An interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Germany’s involvement in the fight against the terrorist organisation ISIS in Iraq and Syria, published on 29 September 2014 in the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung and elsewhere.
ISIS are threatening to carry out arbitrary attacks in Western countries. How much danger is Germany in?
ISIS is a fundamental threat to the Middle East; it is also a danger to us in Europe. Over the last few days in New York, we have made good progress towards agreeing on an international strategy in the fight against ISIS. One element has been the open and unequivocal stance in opposition to ISIS that Muslims have been taking around the world.
The most recent resolution from the UN Security Council requires all countries to effectively prevent the emigration of terrorist sympathisers and prosecute them upon their return. Does Germany have the necessary legislation in place?
We need to stem the flow of fighters, arms and funds to ISIS. The Security Council resolution is a move towards achieving that goal, on a global scale. It makes sense for the Federal Minister of Justice to be examining all the options offered by our legislation in the fight against ISIS.
The United States is also attacking ISIS in Syria, without the consent of the government. Isn’t that a breach of international law?
The barbarity of ISIS does not stop at the borders of Iraq. The fight against ISIS can only be successful if the terrorist militias are denied their safe havens in Syria. ISIS controls areas in Syria as well as large swathes of Iraqi territory. In the fight against ISIS, Iraq is exercising its right to self‑defence as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, and it has formally requested the assistance of the international community in that endeavour. That, by the way, is the foundation for our provision of military equipment to the Peshmerga. The Americans are responding to that request for help, in part by conducting air strikes in Syrian areas controlled by ISIS. That line of argument was met with widespread support in New York.
Indirectly, the attacks are helping Syrian dictator Bashar al‑Assad to cling to power. Some people even advocate cooperating with Assad directly, as the lesser of two evils. Is that a sensible strategy?
The civil war in Syria has claimed so many lives, caused so much suffering and destroyed so many families; millions of people have had to flee their homeland and are living as refugees. Responsibility for that lies chiefly with Assad. That fact cannot simply be laid aside, and it won’t be forgotten. Assad has lost any semblance of legitimacy. Not even air strikes could put an end to the civil war in Syria. It was therefore clear to everyone in New York that there was no alternative to a political process. That’s something I spoke about in my talks too.
The same dilemma applies to the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, which Germany continues to classify as a terrorist organisation. It is fighting ISIS and has renounced armed conflict in Turkey. Isn’t it time to reassess the PKK?
That’s not really a valid comparison. But there is no reason to change our position on the PKK at short notice. Besides which, the “any enemy of theirs is a friend of mine” principle has already done enough damage in the Middle East. It is not a viable strategy.
Do Germany and Europe need to do more to help Turkey deal with the floods of refugees? Do they need to take in more themselves?
Germany has taken in more Syrian refugees than any other country in Europe. Since the beginning of the crisis, we have made hundreds of millions of euros available to alleviate people’s plight both in Syria and in its neighbouring countries. Turkey deserves great respect for its readiness to take in and look after refugees. The situation in Jordan and Lebanon is even more extreme. That’s why I have invited more than 40 of my fellow foreign ministers and representatives of international organisations, such as the UNHCR, to a refugee conference in Berlin on 28 October.
To date, Germany’s military contribution to the fight against ISIS has been to supply arms to the Kurds. Will it stop there? Are you also prepared, in principle, to have the Bundeswehr take part in air strikes directly, should the situation require it?
Neither military nor humanitarian means alone can stop ISIS. We need a broad‑based political strategy, which particularly needs to be supported by the Arab states in the region. We have made good progress towards that goal in the last two weeks. New York saw the formation of a broad alliance of states against ISIS, an alliance which has agreed on a division of labour. It’s not division of labour if everybody does the same thing. There are enough nations flanking the US air strikes, but too few are covering the other tasks. We were among the first when we decided early on to supply arms to the Kurdish security forces. Now we need to make sure the equipment arrives and the Kurdish security forces receive the necessary training to enable them to use it. We should do that with commitment and with self‑confidence. To leap onto other bandwagons now for symbolic value – I don’t think much of that idea, but I do think a lot of finishing the job we’ve started.
Is Iran also a partner to the West in the fight against these terrorists?
We and Tehran do share the same interests in the fight against ISIS. It would be desirable to have Iran more involved. However, we have to be realistic. The road towards normalised relations with Iran leads via a solution to the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme. The clock is ticking – we only have until the end of November to come to a solution that is to the satisfaction of all concerned. Major obstacles do remain. Nonetheless, I believe they can be overcome.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Westdeutsche Allgemeinen Zeitung