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“Much more than a cosmetic effect” (Interview)

Federal Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle talks about tightened EU sanctions on the regime in Syria as well as the current wave of violence in Afghanistan.Broadcast on Deutschlandfunk on 28 February 2012.

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Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, it’s no longer at the centre of our attention: the long-standing Middle East conflict, the dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians, that for decades topped the international agenda. Just over a year ago, the upheavals began in Tunisia, spreading to Yemen and Egypt. Currently, Syria is the main concern.

Bashar al-Assad and his security forces continue to employ unrelenting violence against members of the opposition. Mediation efforts by the Arab League have failed miserably. So far, the sanctions that have been adopted against the regime in Damascus have not been successful. Yesterday, European foreign ministers met for another round of discussions in Brussels. As a result, new and even tighter sanctions were agreed. But will this really impress Bashar al-Assad?

Joining us by phone is Federal Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Good morning.

Good morning, Mr Müller.

Mr Westerwelle, will this have more than just a cosmetic effect?

Not only is this much more than cosmetics, it is yielding first results. The regime of Assad and his inner circle is starting to crumble. We are working hard towards achieving three goals: first, violence has to end; second, access must of course be assured for humanitarian aid; and, third, the opposition needs to be strengthened. We are trying to reach these goals by working together in three formats: within the European Union via sanctions, at the United Nations via a General Assembly resolution, and, since last weekend, also through the “Friends of the Syrian People”, an alliance of more than 60 states and organizations that have joined forces against Assad and the violence he is committing.

Mr Westerwelle, you say that things are being done, that there are some initial positive results, and some steps in the right direction. However, every day we hear that more people have been killed and see reports of more violence and terror. Does this mean that, all told, there has been no effect?

I share your view that the images are unbearable. When you see those images, you know that this regime is using inhumane brutality against its own people. That is exactly why we have come together as an international community. Yet no matter how disturbing these images may be, we must refrain from all action that may trigger even more violence in Syria, which could spread like a wildfire throughout the region.

Was it smart to rule out the military option, that is, possible military pressure?

I will not weigh in on any discussions regarding possible military intervention. It is crucial that the international community stand shoulder to shoulder and join forces against the Assad regime. If we fail to do so, we will spoil our chances of success, also with respect to the efforts of Kofi Annan, in his capacity as Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States. At the weekend, Kofi Annan was appointed Special Envoy not only of the United Nations but also of the Arab League. This is especially important since the Arab League plays a key role in resolving this conflict. Furthermore, it is critical that we get Russia and China on board, because what we want is not only the end of the Assad regime. Ultimately, we also want Syria to have the prospect of a peaceful and democratic future.

However, Mr Westerwelle, many people in the West do not understand why the rules that applied to Libya do not also apply to Syria.

With regard to Syria I can only say that of course the situation in every country requires an individual assessment. Let me remind you of the special circumstances in Yemen. At first, no one believed that the Gulf Cooperation Council’s peace plan stood a chance. But in reality, there has been a transition process in Yemen. A Yemeni solution should not be ruled out. It is certainly an option that we are working on in an international context. This means creating the opportunity for a transition process and for Assad to step down. This in turn would enable transformation, making possible a peaceful and democratic new beginning in Syria.

Are you not worried that the people of Syria will be hardest hit by these sanctions, considering they are suffering enough as it is?

Unfortunately, this is always true to some extent. However you, too, know it is the opposition in particular that has been calling for these sanctions. And they are right to do so. For us Europeans, it would be unthinkable to conduct business as usual with the Assad regime. Therefore we were right to once again add the Syrian Central Bank to the sanctions list, to prohibit cargo flights from Syria to the European Union, and to place an embargo on precious metals. All of these actions contribute not only to ending Assad’s reign, but, first and foremost, to getting his inner circle to abandon him and to withdraw their support for repression and violence. Let me repeat that there are indeed first signs that some of these actions are beginning to bear fruit.

There has been terror and violence in Syria, but, in recent days, we have also witnessed increased terror and violence in Afghanistan. How long will it take for you, as Foreign Minister, to say: “On the ground, this military operation has failed”?

Since my appointment as Foreign Minister, I have always said that we need a political solution because there will be no military solution. Furthermore, since becoming Foreign Minister, I have been working hard at the international level to help bring about an agreement on a strategy and a date for withdrawal. This means that full responsibility for security will be handed over to the Afghan authorities by the end of 2014. This also means that, by then, the withdrawal of international troops will have been completed and the Afghan Security Forces will have been rebuilt and strengthened in such a way that they will be able to organize their own security post-2014. This is precisely what the Federal Government has been working to achieve during the past two years. Of course we were right on the one hand to defend our freedom and security in Afghanistan. On the other hand, it is obvious that this operation must not continue forever. Therefore, since becoming Foreign Minister, I have done my part to help us achieve this plan for withdrawal.

But Mr Westerwelle, the most recent developments have shown that even the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Security Forces have often resorted to some form of action against the West – the protecting power, the troops that are there to help. Are all our efforts beginning to backfire?

First, you are unfortunately right, we are still witnessing setbacks as we continue on the path towards full withdrawal of combat troops by 2014. In my policy statement of last December, I already pointed out that we must prepare ourselves for such setbacks. This is tragic and regrettable. However, withdrawing troops head over heels and simply leaving the country without a responsible handover of security would pose a much greater danger to us all. We are not in Afghanistan for some remote reason. We are in Afghanistan because we were attacked and because the country served as the world’s largest terrorist safe haven. We want an Afghanistan that is no longer a threat to the world, a country under acceptable governance and with real prospects for development, also for its people. Despite all of the setbacks, we must not forget that progress has been made. We believe that in the coming weeks the handover of security responsibility will have reached a point where the Afghan Government and local authorities will be providing security for slightly more than half of Afghanistan’s territory – and that is what this is all about.

But Mr Westerwelle, even Western military leaders and NATO itself are admitting that the strength of the Taliban is increasing, and that this is likely to continue.

No, that is not true – there is a wide range of assessments. The situation can vary significantly from region to region, as well. There are indeed areas where we have made lots of progress, especially in those areas in the north where the Bundeswehr and Germany have assumed responsibility. We also need to recognize the progress that has been achieved. This means that you cannot get an accurate impression of the situation in Afghanistan by focusing only on the setbacks – which I am by no means ignoring, I am well aware of these. It is a very difficult situation. Like you, I feel very uncomfortable and it deeply pains me to see these images and hear these news reports. Still, it makes good sense to conduct a responsible handover of security. Moreover, I would like to mention that we must maintain a certain degree of religious and intercultural sensitivity. Of course, burning copies of the Koran was and is absolutely unacceptable. It is a good thing that President Obama has apologized for this in his letter to President Karzai.

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That was Federal Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, speaking with us here at Deutschlandfunk this morning. Minister, thank you very much for joining us, and goodbye.

Goodbye.

Interview conducted by Dirk Müller. Reproduced by kind permission of Deutschlandfunk.

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