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"We have to keep the situation from turning into a wildfire"

Interview with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle concerning the current situation in Syria. Published in “Die Welt” on 1 June 2012

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Mr Westerwelle, what did you associate with Syria before the bloodshed began?

I visited Syria in 2010 and also spoke with President Assad. It is a country with great culture and significant potential. Our hope was that Syria would start to open up cautiously.

What is going on right now? A civil war?

The situation is just as many-sided as it is unclear. The acts of violence committed with heavy weapons are being perpetrated by the Syrian regime.I was shocked by the massacre in Houla. We appeal to all those involved to abstain from any form of violence. Kofi Annan’s peace plan must be given a chance.

Does the situation remind you of Libya one year ago?

There are many reasons why you cannot compare the two countries. Different religions and ethnic groups play a role in Syria. There is a great danger that a wildfire will start in Syria. We are very concerned to see the first signs of the violence spilling over into Lebanon.

Again, it is a French president who is the first to consider military intervention. How likely is it that it will come to that?

François Hollande did not completely rule out the military option given a United Nations mandate. We have to assume today that no such mandate will be forthcoming. Also for that reason, the German Government is not involved in the considerations to intervene militarily in Syria. We continue to back a political solution.

Power could be handed over to a transitional president, who would have to organize a new start – just like in Yemen, in spite of all the difficulties that we see there. When we discuss military intervention, we have to be careful that we do not raise expectations that cannot be fulfilled in the end.

Is Hollande saying that as a campaign ploy?

The French President is working to end the conflict, as we all are. I share his sadness and shock in light of the continuing violence.

Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French philosopher, is again an influential thinker on the subject of military intervention. How do you see his role?

It is crucial that we find sensible policies and do what is necessary and possible. The violence and the oppression of the people must stop. But we must also prevent a wildfire from spreading through the whole region. We can only do that if the international community sticks together.

So far, Russia is standing apart. What do you expect from Putin’s visit to Berlin this Friday?

I do not want to formulate any exaggerated expectations in advance. It is our position that Russia needs to see that we are not working against its strategic interest when we try to end the violence in Syria. Russia and its attitude to Assad’s regime play a key role in the Syrian question.

In Libya, diplomacy and sanctions were not enough to stop the killing. Why should it be otherwise in Syria?

In this difficult situation, you cannot make it seem like a military intervention is a silver bullet leading to a quick solution. The political and diplomatic efforts are extremely arduous, but they must be pursued. Kofi Annan, Joint Special Envoy of the UN and the Arab League, has put forth a plan that is still the best basis for a political solution.

Does taking the military option off the table make things easier?

Assad’s regime also knows that a UN mandate is currently unlikely. Expectations that cannot be fulfilled should be avoided. To weaken the Assad Regime, we support sanctions and political and diplomatic action, such as the recent expulsions of Syrian ambassadors from European capitals.

So you rule out putting German soldiers on Syrian soil.

I said what we want. I will not speculate.

When you look back, what is your assessment of the German Government’s position, your personal position on the question of Libya?

In Germany and abroad, I have given extensive and adequate explanations of the Federal Government’s decision not to send any German soldiers to Libya.

Iran exports arms to Syria and according to new reports, they even use civilian aircraft. What is the proper reaction to that?

I cannot contribute any information of my own to these reports. In its own interest, the region around Syria should try not to exacerbate the conflict. The negotiations on Iran's nuclear programme must be seen separately from that. For Israel’s security and for regional stability, but also for the architecture of global security, it is crucial that Iran not have nuclear weapons.

In Israel, Federal President Gauck said that he does not believe in an eminent military strike against Iran. Do you take the same view?

It is not customary to comment on an ongoing state visit by a Federal President. Let me say this much: we can all be pleased with the course of the Federal President’s trip to the Middle East. The visit to Israel has further strengthened the relations between our countries.

Is Israel’s security one of Germany’s fundamental guiding principles?

For many years it has been the Federal Republic’s policy that for us Israel’s security is non negotiable and that Israel’s right to exist is one of our fundamental guiding principles. That is not only in response to the darkest chapter in German history, but also an expression of the partnership of values we have with Israel. So far, Israel is the only functioning democracy in the entire region.

Gauck consciously avoided calling it one of Germany’s fundamental guiding principles.

You should not expect a Federal President to choose the same words as his predecessors. He expressed his special connection to Israel in his own words. I think he did that very well.

Questions: Jochen Gaugele und Ulf Poschardt. Reproduced by kind permission of Die Welt.