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Time running out for Assad, Blair says Add to ...

The fall of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is “just a matter of time,” predicts former British prime minister Tony Blair.

About to embark on what will be his 74th trip to the region, Mr. Blair – the official envoy of the Middle East Quartet – identified several recent political markers that signal the imminent demise of the Syrian regime.

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“The action of the Arab League [which this week voted to suspend Syria, the first such suspension in 32 years]is “immensely important,” he said. “It’s a big moment. It shows they are starting to take a real leadership position in favour of democracy and change.”

Mr. Blair was in Toronto to address a private audience at the Royal York Hotel and to meet with fellows of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation at the University of Toronto.

Mr. Assad’s isolation, he said, was further increased by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to effectively end his long-standing alliance with Syria and to denounce its bloody crackdown on dissidents. “The fact is, thousands of people have lost their lives,” Mr. Blair said.

For the moment, however, he sees no consensus in favour of Western military intervention. “Libya was sui generis [of its own kind]and self-contained. Syria has a lot of implications.”

Mr. Assad, he said, could have undertaken a program of reform, “which he promised to do on numerous occasions. And the truth is, evolution is better than revolution. The problem with Middle East revolutions is where they end, not where they begin. If he were sensible, he would try, even now, to set out a sensible program of change. But you have to accept that you and your family won’t own power.”

In that context, Mr. Blair said the West must concentrate its focus on post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt where various political groups, including the hard-line Muslim Brotherhood, have begun pre-election jockeying for power.

“This is a vital, vital thing for us. We have to work hard to make sure the Arab Spring doesn’t turn into something quite different. And one way is to engage with people about what democracy is. Democracy is not just a voting system. It’s an attitude of mind.”

It isn’t inconceivable, he suggested, that with Western help, the Muslim Brotherhood “could, long-term, metamorphose into Christian Democrats. Or not. Democracy isn’t either a Christian or Muslim concept. But it is, by its nature, pluralistic.”

But an even larger shadow hovers over the world, Mr. Blair cautioned – the prospect of a nuclear Iran.

“I understand why people don’t now want to focus on a major security threat. But Iran with a nuclear weapon is a disastrous idea for the world. We will have to leave all the options on the table, I’m afraid. I’m not advocating military action, but the Iranian regime has to know that we are absolutely determined this [a nuclear-armed Iran]will not happen. There needs to be a strong signal sent, because apart from the nuclear program, they are exporting instability in the region. If you allow a regime that is already a source of instability to develop the bomb, that cannot be a good idea.”

Mr. Blair, who served as a Labour prime minister for a decade before stepping down in 2007, also had some advice for the politicians and bureaucrats now wrestling with the euro-zone crisis.

“There’s only one way out,” he said, “which is that Europe has to stand behind the currency. They have to be careful that they’re not always two weeks behind the curve. And they have to commit to longer-term reform. More fiscal integration is inevitable. Monetary union was a politically driven project, but was economic in its essence. We have to realign the politics with the economics. I hope and believe Europe will come through it, because the consequences of not doing so are catastrophic.”

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