Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - Former Malaysian Prime Minister and elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad - a strident critic of Israel and Western policy in the Middle East while in office - has warned more air strikes on ISIL territory risk widening the conflict.

Known for his maverick style, Mahathir spoke to Al Jazeera about the Syria conflict and its effect on the world from his lakeside office in Putrajaya, Malaysia's administrative capital.

Now aged 90, he retired in 2003 after 22 years in power, but maintains a punishing schedule of speaking engagements.

Mahathir said that the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has its roots in Western policy in the Middle East which has exacerbated tension and resentment in the region.

Mahathir Mohamad, former Malaysian prime minister

Al Jazeera: Western countries are stepping up air strikes on ISIL in Syria following last month's Paris atrocity. What do you make of that decision?

Mahathir: It's going to make things worse because other Arabs - innocent Arabs - are going to be killed. Since they can't do anything, they sympathise with ISIL. In time, ISIL will come up with other horrible things, or there may be other groups. Frustrated, unable to defeat their enemies, they will do what they can do. And what they can do is described by us as terrorism. But to me bombing people from the air is also terrorism. Those who are waiting for the bombs to fall, they are also terrorised.

AJ: Do you worry about a wider war?

MM: It's already spreading. I always say all this began when Palestinian land was seized and given to the Jews for Israel. Subsequently, the Jews occupied practically the whole of Palestine, building settlements, building roads, controlling movements of people and all that. Initially, the Arab countries tried to regain the land and failed because Europe and America supported Israel, and since then Israel has been committing all sorts of international crimes. This is very wrong.

What the Europeans and the Americans should do is to be impartial and listen to both sides. We can't say one side is wrong all the time. The Israelis have blockaded illegally, stopped ships at sea… All of these, the West turns a blind eye. All they talk about is terrorism.

Israel's reply is to out-terrorise the terrorists. This is their method of handling the situation. If you kill one Israeli, we'll kill 10 of your people. If you kill 10 of our people, we'll kill 100 of yours. We are going to punish you. This is what Israel is doing. The world knows this and the world tolerates this.

AJ: But surely the rise of ISIL is about more than the creation of Israel?

MM: It is more, but it is going to get worse, I think. Guerrilla warfare cannot be fought with conventional war; cannot be fought from the air. We have experience in Malaysia. When we had guerrillas, we set out to win the hearts and minds of the people so as not to support the guerrillas. That's how we succeeded. We are not solving the problems of the Arabs. It is anger and frustration and not being able to do anything.

AJ: So are Western politicians repeating the mistakes of the past?

MM: Yes. If you kill ISIL here, there will be an ISIL coming up somewhere else. You spread the war. Even in Malaysia we have ISIL sympathisers. There will be extremists; people so angry that they will do all these things. It's not in our culture and we are shocked to see Malaysians going there with their families, participating in what is un-Islamic. It's against the teachings of Islam.


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AJ: What would be a better policy?

MM: Revenge - you kill my people, I'll kill your people - it's not going to work. Find out why these people are doing all these terrible things… New acts of terror are being invented, being learned. Now they have come up with acts of terror in front of the television cameras. This is their new weapon. Now the whole world is horrified. Muslim countries are horrified. They don't just kill soldiers, they kill anybody; innocent people slaughtered in front of the whole world. 

AJ: And what of the humanitarian consequences of the deepening conflict?

MM: I think it's the duty of everyone to help out. If we distribute these [refugees] among many countries the burden will not be so big for any one country. There are more than four million people running away, almost half the population of Syria. Every country needs to offer help. These people are not going to stay in these countries for ever. They want to go back.

The most important thing is to settle the Syrian civil war. Just bombing them from the air is not going to help. The problem is on the ground, not in the air. In the process, you won't just hit ISIL, you are going to hit innocent people, destroy the whole country. 

Source: Al Jazeera