In an interview for the weekly WELT am SONNTAG, Foreign Minister Westerwelle talks about the conflict in Syria, the sentencing of German NGO staff in Cairo, developments in Turkey and Germany’s involvement in Afghanistan.
Mr Westerwelle, can you still keep track of all the places you have been in the last ten days?
Easily. Ottawa, Washington, Mexico City, New York, Berlin, Kaliningrad. And by the time this interview comes out, I will have added Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Islamabad to the list.
With all our modern means of communication, is that classic form of travelling diplomacy still appropriate in this day and age?
It is more essential than ever. Nothing can replace that personal contact and face-to-face conversations.
And is it effective? Or do you sometimes lose hope in the face of world events – such as in Syria, where there is no end to the war in sight despite the most intensive diplomatic efforts?
It is not easy to say this given the unimaginable suffering on the ground, but diplomatic solutions can take a long time. Look, I was in Serbia and Kosovo a few weeks ago. A lot of people have forgotten that we still have German soldiers posted there, more than a decade after the war in the Balkans. It seems we have now managed to make a key contribution to normalization there. In Syria, we are still in the middle of a tragedy. With the Geneva conference being planned, we are doing everything we can to make a political solution possible.
In the Balkans, the United States used military action to force political negotiations. Why not in Syria too?
I don’t think much of loud talk about intervention scenarios. Military intervention will not bring the country lasting stability. We should give this new initiative from the US and Russia a real chance. A Syria conference may not seem to have a huge chance of success as things stand, but it would be a mistake not to try everything.
What is Germany doing to make the conference a success?
First off, we have been pushing for this US-Russian initiative since even before the Munich Security Conference. And now we are going to be using our influence to make sure everyone comes to the negotiating table. Building diplomatic bridges is not as spectacular as making demands for weapons supplies or military action. Our aim is sustainable policy. And don’t forget, we are one of the biggest donor countries when it comes to humanitarian aid in Syria and dealing with the floods of refugees at the borders.
The secular opposition is increasingly being crushed between the Assad regime and the radical Islamists. If these moderate forces are given no arms or military support, what then?
One problem these moderate forces have is their lack of unity. Nonetheless, we are supporting the National Coalition with more than just lip-service. We have set up a project office at the Turkish border, for example, to help with the development of infrastructure, so that bakers and schools in the regions under opposition control have the supplies they need. In foreign policy, there unfortunately isn’t always a simple, easily understood solution. Of course, the Assad regime bears chief responsibility for the violence. But jihadis and extremists on the opposing side have been responsible for serious atrocities too. I am extremely concerned at how much of a magnet these radicals in Syria are currently proving for like-minded people around the world.
Is this still a civil war, or is it more of a proxy war?
I am afraid it has become a proxy war with a religious-ethnic dimension. Just take the involvement of Hezbollah, fighting for Assad, or al-Qaida fighting against the regime. We need to do all we can to stop all this turning into a huge regional war.
Your opposite number in France, Laurent Fabius, has evidence that Assad has used sarin, a poison gas. The international community has said, as you have too, that crossing that line would mean intervention.
Laurent Fabius told me about that before it was made public. We both felt that the evidence had to be passed on to the United Nations to be examined in the context of other investigations and available evidence. I don’t need to tell you how serious it would be if weapons of mass destruction had been used, so it is vital that all the facts and evidence be looked at together first. It would be inappropriate to speculate before that has happened.
Is France now making this information public to support its argument in favour of supplying weapons?
I don’t think that’s a possibility. I can understand why the UK and France want supplying weapons to be an option. At the same time, our partners understand our concern that these weapons could end up in the hands of radicals. We are being very careful in weighing up the various factors, not least in view of our particular sense of responsibility with regard to Israel. There are unfortunately terrorists involved in Syria who are interested not only in Damascus but in Jerusalem too. That triggers all my protective instincts for our Israeli partners and friends. You have to remember, we aren’t talking about any old weapons here; these are modern air defence systems. If only one of them fell into the wrong hands, it would represent a real danger to Israel and all civil aviation.
What is Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s take on that danger?
I spoke to him in Kaliningrad about reports that there were plans to supply Russian arms. I made it very clear that we considered this counterproductive and detrimental – and I got the impression that there was no delivery of S-300 air defence missiles to Syria in the offing.
There are rumblings coming from two other regional powers at the moment. Staff of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung have received prison sentences in Egypt, while in Turkey tens of thousands have taken to the streets in anti-government protests. Are these events cause for concern?
The unacceptable conclusion reached by the court in Cairo places a considerable burden on bilateral relations. We had agreed with President Morsi’s Government to have the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s work covered by our bilateral cultural agreement. That makes me all the more annoyed at this decision, which is clearly politically motivated. That said, it would be wrong to turn our back on Egypt out of anger. It is a key country in the region as a whole, not least with respect to Israel. As for Turkey, Taksim Square is not Tahrir Square; Istanbul is not Cairo. Turkey is a democracy which now needs to demonstrate its inner strength in the face of these protests. It is a sign of that democracy’s maturity that civil society there is confident and courageous and takes to the streets for political objectives.
You aren’t worried about the police response?
This is a chance for the Turkish Government to prove itself, to show Europe and the world that it values the rule of law and civil liberties. I welcome the fact that the Turkish Government has publicly spoken of an over-reaction ...
... Prime Minister Erdoğan hasn’t. He used to be symbolic of the hope that democracy and political Islam could be reconciled. Has that hope been diminished, do you think, by his increasingly autocratic behaviour?
Prime Minister Erdoğan has a particular responsibility to calm the situation. He has to be aware of that responsibility.
You are turning your attention to Afghanistan this weekend, where you are to open a German Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif. Who is going to ensure its security after the last international troops are withdrawn in 2014?
The Afghan security forces – which are already looking after security in 90% of Afghan territory. The situation in Afghanistan is still far from stable, both in terms of security and society, but the transfer of responsibility must go ahead. We can’t keep tens of thousands of soldiers there forever. And it’s not as if we were abandoning Afghanistan; we will keep a civilian presence there, along with a significantly reduced number of soldiers.
You offered to keep 600 to 800 soldiers in Afghanistan to continue training before any other country did. The other alliance partners have not yet spoken up, and President Karzai is still to officially ask you to remain in the country.
Our partners have given us very encouraging signs that they intend to follow suit. We mean to remain the lead nation in the north, because it is a feature of our foreign policy that we reliably and responsibly complete the tasks we undertake. I spoke to President Karzai in Kabul. He made it clear that he very much welcomed Germany’s offer to play a role in an international training and advisory mission that would operate in Afghanistan after we have withdrawn our combat troops in 2014.
This interview was published in WELT am SONNTAG on 9 June 2013, conducted by Thorsten Jungholt and reproduced by kind permission of the Axel Springer Verlag.