and he said to us that the UN’s authority has been undermined by the way it has handled this. Do you agree with that?”

Blair: “These are always very tricky diplomatic situations, because the UN Secretary-General obviously thought Iran was coming on one basis, [while] they [Tehran], for whatever reason, thought they were coming on another basis, and that other basis was unacceptable to the Syrian opposition. So, I understand how the thing came about. I don’t, frankly, think the issues right now is whether Iran is invited or not invited. The issue is, as I said, how we alter the balance of power on the ground, so that President Assad knows he has got to come to an agreement about a transition.”

euronews: “So you think a diplomatic solution can be found without engagement from Iran?”

Blair: “Well, I think, look, Iran is engaged, so whether you do that… I mean, the reality is — it is easier to say this when you are out of office than when you are in office — the reality is that Iran is engaged in that situation, and if there is going to be a solution, they need to get the right signals as well, and they will be [they ARE] receiving those signals. But what the Syrian government, the Assad government and the Iranian government will be looking at at the moment, is: they will be looking to see the degree of will there is on our side, to make sure that this works. And that is what will be important.”

euronews: “Would you, on a personal level, like to have a greater role in the diplomatic efforts to help the Syrian people?”

Blair: “No, I think I’ll leave that to the negotiators who are there right now. I mean, I find what’s happening in Syria deeply distressing, and I think across the region there are huge issues upon which Western interests are dramatically and profoundly engaged. But the guys who are negotiating that now… Mr Brahimi, by the way, who is leading this Syrian negotiation, is a very, very experienced man, has a long experience and is very skilful. So, I wish him luck.”

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