“Diplomacy is aimed at preventing wars”

26.02.2012 - Interview

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on military intervention in Syria and the conflict over Iran’s nuclear programme. Published in the Tagesspiegel on 26 February 2012.

Minister, around a year ago you celebrated the Arab freedom movement in several countries in North Africa that had ousted their old regimes. Is the optimism back then still justified now?

It certainly is. No sensible person back then could have expected the transition to be accomplished without problems. I well remember in Tunis, after former President Ben Ali had gone into exile, what I told the young revolutionaries outside Café Tunis on Avenue Bourgiba. You’ll need staying power, I said, this isn’t a battle you can win overnight, it’s going to be a long haul.

Many developments in the region give cause for concern. Where free elections are held, it’s the Islamists who win. In Syria an end to the violence is still not in sight. Are the risks today not greater than they were a year ago?

I warn against putting all Arab countries into one and the same category. In Tunisia the Arab revolution has come a very long way, pro-democracy Islamic politicians must now prove their mettle. In Libya the end of the old regime means a real chance for freedom and peaceful change. In Egypt there’s been headway, yet there are things still hanging in the balance, which is why we want to strengthen civil society further. In Syria we’re witnessing the start of a revolution, people are suffering under a persistently violent and oppressive regime. And we see reform-minded countries such as Morocco, where King Mohammed VI at an early stage launched a reform programme.

Let’s talk about Syria. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sees signs that the Assad regime is starting to erode. In your view, too?

We see indicators here and there that support for the regime is crumbling. That’s a good thing, as it increases the chances of finding a peaceful solution.

Is the world facing a dilemma here – the violence of the Assad regime is intolerable, yet the collapse of government authority in Syria could lead to a situation that is even worse?

We want Assad to clear the way at last for a political solution. We have three goals for Syria: an end to the violence, humanitarian aid and political change. With our EU partners on Monday we’re going to adopt new and tighter sanctions. Despite the failure of the Security Council resolution, we believe the United Nations (UN) should continue to play an important role here. And finally the Friends of the Syrian People, the group that met in Tunis on Friday, is helping to strengthen the opposition against Assad.

What new sanctions against the Assad regime is the EU planning?

The sanctions we’ll be adopting on Monday include restrictions for the Syrian banking sector and for air traffic.

Together with the contact group, Germany has described the Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of the country. How effective is it?

We’re encouraging the Syrian opposition to come together. As we see it, however, it’s not just what the opposition is fighting against that’s important but also what it’s fighting for. We expect it to make a clear commitment to the kind of democratic and pluralist Syria described by Professor Ghalioun in Tunis.

It was your idea to set up this contact group for Syria. Does Germany have a special role to play in the quest for a solution?

No Western country should aspire to a lead role in resolving this conflict. If the Arab League leads the way here and takes action, that refutes the Assad regime’s propaganda that the only thing the West wants in Syria is to expand its sphere of influence.

In the United States influential senators are calling for the Syrian opposition to be given arms. What consequences would that have?

I’m not going to get involved in that kind of debate. Any discussion of military intervention could undermine the international alliance that’s been forged with such care and hence strengthen Assad. We must avoid anything that could pull Syria into a proxy war. That could start a conflagration engulfing the whole region and ultimately trigger a confrontation extending all the way to Moscow or Beijing.

Under such circumstances do you see a danger that both powers could actually become parties to the conflict?

I’m not getting into a discussion about escalation, we’re trying to find ways to avoid it. That’s why we suggested very early on that the UN should appoint a special envoy for Syria. The UN and the Arab League have now recruited Kofi Annan for the job. He’s a highly respected figure and well regarded also in Russia and China.

Does the conflict in Syria jeopardize the efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict over Iran’s nuclear programme?

It’s obvious of course that Iran meddles in Syria’s affairs more than any of us would wish. It’s most regrettable, too, that with its veto in the Security Council Russia has placed itself on the wrong side of history. All this must be seen as part of the broader picture. The sanctions against Iran are beginning to bite. Yet we’d like to see still more countries support them. The more broadly the sanctions are supported, the faster and more effectively they will work. I agree with my Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman that public debate about military strikes against Iran does no good. This would only weaken the alliance seeking to stop Iran’s nuclear programme. Many countries will be reluctant to support sanctions against Iran if they feel the West’s intention is just to prepare the ground for military intervention.

No country fears an Iranian nuclear bomb more than Israel. To protect Israel’s security is part of Germany’s national ethos. What kind of assistance does that oblige us to offer, when it comes to the crunch?

When I say Israel’s security is part of our national ethos, there’s no need for further comment.

The Chancellor pledged in the Knesset that when things get critical, Germany would do more than pay lip service to this commitment. Are we getting to that point?

Our goal is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon option – and do so in a way that prevents war. Diplomacy is aimed at preventing wars …

including an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities?

People in the media may permit themselves such speculation. That’s something I can’t permit myself as Foreign Minister.

Your Cabinet colleague Thomas de Maizière warns that an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be highly unlikely to achieve its purpose. Do you share that view?

The Defence Minister has great expertise in assessing the military-operational aspects of such a scenario. From a political standpoint I note that the EU’s new sanctions, which are not even fully operational yet, are already beginning to bite. There will shortly be elections in Iran. Its political leaders are in deep trouble; moderate and radical factions are vying to gain the upper hand. Many Iranians know their economic ills are due to the country’s international isolation. It’s up to Iran to make its choice: it can avoid sanctions being imposed if it resumes serious and substantive talks.


Questions put by Hans Monath.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Tagesspiegel.

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