Syria: “I have been warning that this conflict could spread”

28.08.2013 - Interview

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle discussed current developments in Syria and Egypt in an interview published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 28 August 2013.

There has in all probability been a poison gas attack in Syria that has left hundreds dead. Nonetheless, the UN Security Council still can’t agree on what to do. Should the United States and Europe take military action regardless?

It is regrettable that the Security Council has been unable to reach a united position for nearly one and a half years because of Russia and China’s stance. However, that doesn’t affect our support for an independent UN inquiry into these very serious allegations. The United Nations inspectors are in Damascus. They must be allowed to do their job. Should it be confirmed that chemical weapons of mass destruction have been used, the international community will have to act. In this case, Germany will be among those who consider that some consequences will have to be drawn.

Germany has a number of sources, including intelligence service sources. Would you say there is proof that a poison gas attack has taken place?

The reports and images coming out of Syria already speak a clear language. However, it is essential that the United Nations now work to secure evidence.

After the last incident a few months ago, which was categorised as a poison gas attack, France very quickly called for there to be consequences. Germany, in contrast, kept its head down. Why is there this difference between Germany and France?

We are both of the opinion that the use of chemical weapons would constitute a crime against civilisation. We are liaising closely on this, particularly with Paris and our allies but also within the United Nations.

Germany, France and the UK have had difficulties trying to find a common policy on the Syria war in recent months. The issue was supplying arms to the rebels.

The legal situations are different in the various EU member states. Apart from anything else, our legal situation prevents Germany from supplying arms to such conflict regions. We want to support the moderate opposition forces in the Syria. Just because a terrorist is fighting against Assad and his regime, that doesn’t make him our ally. Arms supplies must not end up in the hands of terrorists and extremists.

Are there any moderate forces left among those fighting Assad?

There are, and we can provide them with support. Reducing our whole bag of foreign policy tools down to military options alone will not do. We have set up a project office on the Turkish side of the border region, for instance, to help with reconstruction – from infrastructure to schools – in the areas under opposition control. We are establishing an international trust fund to collect money for reconstruction and see that it reaches the opposition. All these things are measures that can help improve the moderate opposition forces’ standing among the people of Syria. Moreover, Germany is one of the countries doing the most to provide humanitarian aid.

We are seeing a chain reaction here. The war in Syria is adding fuel to the conflict in Iraq. It is destabilising Jordan. It is bringing discord to Lebanon, and Hezbollah has already fired rockets at Israel. Is the entire region descending into a maelstrom of violence?

I have been warning that this conflict could spread and engulf the whole region ever since war broke out in Syria. That danger makes it all the more important to weigh up every decision with great care, looking not only at what seems the right thing to do in the short term but also at what will really serve the long term interests of the Syrian people and peace and stability in the region as a whole. One reason why I am opposed to arming radical opposition forces is that I am afraid those weapons could at some point end up being turned on us and on our closest ally, Israel. For some jihadis and terrorists, Damascus is just a stopover on the way to Jerusalem.

Do you think Israel is in real danger?

One look at a map of the region is enough to make anyone very worried. And the latest rocket attacks from Lebanon and Gaza, not to mention the clashes in the Golan Heights, substantiate my fears.

Are there any means of stopping the entire region descending into conflict?

Lasting peace and stability can only be achieved as part of a political settlement. It is therefore right for us to do all we can in pursuit of that, despite having only limited means of helping.

Nobody’s talking about a Geneva conference on Syria any more.

Well, the terrible events of the other day didn’t bring us any closer to political settlement.

So you still think there’s a realistic chance that the second conference will happen?

I know that it is very hard to imagine reaching a political settlement right now, given the horrific pictures and allegations we have been seeing. But I also know, from my many visits to the region, that only a political settlement will be able to bring peace to Syria in the end.

The EU was divided on Libya too. Germany didn’t take part in the aerial operation initiated by Paris and London. Is Europe incapable of responding to the major developments happening next door?

I was sorry that there wasn’t a united position on that issue. We were simply sure that we were not going to send German soldiers to Libya. That was a vital criterion as we weighed up that extremely difficult decision.

Egypt is another hot spot. Hundreds of people were killed in the recent clearance of Cairo’s protest camps. The EU Foreign Ministers have agreed to stop supplying arms to the military regime but to keep providing civilian aid. Economic sanctions have not been imposed either, even though the EU is Egypt’s most major trading partner. Why?

This European decision demonstrates that we consider ourselves a community of shared values and are capable of taking joint and decisive action. We have voiced our grave concern about the spiralling violence in Egypt, but – and I pushed very hard to ensure this – we are not parties to the domestic conflict. We are not siding with a particular political group in Egypt; we are on the side of democracy and the rule of law. We have decided that items which could be used for repression will not be supplied. We have also decided that all other aspects of cooperation will remain under scrutiny.

Is the EU’s response clear enough?

The EU has sent a clear message condemning the violence, not least the extremist violence targeting churches, Christians and other minorities. At the same time, it is important not to completely cut the channels of communication that represent our only means of influencing events. That is why the EU is backing High Representative Catherine Ashton’s offer to take on a mediatory role once again.

Does this mean that the EU is sticking with the Generals, despite the massacre, because they are a strategically important partner to the West?

We will judge our continued cooperation with Egypt on the basis of whether the declared intention to return to constitutional order and allow free and fair elections actually becomes a reality. In Egypt as elsewhere, a country can only enjoy a successful fresh start if all political forces who desire peace and democracy are made part of the process.

But the EU won’t do anything that could halt the talks.

We want our neighbours to return to stability. It is therefore right to keep the talks going. That’s why, when I visited Egypt, I engaged in intensive dialogue not only with people representing the Government of the time and the military but also, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood.

How much of the responsibility for the current escalation lies with the Muslim Brotherhood?

I believe there is evidence of injustice carried out by both sides.

EU High Representative Ashton has been to Cairo. You yourself have been to Cairo. Those talks were useless, given that the military shortly thereafter gave the order to storm the camps. How frustrating can diplomacy get?

The exercise of foreign policy consists of trying every day to help things move towards greater peace and stability in the world. It is not yet possible to assess the developments in Egypt conclusively. What we have seen so far is merely the first few minutes of a historic hour. I spoke early on about the dangers of setbacks in democratisation, and it’s been a while now since my many visits to the region led me to stop talking about the “Arab Spring” and refer instead to “Arab Seasons”. Discussions here at home about the changes sweeping North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula or the Middle East are often very general.

If you think it would be useful, will you be returning to Cairo?

I will indeed.

Does the EU have any leverage left with which it could exert some influence on the Generals?

The West and the EU have only a limited influence there, but even that limited influence should be exercised. I think the people who are calling the West impotent may well have an unrealistic concept of what kind of omnipotence is available. In foreign policy as elsewhere, it is vital to keep your expectations realistic. Europe is one of Egypt’s most important trading partners, and millions of tourists help drive the economy there. So while we in Europe shouldn’t get above ourselves, we shouldn’t hide our light under a bushel either.

Has this careful stance on the military regime in Egypt also got something to do with Germany’s special responsibility with regard to Israel – given that Israel is advocating not subjecting Cairo to sanctions?

During the talks I just had in Jerusalem, it was made very clear that Israel does not consider itself a party to this conflict. Everything that Germany does in the region gives prime consideration not only to peace within Egypt but also to international peace, especially as regards Israel.

Do the events in Egypt constitute a threat to Israel’s security?

The terrorism in Sinai worries me. I share Israel’s concerns in that regard. That also makes it important that the peace process be advanced successfully now that direct talks have been restarted. If the negotiations could result in a two state solution, that would definitely contribute to the peace and stability of the entire region, particularly for Israel itself.

You mention Sinai. President Morsi did nothing to prevent the power vacuum in Sinai spreading.

I still remember President Morsi, currently in prison, garnering praise from around the world for mediation he provided in the latest Gaza conflict.

From its optimistic beginnings in Tahrir Square, has the revolution in Egypt now failed because one autocratic regime has simply been replaced by another?

The crucial point for us in Germany is that there can be no going back to pre revolutionary times. A return to autocratic rule backed by the military would be a severe disappointment for the vast majority of Egyptians, whose protests in Tahrir Square two and a half years ago called not only for the right to participate in democracy but also for better opportunities in society and the economy. As I have been saying since it all started, the democratic process will only be successful if it is accompanied by positive economic and social development.

This interview was conducted by Eric Gujer and reproduced by kind permission of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.


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