Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the pan-Arab daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat. Published on 19 October 2015.
What are the main issues you will discuss during your visit to Saudi Arabia?
Germany and Saudi Arabia have a good and long tradition of cooperation. Especially in times as turbulent as these, it is important that the largest country in Europe and the largest Arab country in the Gulf region engage in a dialogue.
Unfortunately, these days, we do not get to choose all of the topics we discuss. Rather, they are dictated by external circumstances: Above all, we must of course talk about the bloody conflicts in Syria and Yemen, as well as the fight against ISIS, and humanitarian assistance for the millions of refugees in the region.
On a more positive note, there is our bilateral agenda: During this visit, we particularly want to talk about cooperation on vocational training, and about cultural cooperation. I also want to use this opportunity to gain an impression of opinions and developments in Saudi Arabian society, a society that is more dynamic and multifaceted than many in Europe often think.
Are Russia’s air strikes in Syria helping to resolve the crisis? Can the Russian Foreign Ministry’s declarations be trusted?
There is no doubt that Russia’s intervention has made it even more complicated to work toward a political solution. We will be watching very closely to see if Russian air strikes are truly aiding the fight against ISIS and Al-Qaida. It is important that the United States, Russia and others are now coordinating action at least at the military level, so as to prevent further escalation.
Maybe as a next step we can make a joint effort to ensure that, at a minimum, the Security Council resolutions on protecting civilians are finally put into practice – i.e. stopping barrel-bomb and mortar attacks on residential areas, and allowing unhindered humanitarian access. If Russia were to use its influence on the Assad regime to this end, life would become a little more bearable for the people.
Is Russia’s military intervention helping Assad to remain in power? Is Assad part of the solution in Syria?
I believe Russia is aware that, even though air strikes alter the military balance of power, they cannot replace a political solution. All sides must have an interest in finding a way to initiate a political transition process, before Syria’s state structures and society break apart completely. All sides must, after all, have an interest in preserving Syria as a state in which, one day, all religious and ethnic groups can again live together in peace. Assad may play less of a key role in this than many believe.
During your visit to Tehran, will you also address Iran’s involvement in Syria and Yemen, and its support in the form of arms and trained military personnel?
We have a very realistic view of Iran’s role in the region, especially concerning Iran’s support of the Assad regime, as well as of Hizbullah. Of course we will discuss this, too, with Tehran. What concerns me most is how some groups are increasingly playing the religion card. We must get together and think about what instruments or mechanisms could help, or at least begin to help, re-establish trust. To focus on precisely this issue, the Munich Security Conference hosted a Core Group meeting in Tehran. This forum is a unique group of government representatives and security experts. One thing is very clear: The region urgently needs formats and mechanisms though which dialogue can be conducted, and conflicts can be defused and peacefully resolved.
Do you see positive signals regarding implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement?
The Iranian government is assuring us that it is determined to fully meet all of its obligations. But we have said time and again that, with this agreement, trust simply will not do. Rather, there must be tight controls and transparency.
The actual litmus test still lies ahead. The agreement formally went into effect only yesterday (18 October). During the next weeks, Iran must begin to destroy its stockpiles of enriched uranium, as well as to dismantle its centrifuges and its heavy-water reactor. Only if the IAEO confirms that Iran has met its obligations will sanctions be lifted. And only then, perhaps at the beginning of next year, will we know if the Vienna agreement has been a success.
Germany has declared its willingness to take in 800,000 or even one million refugees this year. How will the German government deal with these numbers?
That is not accurate: We never aimed for a specific number. It is true, however, that we were taken by surprise by the sheer numbers of people that are fleeing the Near and Middle East, and especially Syria. The normal capacity of our facilities for registering and housing refugees was exceeded long ago. Nevertheless, we have an obligation to do the best we can to help those who are seeking refuge with us from violence and war. I am proud that so many Germans from all parts of society and of all faiths are wholeheartedly helping us meet this tremendous challenge.
It must be said that Germany will not be able to take in all those who now would like to come to our country. Many of those who have come to our country, above all from South-East Europe and the Balkans, do not have a right to claim asylum and will need to leave Germany. We must focus our efforts on those people who are fleeing war, violence and destruction, and who have escaped only with their lives. Also in cooperation with our partners in the region, we must do everything we can to provide better assistance to refugees in the region. At the same time, we must cooperate more closely in Europe on asylum policy, and we need fairer burden-sharing.
Is there clear European solidarity when it comes to taking in this large number of refugees?
In recent weeks, we have managed to agree on a quota plan for the distribution of 160,000 refugees. And we have agreed that countries on the external borders of the EU, such as Greece and Italy, cannot bear sole responsibility for the people who are arriving. They will receive support with a view to securing borders and registering refugees. We must aim to create a common asylum policy, with binding humanitarian standards, for all of Europe. We aren't there yet. However, everyone in Europe has understood that we can meet this great challenge only through joint action. But solidarity must also extend beyond Europe. Middle Eastern countries, too, bear a great responsibility with regard to managing the flow of refugees.
The reunification of Germany 25 years ago brought with it the hope of a more peaceful and stable future. What would your comment on this be today?
For us Germans, this anniversary is an occasion to feel deeply grateful. Today, we live in a united Europe and are surrounded only by friends. We know we have security and prosperity thanks not only to our own efforts, but also due to cooperation with our partners in Europe and around the world.
Unfortunately, the last 25 years were not, as some hoped, the end of history. In many regions, especially in the Near and Middle East, the world appears to have come unhinged, indeed to have grown less safe. Last year, with the conflict in Ukraine, war and violence even returned to us in Europe.
For us Germans, this is a reminder that peace and security are not to be taken for granted, but rather require constant engagement and efforts on our part. Yet this anniversary also reminds us that even the most bitter conflicts, such as the Cold War that lasted forty years, can be resolved peacefully, and that walls can be torn down.