Blair switches on Syria: We need to do a deal with Assad and accept he’ll remain president

by Atul Hatwal

In a wide-ranging speech on the middle east, Tony Blair today made a significant intervention to recast the British debate on Syria.

Until now, the assumption has been that President Assad would have to go as part of any peace deal. The dividing lines of the conflict seemed to be clear: Assad was the oppressor, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his own people, while the opposition represented Syria’s best hope for a more democratic and enlightened future.

The idea of President Assad remaining in power was unthinkable.

But as the tide of the conflict has turned in Assad’s favour, and Islamist factions in the opposition have gained prominence, Blair’s speech signals a fundamental reappraisal of the negotiating position.

At the time of the parliamentary vote on military action in Syria, within Labour it was the Blairite wing of the party which was most in favour of punitive measures against President Assad. There remains an abiding sense of grievance among many in the party at the manner in which Ed Miliband first backed intervention, and then opposed it.

Now, however as the facts on the ground have changed, so has the solution – at least in Tony Blair’s view. In the Bloomberg speech he states,

“But the truth is that there are so many fissures and problems around elements within the Opposition that people are rightly wary now of any solution that is an outright victory for either side. Repugnant though it may seem, the only way forward is to conclude the best agreement possible even if it means in the interim President Assad stays for a period. Should even this not be acceptable to him, we should consider active measures to help the Opposition and force him to the negotiating table, including no fly zones whilst making it clear that the extremist groups should receive no support from any of the surrounding nations.”

Contrast this with his view in June last year,

“I feel very strongly we are in danger of a failure with catastrophic consequences if we’re not careful.

This is no longer a civil war between factions within Syria. We should be taking a more interventionist line. That’s where I come from in politics. People can agree or disagree with it.”

What is remarkable about today’s Bloomberg speech is that even the prospect of military intervention is discussed solely in terms of bringing Assad to the negotiating table. There is no future outlined without President Assad, or process of managed transition where Assad leaves power.

The only objective is to end the bloodshed, even though it means that Assad remains president.

It’s a view that is largely shared across Europe and the US where the commitment not to intervene has implicitly led to an increasing acceptance of the continuation of the current regime in some form.

The unfolding chaos in Libya, which has presented a stark illustration of what can happen when a divided opposition is thrust into government, has only served to confirm this perspective.

And if there were any doubts, the growing strength of Islamist groups within the Syrian opposition has firmly cast Assad as the least worst option for Western interests.

The irony is that this shift on Syria, vocalised by Tony Blair today but underway over the past months across Western capitals, exactly aligns the EU and the US with Russia and China.

The realpolitik conducted by Russia and China over Syria has always been clear. President Assad’s human rights abuses were of secondary concern, next to the threat of a radical Sunni regime, sympathetic to Al Qaeda, that might support Islamist insurgencies within their borders.

Tony Blair, and the current crop of Western leaders, would probably express the position more delicately, but at root, there is now little difference between the longstanding Russian and Chinese position on Syria and that of the EU and US.

By saying publicly what many leaders are thinking privately, Tony Blair may well have performed a valuable service in moving the public debate nearer to the private foreign policy reality. However, his reputation will likely take another hit as the difference between the practical and the principled in foreign affairs, is once again viscerally evident.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

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5 Responses to “Blair switches on Syria: We need to do a deal with Assad and accept he’ll remain president”

  1. Tafia says:

    And if there were any doubts, the growing strength of Islamist groups within the Syrian opposition has firmly cast Assad as the least worst option for Western interests.

    In politics the choice is always the least worst option.

  2. swatantra says:

    Tony is right that the greatest threat to world peace and security is Islamic terrorism, fundamentalism, jihadist. Call it what you like but it boils down to islamofacism. Its a bigger threat than Russia or climate change or capitalism and the free market.
    But he is wrong in suggesting that we should have intervened in Syria; I would have thought that Tone would have learnt his lesson by now after his Afghanistan and Iraq fiasco, but no. Tone has a distorted view of Foreign Affairs and needs perhaps to have it spelt out to him an International Court, because he just doesn’t get it.
    But he is right to face up to the fact that Assad is not going anywhere, and that the revolutionaries in the ME are basically jihadists with their own mujehadein agenda, so we should not be supporting them. That basically leaves us all with one option: that the Arabs do ‘democracy’ in a different way, and we will have to put up with it until something better comes along.

  3. John Reid says:

    Swantantra, well said

  4. Ex Labour says:

    Having lived in the middle east I’m somewhat familiar with the complex politics of the region. I really dont understand why the west aggitated against Assad as has been said already he was the least worst option and someone who we could deal with.

    We’ve seen in Egypt the kind of political choas created by supporting rebels and terrorists in the form of a “popular uprising” or “Arab spring” and where are they now ?

    Historical differences, religious beliefs, tribalism and easy access to weapons are a potent mix and we really should have learned our lesson by now. The conclusion is never good and in reality it takes a dictator to keep some stability. Sad but true.

    For the first time in many years I actually agree with Blair. The bloodshed has to stop and if the only way to achieve that is keep Assad the thats the way it has to be.

  5. Tafia says:

    Blair is just an opportunist with no actual core beliefs. He just goes with the wind and when that changes he does to.

    Totally amoral mass-murdering waste of oxygen. Spunk bubble.

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