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We expect Assad’s opponents to distance themselves from extremists

22.04.2013 - Interview

During his trip to Istanbul for the Friends of the Syrian People core group meeting, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle spoke to the “Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung” about the situation in the war‑torn country. Published on 22 April 2013

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Mr Westerwelle, up to 200 people die every day in the violence in Syria. Is it correct to say that hopes of a democracy emerging from the crisis are growing ever slimmer the longer the war lasts?

The situation in Syria is still depressing. That is why it is important for us to step up our efforts for a political solution. Only thus will the country have a chance of a democratic rebirth. We want a Syria which is a democracy and above all tolerant of minorities and all religions.

What’s your verdict on the meeting of the international Friends of the Syrian People meeting in Istanbul?

We all – including the Syrian opposition – agreed that a political solution was necessary. To make that possible, we have to strengthen the Syrian opposition. I welcome the fact that the Syrian National Coalition yesterday came out clearly in favour of democracy and pluralism, and against extremism and terrorism. That is the only basis on which we will provide significantly increased support.

How much harder are your efforts made by the fact that the Syrian opposition is divided and increasingly radicalized?

We only support the moderate and democratic forces in the Syrian opposition. And we are helping the Syrian people, in Syria itself and in refugee camps outside the country. We expect all opponents of the Assad regime to distance themselves from those who are not in truth freedom fighters but who seek to build a bastion of terrorism.

How do you seek to put pressure on the extremists?

The fact that supporters of the al‑Qaida terrorist network are fighting against the Assad regime does not make them our allies! For some militant forces Damascus is just a stop on the road to Jerusalem. Yesterday, at the Friends of the Syrian People meeting, we jointly decided on a single channel for international support for the Syrian opposition – through the legitimate organs of the Syrian opposition.

Turkey claims that Western countries bear some of the responsibility for the radicalization, because they have not given the opposition the same support as they did in Libya...

We are highly sceptical when it comes to supplying arms. The danger is simply huge that they will fall into the wrong hands – i.e. into those of terrorists.

The Gulf states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supplying weapons…

We discussed the issue of arms deliveries in great detail at Istanbul. We have to weigh up the pros and cons very carefully. Any weapons that we supply could be used against us and our friends if they fall into the wrong hands, outside Syria’s borders as well.

What role do Germany’s deliveries of tanks to Qatar play in this scenario?

There is no connection at all, and I am not in a position to comment on the details. Indeed, any comment would be contrary to the guidelines that have applied to such issues for decades. In general, I would advise that the strategic security interests of our partners, including the protection of Israel, should also be taken into account in any debate on the region.

Germany has provided 145 million euros for the victims of the Syrian civil war – making it the second biggest donor after the US. Do you wish the international community would contribute more?

The appeals from Syria and the humanitarian agencies have been heard. Germany’s focus is on humanitarian and medical aid, as well as on supplying water, food and electricity. We have set up a contact office just on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, to coordinate assistance. We are also creating a trust fund to pool the financial aid from the international community for the Syrian opposition and the reconstruction of Syria. As a result, schools will be reopened, bakeries will be able to operate again, and electricity and water produced, to name just a few examples. In this way the people will also see that they are being helped, that there is a democratic alternative to Assad.

Were Assad’s strength and potential for sowing strife underestimated?

No. We knew the Syrian regime was heavily armed. The fact that Assad has repeatedly fired Scud missiles on his own people sadly shows that the usual humanitarian standards are no longer upheld by him and his followers.

Syria was once a major tourist destination…

And it ought to be again. It is sad to see the additional damage being inflicted on the country by the destruction of its international cultural heritage.

Interview conducted by Beate Tenfelde. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung.

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