In an interview with the newspaper “Tageblatt” of Luxembourg, Foreign Minister Steinmeier describes the challenges faced by the international community in dealing with the Syrian refugee situation.
Foreign Minister, to what extent has today’s conference given you an answer to the question of how we can better assist Syria’s neighbours, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey?
All conference participants clearly stated that they were prepared to take on responsibility to avoid the countries bearing the main burden of the refugee flows resulting from the tragic civil war in Syria being overwhelmed. In places where water, food and accommodation were already in short supply, such as in northern Jordan or Lebanon, the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees is exacerbating the shortage. This could pose a huge threat to the already fragile stability in host countries. That is why, today, we pledged to focus our assistance more strongly on host countries and to make it more predictable, reliable and efficient.
You mentioned Lebanon. The country has reached its limits in terms of its ability to provide humanitarian assistance. Are you concerned about the closure of borders to Syrian refugees?
Anyone who has travelled to the region in recent months – be it to Jordan or Lebanon – has seen how high the tensions are running. And they are increasing every day. So we should refrain from criticism when, in a country like Lebanon in which refugees now make up a third of the population, a debate arises over how much more strain can be taken on before it causes collapse. I think that we should not be arrogant when following this discussion. Equally, it is also our responsibility to help enable the neighbouring countries to maintain their readiness to take in refugees.
Turkey, for example, has implemented a very refugee-friendly policy thus far. What is your opinion of this open door policy given what we are seeing in Kobani?
The humanitarian efforts made by Turkey are often underestimated. Following the escalation of the fighting in northern Syria in recent weeks, we have seen another 200,000 refugees arrive in Turkey, in addition to more than 1.5 million already there, seeking refuge. Without the protection offered by Turkey, it is likely that many more thousands of people would have lost their lives in the fighting in Syria and Iraq.
In recent years, the international community has not been in a position to agree on a joint approach to Syria. Why do you think neither a military decision nor a political settlement was found during this time?
It is often the case that parties only start to be realistic over the course of the conflict. And part of being realistic is accepting that a solution cannot be achieved by military means alone. I am thus very pleased that, in Staffan de Mistura, we have found someone with a great deal of experience in international conflict resolution, and who, on behalf of the United Nations, is now seeking ways out of the terrible tragedy of the Syrian civil war which has claimed over 200,000 lives. He deserves the full support of the international community in undertaking this Herculean task.
Today, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said that a political settlement in the style of “Geneva III” or “Geneva IV” could not be found at a conference on Syria. According to him, a new approach was needed – what’s your view on this?
António Guterres is right. After two failed Geneva conferences, it would be dangerous to organise a third conference without a new concept and without a strategy. We need new ideas, new approaches. I know that Staffan de Mistura is working flat out to pave the way, step by step, back towards a political settlement.
Interview by Dhiraj Sabharwal. Reproduced with the kind permission of the “Tageblatt” of Luxembourg.