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“Turkey is an important NATO partner – and it needs to stay that way”

Interview with Frank-Walter Steinmeier published on www.bild.de (9 August 2016)

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War in Syria, coup in Turkey, terrorist attacks – it’s one crisis after the next. Can you switch off at all on holiday?

Given the storms raging through the world, you can’t just flick a switch. But it’s worth trying to take a break! I'm going mountain-climbing again this year. It helps to get a bit of distance and recharge the batteries a little. Here, all you can think of for a few hours are the next ten steps, the next things to grab hold of...

So just like in politics – going forward carefully, always on the precipice...?

On the mountain you at least have a safety rope.

Politicians are talking and negotiating – and in Syria people are dying in a horrendous war. Is the world of politics really so powerless?

We aren’t powerless, but we can’t simply decree an end to the fighting! If we could, the civil war wouldn’t be in its fifth year. What is happening in Syria is a tragedy. The images from Aleppo plumb the depths of cruelty. For more than five years now, a brutal game to gain power in the region has been played out at the expense of the people. And some of the players have currently absolutely no interest in ending the conflict.

Do you mean dictator Assad, Russia and Iran?

And others. This unfortunately also holds true for many other sides of this conflict...

So the world is just sitting idly by?

If you think that, then you obviously haven’t seen my diary and those of US Secretary of State Kerry and other colleagues! What are we doing day and night? We are relentlessly seeking ways of bringing the parties to the conflict to the negotiating table. It is an uphill struggle, but it is the only way forward. Look at the situation of ISIS in Iraq today compared to the summer of 2014. Back then, it looked like the terrorist groups would take over the entire country in a matter of days and stamp out all non-IS life. But we are seeing progress today. ISIS has now lost half of the territory it was occupying a year ago. Cities like Ramadi and Tikrit have been liberated and people are returning to their homes.   

But before this cancer is overcome, it is sending its metastases all around the world in the form of terrorists...

The fact of the matter is that ISIS is claiming as its own acts of violence perpetrated by individuals, some of whom are very, some less connected to the organisation. But I believe its attraction and recruitment potential amongst young people from Europe is not as strong today as it was last year. The number joining the Jihadists has certainly fallen dramatically.

...and ultimately dictator Assad will be the great victor in Syria?

I consider that impossible. For a transition period, Assad’s supporters will continue to play a role in Syria. But the country’s political future will and must be played out without Assad.

Why does the West not put more pressure on Moscow to stop supporting the Assad regime?

We aren’t kidding ourselves about Russia’s role in Syria. But there will not be a solution to the civil war in Syria without Russia, nor without Iran, Saudi Arabia or Turkey...

How great is the danger that Turkey will form a new military axis with Russia?

It is good that the two countries have moved closer again after Turkey shot down a Russian combat aircraft last year. At the same time, I do not believe that relations between the two countries will become so close that Russia can offer Turkey an alternative to the security partnership that is NATO. Turkey is an important NATO partner – and it needs to stay that way.

And that is why we need to keep being friendly to the Turkish President Erdogan – even if he is turning into a dictator?

That is nonsense! We made plain from the very outset what we think of teachers, judges and journalists being arrested and we will keep doing so! But despite all the justified criticism of measures in Turkey, we need to realise – and the debate in Germany overlooks this – that those behind the coup acted with great brutality towards civilians, towards Parliament. This is a view shared by Turks who are not AKP supporters. That is why it is important to state that we clearly condemned the attempted coup and there needs to be political and criminal investigation – but based on the rule of law!

So no visa requirements for Turks who want to come to Europe?

There will be a visa exemption when the conditions are met. That is currently not yet the case.

Moving on to the United States, are you afraid of Trump as President?

Donald Trump’s advisers and party aides are currently spending a lot of time doing damage limitation each time when he makes inappropriate remarks about latinos, women, Muslims and military families. I certainly have the impression that Trump often doesn’t know himself exactly what he wants. He says he wants to make America stronger, but at the same time he wants to pull up the drawbridge. I don’t see how those two things fit together. The fact is that the world is incredibly complicated. It needs state leaders who are aware of their responsibility, who help improve the world. We do not need politicians who are making our world more dangerous.

Come the Bundestag election in 2017, you will have chalked up eight years as Foreign Minister. If the result is right, would you do the job for another four?

I engage in foreign policy with a lot of passion and believe we can change things for the better by being determined and reasonable. But I’ve got another long year ahead of me now and I don’t expect it to be easy. What comes after that is up to the voters.

Interview conducted by Rolf Kleine and Hans-Jörg Vehlewald

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