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"We have to ensure that fewer refugees come"

16.10.2015 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talks to Bild newspaper (16 October 2015) about his upcoming trip to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talks to Bild newspaper (16 October 2015) about his upcoming trip to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

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Chancellor Merkel recently said: “We have to get more involved. The lines between foreign and domestic policy are becoming more and more blurred.” Why is Germany not getting more involved?

It’s good that you ask that way. We are getting more involved – as far as we can – and we are taking the lead on some very important issues. We are mediating in the Ukraine conflict; we helped negotiate the nuclear agreement with Iran ...

... But the West has just stood by and watched the bloodbath in Syria for four years. Might we one day be ashamed of that, as we are of our lack of action on the massacres in Rwanda and Srebrenica?

My understanding of foreign policy is that one tries to defuse a conflict. And if that fails, one tries again. And again ... That’s the point we’re at now. The situation is highly dangerous and extremely complicated. Nevertheless, we are engaged in the fight against ISIS – for example by supplying equipment to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Iraq – with considerable success.

... And at the same time Russia’s President Putin is continuing to drop bombs alongside Assad, the Syrian dictator and mass murderer ...

Russia’s intervention in Syria has made the situation much more complicated. But that changes nothing of the fact that no solution is possible without Russia, and certainly not against Russia! That is why there will be no change: we need to keep talking to Moscow. Otherwise I see no chance of peace.

So you see Pu tin as part of a solution. But in fact he is bombing the moderate rebels. Have you fallen for his tricks?

We are not naive. Russia is pursuing its own interests. However, I do not believe that Moscow can be successful in this course in the long term. Making the Arab Sunni masses and leaders into opponents, exposing itself so much in Syria in military terms – that all seems highly risky to me.

Assad is using barrel bombs and poison gas against civilians. How are you dealing with this horror?

There is no doubt that it is unbearable. But there is no sense in giving the impression that we can end this terrible tragedy quickly. No matter what we do, nothing will work if the decision-makers from all parties involved in the conflict, in Syria and in the region, are not all on board.

Meaning what?

That we have to get the US and Russia, but also Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, around the same table to agree on a roadmap to end the war.

So in the end Assad will murder his way to the negotiating table. Can you really imagine shaking hands with the dictator from Damascus again?

That will not be necessary. But realpolitik means not only judging in terms of good and evil, but also doing what is possible and being able to differentiate between what is and what should be. As long as he has support from Moscow and Tehran, Assad is a power factor. That is why UN Special Envoy de Mistura is talking to Assad’s Government, and to Assad himself, on behalf of the international community.

Why isn’t it possible to set up a no‑fly zone over Syria to protect civilians?

Turkey has a right to secure borders. But a no‑fly zone would also have to be enforceable on the ground, and would have to be decided by the Security Council. I see no sign that Russia would agree to such a step now.

At the weekend the Chancellor is travelling to Turkey, and you are going to Tehran and Riyadh. Erdogan, Saudis and mullahs – do we really have the right friends?

Foreign policy is not about huddling up in a cosy little corner and agreeing with your alliance partners about what would be right. Nor is it about who we like and who we don’t like. No, it is about who can help resolve a conflict. Whether we like it or not, there are major actors in Ankara, Riyadh and Tehran.

In Saudi Arabia and Iran, people are lashed, beheaded and crucified for minor offences. Can we really be indifferent to that?

Who could be indifferent? Certainly not me! I raise these issues frankly and openly on all my visits. But, again, it’s the case that we cannot always choose who we speak to. Avoiding dialogue would improve nothing. Certainly not the human rights situation.

No quick fix in the Syria conflict also means that more streams of refugees will be arriving here. How long can we cope?

Even if maybe a million refugees were to come to us this year, we would manage. But it won’t be possible to maintain that over several years. That is part of the reason why we have to work to ensure that fewer come.

The refugee issue is splitting the coalition and the CDU. Is this going to be for Chancellor Merkel what Agenda 2010 was for Chancellor Schröder?

Every government faces situations that cannot be planned in advance and which blot out everything else. In 2003 and 2004 it was high unemployment and low levels of economic growth, to which we responded with Agenda 2010.

... For which Gerhard Schröder risked his job – and lost. Is Angela Merkel taking that same risk now?

I think it is clear to everyone in the Government that we will be measured according to whether we get this problem in hand.

Interview conducted by B. Anda, R. Kleine and J. Reichelt. Reproduced by kind permission of Bild newspaper.

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