“There is certainly no shortage of ground troops in Syria”

19.12.2015 - Interview

Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Germany’s role in the fight against the IS terrorist group, EU accession negotiations with Turkey, the refugee crisis and German-Polish relations. Published in edition 52/2015 of DER SPIEGEL on 19 December 2015.

Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Germany’s role in the fight against the IS terrorist group, EU accession negotiations with Turkey, the refugee crisis and German-Polish relations. Published in edition 52/2015 of DER SPIEGEL on 19 December 2015.



[SPD Chairman] Sigmar Gabriel wants to put the deployment of ground troops in Syria to a vote by party members. Was this idea agreed with you?

There is no military solution for Syria. But even those who support a political solution have to answer the question of whether there will be anything left in Syria that a political settlement can bring peace to. That is why the priority is now that we continue the Vienna process and focus all our energy on a political solution in Syria. And to reiterate, I am in complete agreement with Sigmar Gabriel that no German ground troops will fight against IS on Syrian territory.

The question was whether the idea of consulting the party was agreed with you.

Of course we talked about it. And like him, I know that SPD members regard the deployment of ground troops as a crucial change, which is why they don’t want their views to be ignored. But once again, neither is this type of deployment on the cards, nor have we been asked for it. We still intend to do everything we can to reach a political solution for Syria.

When the French were preparing air strikes against IS at the beginning of September, you warned about partner countries “placing their hopes on military action”. Following the attacks in Paris, the Bundeswehr is now also deploying aircraft and soldiers in the fight against IS. How do you explain this change in position?

The story is actually somewhat different. We have also been involved militarily in the fight against IS since the summer of 2014. At that time, we decided – not without argument and not without risk – to support the Peshmerga in northern Iraq with training and equipment. This support is important – and it is successful. Last year, and also thanks to our help, the Peshmerga were able to stop IS’ advance, and have now also recaptured territory and liberated the IS-occupied city of Sinjar. I have just returned from Baghdad and Erbil, where I was able to see things for myself. A quarter of the territory held by IS a year ago has now been recaptured. And in the case of Syria, my main concern was that each country would not fight its own war against IS, but rather that we stop the terrorists’ rampaging and killing through coordinated action.

All the experts say that the war cannot be won from the air and that IS can only be defeated by ground troops. Who should fight against IS on the ground?

There is certainly no shortage of ground troops in Syria. The first step would be if we could persuade all these different groups not to wear themselves out in trench warfare against one another, but rather to focus their energy on the opponent that threatens both the regime and the opposition, namely IS and similar groups. This is another reason why we are trying to reach a ceasefire between the regime’s security forces and the armed elements of the opposition via the Vienna process, currently in New York.

The Saudi Arabians have now announced an anti-terrorist coalition that is supposed to only comprise Sunni forces. Is this helpful?

In forming this alliance, Saudi Arabia is meeting demands by the international community that it do more in the fight against terrorism. It must be clear to everyone that Islamist terrorism cannot be defeated without the help of the Islamic world. It remains to be seen what structure and capacities this new alliance will have. The wider the spectrum of Islamic movements that belong to the alliance, the greater the chance of destroying the recruiting machines of ISIS and other terrorist organisations.

So far, the Kurds have been the most successful in the fight against IS. What if they ultimately insist on an independent Kurdish state?

The whole region needs many things – but one thing it doesn’t need are new borders. Kurdish President Masoud Barzani assured me a few days ago that the Kurds have not abandoned their aspiration for independence, but will only pursue this goal peacefully and through dialogue.

The Germans are working with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Turkey on a solution for Syria. Do we need to put aside values such as human rights and democracy in order to limit the flow of refugees?

We must not call our values into question, let alone abandon them. But we cannot avoid everyone who does not share our notions of democracy and human rights. If we had refused to talk to others every time things got complicated, Iran would be a nuclear power today and we would have an outright war in Ukraine.

It is one thing to talk about human rights, but another to boost an autocrat like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with billions of euros.

It is precisely because human rights must not be allowed to fade into the background that I am in favour of opening the relevant chapters in the EU accession negotiations with Turkey. This would provide the very discussion on these difficult issues that so many people are rightly calling for.

Was it a mistake not to have conducted the accession negotiations seriously?

Europe unfortunately did not agree on the Turkish question. Some Member States oppose Turkey joining the EU on principle – and contrary to applicable decisions.

The CDU and CSU also oppose Turkey’s accession to the EU.

That had not escaped my notice.

Do you think Turkey belongs in the EU?

I am not sure if Turkey itself knows the answer to this question at the moment. However, we do not have to make a decision on this today. The negotiations will show us if Ankara can and wants to meet the criteria. Accession negotiations are conducted as an open-ended process, but with the aim of membership. That goes for all countries.

2015 was not only a year of foreign-policy crises – the EU was also faced with what might prove to be its worst-ever crisis as a result of the refugee issue. Your fellow Social Democrat, European Parliament President Martin Schulz, has warned about a collapse of the EU in dramatic terms. Do you share this concern?

The refugee crisis has relentlessly exposed the cracks in Europe – and at a time when the fallout from the financial crisis is still a long way from being resolved. At the same time, nationalist, populist and eurosceptic parties are growing. This is why it is not easy to trust the old European principle by which Europe has always emerged stronger from a crisis. That said, allowing ourselves to be paralysed by fear is not a solution. The important thing is to highlight the benefits of Europe via concrete policies.

Would you have expected that European solidarity, which has been invoked for decades, would prove to be so fragile within a few weeks?

The number of people arriving in Europe is of a historic dimension, so I was never under the illusion that we could simply wave a magic wand and resolve everything instantly. There is no other way: we need a European solution that has the backing of all 28 Member States. Some of our neighbours are making things too easy for themselves when they point the finger at Germany and say that 1.5 million refugees from Syria and Iraq are heading to Europe simply because of the “German culture of welcome”. On the contrary, the vast majority did not leave their homes and families voluntarily – they were forced to flee because of violence, barbarity, war and death. It is our moral duty and our European responsibility to give refuge to these people in acute need. That must be our goal. We will be judged by our European values.

How should Germany react to the new right-wing populist government in Poland?

We would be well advised to talk with our Polish partners. especially now, rather than about them.

When you met your new Polish counterpart Witold Waszczykowski in Berlin recently, you praised German-Polish relations, which you described as “better than ever”. Can a right-wing populist government be appeased by advance praise?

If you had quoted me in full, then your readers would know my next sentence was as follows: “The good relations between Germany and Poland are an asset that we must look after carefully.” This is not advance praise, but rather the wish not to jeopardise the trust-based relationship we have built up in the 25 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain. This is why it is so important to me to be able to preserve an atmosphere in talks with my counterpart that allows us to tell each other what we are concerned about or what we don’t like.

The new Polish Government is refusing to meet its obligation to take in refugees. What should the EU do in order to implement the applicable law?

Some of our neighbours, not only in Poland, have argued that our first response to the refugee crisis should be to improve the protection of the EU’s external borders. The European Commission presented good and ambitious proposals on this matter this week. But it is now also the responsibility of all partners, including those who have been reluctant to share the burden, to work on this without delay.

What should be done if a government does not stick to what was agreed?

Europe is a community of law. Once given, a member’s word counts for something. If there is no other way, things will be resolved through the appropriate legal channels. This isn’t pleasant, but it would be necessary. Slovakia wants it to be this way. However, those who refuse must know what is also at stake for them, namely open borders in Europe. European solidarity is not just a one-way street.

Mr Steinmeier, thank you for the interview.

Interview conducted by Christiane Hoffmann and Christoph Schult. Reproduced by kind permission of DER SPIEGEL. http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/

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