Tony Blair argues that the scale of the challenge of Islamist extremism requires a re-examination of Western policy responses.

  • We must develop a proper understanding of the threat of Islamist extremism if we are to develop the means to counter it.
  • The struggle is not only against the minority who commit acts of violence, but against the wider ideology that supports them.
  • In the short term, violent groups must be countered with sustained and coordinated force.
  • In the long term, we must reform education systems that promote extremism, equip civil society to counter extreme ideologies, and build institutions that can prevent their growth.
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Originally I wrote this essay after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January. I then hesitated about publishing it. The Syrian refugee crisis and the mass murder in Paris, however, point to a dramatic need for a fundamentally new assessment of the challenge and the strategy for confronting it.

I don't think we are yet close to a proper understanding of the threat we face or the need for radical and decisive action to defeat it. We are only at the beginning.

Following the Paris attacks, we can see that Syria now embodies all our worst nightmares. Those who believed that the best thing was to stay out of it all may perceive that inaction can have as dire consequences as action.

We have terror outrages perpetrated in the heart of Europe, with live plots foiled on an almost weekly basis.

We have a refugee crisis in Europe and we're only at the onset of this crisis. We are in an impossible position. If we close our doors, we are inhumane. If we open them, which is the right thing to do when people have faced such suffering, we create a magnet for more refugees with no clear plan in place and no easy way of deciding who comes in and who doesn't.

We have ISIS and other jihadi groups in control of large parts of Syria and Iraq.

We have the continuing conflict in Syria itself.

The first priority is to defeat ISIS and defeat it completely. This in itself will increase the possibility of resolution of the Syria conflict.

The only answer to the refugee problem is in dealing with the origins of it, which is the war in Syria. Likewise the only way of getting a deal which ends the fighting in Syria is if we are prepared to commit ourselves sufficiently so that we will have the necessary leverage to get a deal which can stick and be remotely acceptable to a majority of the Syrian population.

The precise means of commitment can be the subject of expert military advice. It will include, first and foremost, stepping up the military action against ISIS as the USA, UK and France and many others are now doing. It might include heavier arming of the opposition we support and telling the Assad regime that continued use of barrel bombs against civilians will result in direct military action to disable those attacks; establishing an enclave where the opposition and people can be kept safe and protected by airpower; and more direct on the ground assistance to those fighting ISIS.

The recent moves by the USA in this regard are vital and welcome.

But the key thing is that we show that commitment; that we make it crystal clear that we have an interest in a just outcome and are prepared to use force to achieve it.

Finding a solution means defeating Islamist extremism

All of this is fraught with difficulty. The risks of error, accident, escalation and miscalculation by other players are evident. This is why for four long years the West has kept out, as the UK Parliament vote in 2013 shows, a position now thankfully changed.

But, as should be now obvious, the alternative is also fraught. If Syria continues as it is, we will see a country in final disintegration, a refugee crisis we cannot handle followed by a terrorist challenge that we cannot prevent and a region in flames.

In this the USA obviously has an interest as the world's most powerful nation with traditional allies in the Middle East.

But Europe has the most direct interest in ending the war and seeking a just solution. Without it, Europe faces a clear threat to its security and stability.

Pulsating through this nightmare, is the spectre of Islamist extremism. The reason some people now cling to the notion that we would be better off with the Saddams and Gaddafis and Assads and the rest still in power is because as we learnt through our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, removing the dictatorship is not the end of the story. After that, comes the battle with extremism.

The answer to such a strategy of 'better the dictators you know' is that it is – like it or not – one that is completely unacceptable to the young and frustrated populations of the Middle East and North Africa. Majorities excluded from power and repressed brutally sooner or later revolt. We might prefer to deal with the old dictators. They will remove them.

Revolts that began as an attempt to embrace democracy became a focal point for extremism.

The challenge, as we have seen in the so-called Arab Spring, is that two different groups come together to do the removing: Islamists who are numerous and well organised; and true democrats, the liberal minded, who are numerous but badly organised. And when the fighting breaks out, it is those who are organised and those prepared to die who swiftly come to the fore.

In this way, a revolt which begins as an attempt to embrace democracy becomes a focal point for extremism. Once that happens, the result to a Western mind is confusion and therefore uncertainty as to who to back and what to do.

Hence the desire then to stay out of it in the hope it resolves itself.

The ultimate answer is not to stick with the dictators. It is to fight the extremism so that those – probably a majority in all of these countries – who actually aspire to what we want, are able to attain this aspiration.

This is not their struggle alone. It is also ours. The extremism threatens us directly as 9/11 and Paris show. But it also stands in the way of progress in many parts of the world turning countries which could be stable and prosperous into ideological and often real battle grounds. As the refugee crisis and the terror attacks in Europe demonstrate, in the end, this also comes to us.

It makes the resolution of the different conflicts within each country harder.

If the extremism did not exist, then the only justification anyone could give for maintaining the Assad regime would disappear.

And if the extremism did not discolour and discredit the opposition – fracturing it and international support for change – then they could have had our support unqualified and absolute.

As it is, we now have a picture of such confusion and complexity that most people – in the West at least – just want to escape from it. When you think of the killing in Syria – its scale and its horror – the shock is how little outrage it musters not how much.

So we have to deal with ending the conflict in Syria sooner or later and the sooner the better.

A global struggle