In an interview with the radio station SWR2 on 23 July 2012, Minister of State Michael Link spoke about the EU Foreign Affairs Council’s consultations on Syria. Marion Theis interviewed Link for the programme SWR2 Tagesgespräch.
SWR2: “You’ll never get Damascus.” This headline directed towards the Syrian opposition appeared in a Syrian government-aligned newspaper exactly one week ago. And now President Assad is struggling to cling to his strongholds of power in the capital Damascus. Have we reached a turning point as Foreign Minister Westerwelle says?
Minister of State Link: I think “turning point” is a very apt description of the situation. What Foreign Minister Westerwelle means by that is that while Assad still has the power to kill, he can no longer win this battle, and the way Assad is continuing to fight against his own people is beyond tragic.
Syria holds the Middle East’s largest chemical weapons arsenal, which includes sarin and mustard gas, and Assad is considered unscrupulous and unpredictable. Do you think he could use poison gas against his opponents?
We hope not, but we’re profoundly concerned by the regime’s apparent willingness to take further steps of escalation in this struggle for survival. This makes it all the more important for us now to speak in clear, tough words.
What does that mean in concrete terms?
It means, for example, that in the United Nations we will of course keep trying to persuade Russia and China to take real action. As you know, this isn’t easy. That’s why the European Union – the reason we’re here in Brussels today – and the Arab League are working hand-in-hand to seal off Assad and the circle surrounding him even more tightly.
As you mentioned, to date not even the UN, let alone Germany or the EU, has been able to do anything to stop Assad and his people. So what does this foreign ministers meeting in Brussels today hope to bring about?
Firstly, today we’ll agree on further sanctions to, as I’ve said, seal off Assad more tightly, which is important because there are still some loopholes left that we urgently need to close. Secondly, today we want to consider together how we can, for example, better support the opposition. We assume that parts of the country will soon be under opposition control, and at that point we should be offering concrete humanitarian support.
What is gained by sanctions if the Assad regime can just get anything the EU won’t give it from Russia?
First of all, we’re currently working on sealing the regime off more tightly. It is not really the case that the Assad regime can still get everything it would like to have. That’s why it’s so important, as I said, for us to seal them off. And that’s why it’s also important for us to specifically tighten the sanctions again today.
The Arab League is offering Assad “safe conduct” to leave the country. Is that really the right solution? Shouldn’t he be brought before a court?
What we need above all right now is a solution that would end the killing as quickly as possible. How things will proceed from there, what scenario will be chosen then, is something we need to consider together. The Arab League is definitely a very important and helpful partner, because it – unlike Russia and China – was engaged in the region from very early on and above all did not look the other way.
You say the killing needs to end, but all of the appeals and negotiation attempts so far have looked rather helpless or pointless to us outside observers. Should we not leave the conflicting parties in Syria to fight it out themselves and instead turn our attentions to the thousands of refugees on the borders?
As you know, there are different opposing and very emotional public views on this. On the one hand, people would most like to help in the sense of ending the Assad regime as quickly as possible. But what that means in practice is a different matter: a military solution is not a simple thing as it’s a densely populated country. This makes it all the more important for us to really, as you say, provide humanitarian assistance. We, the European Union, are already doing that together at the borders, but we need to do more, because right now the burden is being borne largely by Lebanon and Turkey.
How can we ensure then that Turkey won’t be drawn into the conflict? The Turkish army has apparently already installed more surface-to-air missiles on the Syrian border, and the insurgents have gained control of more border crossings. How is that supposed to be done?
I really don’t think we need to talk down to anyone in Turkey; on the contrary, Turkey has been a model of responsible behaviour so far. Recall, for instance, the case of the Turkish plane that was shot down by Syria. Turkey is really acting very responsibly and, as a neighbouring country, is playing an absolutely key role.