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Blair recommended ‘new relations’ with Iran and Syria to cut support for Hamas and Hezbollah

January 30, 2024 at 3:10 pm

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair for a meeting at the Planalto Palace on Tuesday, September 26, 2023 [Ton Molina/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

Tony Blair suggested about 23 years ago that “new relations” with Syria and Iran are needed, with the aim of drying up support for the groups resisting Israel, recently released official British documents have revealed.

The British Cabinet Office files, which have been made available by the National Archives, show that in December 2001, the then British prime minister argued that such a step from the Americans and Europeans towards Damascus and Tehran would lead to cutting the two countries’ support for the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Blair made his proposition during talks in London with Javier Solana, the then-EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).

The two discussed ways to fight “international terrorism” after the US-led international coalition invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, two months after the 11 September attacks in the US. According to the files, Blair expressed his belief that there was “an opportunity to try and create new relations” with Iran and Syria and “draw them away from their policies of supporting groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.”

There was disagreement between the UK and the EU on the timing of the start of the fight against international terror, the files reveal. While Solana argued that this battle should start only after the war against the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden-led Al-Qaida was over, Blair believed that the war on terror shouldn’t be delayed until the international coalition could announce victory in Afghanistan.

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The minutes of his meeting with Blair reveal that the senior EU official said, “Once the Taliban were defeated and [Bin Laden] dealt with, the coalition should declare victory and then work against the international terrorism in a more sophisticated manner.”

Blair responded that he agreed the coalition should be ready to point to its “achievements” in Afghanistan “at the appropriate time.” However, he added that handling the relations with Iran and Syria was one of “three groups of issues connected with international terrorism that could now not easily be left on one side.”

The British leader’s view was that the renewal of relation between the US and EU on one hand, and Iran and Syria on the other should be top of the priority list when the international war on terror started.

Blair’s plan came weeks before the US Republican George W Bush administration coined the term “Axis of Evil” to describe North Korea, Iran and Iraq, which were seen as threats to world peace. The administration later described Syria as one of the countries “Behind the Axis of Evil” alongside Cuba and Libya.

The files show that Blair and Solana were optimistic that the mission of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan would be easy and short, after which the war on international terror could begin.

Blair also believed that the situation in Indonesia, Philippines, Somalia and Yemen was related to the war on terror. The four countries were on the radar of the US and European security and intelligence services.

On Christmas Eve in 2000, a series of attacks on churches and Christian leaders rocked several Indonesian cities, including the capital Jakarta, killing 19 people and injuring many others. The attacks were considered to be part of a large-scale terrorist campaign orchestrated by Al-Qaeda and another group calling itself Al-Jama’ah Al-Islamiyya. At the same time, the US began cracking down on the Indonesian Mujahideen Council, a new organisation which the Americans said was formed in 2000.

Days after the Indonesia attacks, the Metro system in Manila, the Philippines capital, was bombed. Twenty-two people were killed amidst worldwide condemnation.

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In 2000, the US department of defence at the Pentagon said that more than a hundred Somalis had travelled to Afghanistan to fight alongside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, including members of Al-Shabaab, who later became the group leaders.

According to a study prepared for the Pentagon after the overthrow of Taliban rule in Kabul, a number of Somalis who had escaped arrest and detention in Afghanistan returned to Somalia. The study indicated that, despite this, the US cut back its campaign against terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

Yemen was the focus of global, especially US, attention after the bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Aden in October 2000. Seventeen US Marines were killed.

The British assessment was that these states “have specific terrorist problems” which Blair told Solana “it would be necessary to address.” He suggested “limited and specific military action.” Both agreed that, “It would be important to act with the consent of the countries involved.”

In Blair’s view, Iraq was the “most difficult” case. At that time, some of most hawkish figures of the Bush administration tried hard to link the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain and his regime to Al-Qaida. Blair admitted to Solana his belief that, “There was strong political pressure in the US behind a policy of trying to achieve a regime change” in Iraq. The British leader warned that, “It would be important to consider any action carefully.” He also called for the US to “consult with allies,” of which the UK was the closest. Although Blair told Solana that the British “were planning to stay in very close touch with the US to keep track of their thinking,” he hinted to the EU representative that he predicted a hasty US plan for Iraq.

“We need to avoid a situation in which, as soon as Afghanistan was dealt with, there was an unstoppable momentum for precipitate action against Iraq,” said Blair. Less than four months later, in March 2003, the US invaded Iraq, with strong military involvement from Britain. The basis was the false allegations that the Saddam regime had weapons of mass destruction. The invasion led to the Iraqi president being toppled and, ultimately, hanged.

At the end of August 2021, US and other Western troops completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of occupation and the Taliban returned to govern the war-torn country. The withdrawal happened after an agreement facilitated by Qatar in February 2020, between the US administration of Donald Trump and the Taliban. The then Afghan government did not participate in the discussions.

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