Tony Blair on Syria, the Middle East, Religion and Politics

Foundation Update

Tony Blair on Syria, the Middle East, Religion and Politics

31 Oct 2013

In Part III of the OZY interview, Tony Blair talks to Carlos Watson about Syria, the struggle taking place across the Middle East and religion and politics

Carlos Watson: I'm going to jump to a different part of the world and a different focus of yours. You spend a ton of time on Middle East peace. Over the last couple of years, we've seen a lot of movement there. We've seen the Arab Spring. More recently, we've seen some of the tragedy in Syria. What do you say to someone, who, in a very hard bitten way, says, if we're being honest, there's not going to be meaningful change in the next 20-30 years?

Tony Blair: In my view there is one essential struggle going on. Across the whole of the Middle East, there is a battle going on as to the proper place of religion in politics.What actually makes it hard in these countries is that a lot of them have been run by very dictatorial regimes over a long period of time. They've been like the lid on a whole lot of tension in the country and we took the lid off in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it's come off in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia and Libya. What then happens is that out comes pouring all this religious extremism of a Shia type or a Sunni type. Once they've got rid of the dictatorship, the transition to something that is more modern, more democratic is going to be very tough.However, there are two things that I think are really important to understand. The first is, sometimes people from the West, we look at this situation and just say, 'look, where are the good guys?' The answer is, the bad guys are well organised and quite numerous. The good guys are badly organised, but they are still numerous. The majority of people, in my view, in the Middle East, if they could get it, would have the same type of values and systems that we have.

Charlie Watson:You really believe that?

Tony Blair: I do really believe it and I believe that based on experience. So if you look at Egypt, the truth is there's a majority in Egypt, neither for the Muslim Brotherhood, nor for the military keeping control. If they're faced with a choice between chaos and stability, they'll choose stability, but their actual desire is to evolve to a different system altogether. That's why the second thing that's really important for us in the West is to understand that even though it's difficult and we are fatigued, there's no desire in your country or in mine to get involved in these things. In my judgement, standing aside is also a big problem. We haven't yet had the bill for Syria, but it's going to be a very very big bill when it comes. If we don't stop that country disintegrating, then the whole of that region and further afield will be destabilised.

Carlos Watson: As a Prime Minister, did you feel like you were able to support the good folks that wanted to make a difference, but might be poorly organised and under-resourced or is the reality that they ultimately have to make that happen themselves?

Tony Blair: I think the reality is that, ultimately, they have to do it themselves, but they need help. In an era of globalisation, as people move closer together, the question is, is this diversity a source of risk for people or is it a source of strength? But all over the Middle East, that's the battle: do you go for a religious type of political system or do you understand that religion in its' proper place in politics has got to be a personal thing between someone and their God. But if you try running a society, according to a particular view of religion, it doesn't work.