Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in an interview on the Syria peace talks and on cooperation with Turkey in the refugee crisis published on 10 February 2016 in the Märkische Allgemeine and elsewhere.
The Syria peace talks keep collapsing, most recently in Geneva. What do you expect a continuation of the talks to achieve?
A rapid breakthrough at the start of the Geneva peace talks was not to be expected. I can well understand that it is difficult for the opposition delegation to sit at the negotiating table in Geneva while their people back home in Aleppo are dying in massive bomb attacks. So there will only be progress in Geneva when the international and regional powers together maintain the pressure to now implement the principles everyone committed to in Vienna and in the Security Council. Everyone, also Russia, should know that air attacks can perhaps temporarily shift the military balance but you can’t bomb your way to a solution for Syria. The fact of the matter is that if one side engages in military escalation, this does not go unanswered. It is the millions of Syrians who are yearning for a solution who bear the brunt.
How do you want to convince Putin not to fight for Assad but against IS?
My impression is that Russia itself does indeed have an interest in countering the threat posed by IS terrorism – and not just since the murderous terrorist attack against the Russian plane bringing holidaymakers back from Egypt. At the Syria talks in Munich, we need to try to convert this shared interest into shared action. The NATO-Russia Council can play an important role here when it comes to developing joint proposals on avoiding risk and future confrontation. That is why I campaigned at the last NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in December to revive the NATO-Russia Council. At the start of the year, NATO made an offer to Russia to hold a Council at ambassador level. I hope this offer will be taken up as soon as possible. We are certainly ready and willing!
Who could replace Assad without there being a power vacuum?
It is true that we must not repeat the mistakes of the past and kid ourselves that removing a dictator is the end of the story. That is why all international and regional players, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, agreed in Vienna to the principle that Syria’s state structures need to be maintained or where necessary re-established. No-one wants a power vacuum in the region. After all, that would be the perfect breeding ground for the IS recruitment machinery. But we should take care not to confuse this question with that of Assad. After 300,000 deaths and almost 12 million refugees, I can’t imagine that Assad could be regarded as the right man to hold Syria together.
Cooperation with Turkey in the refugee crisis has barely worked thus far. How do you want to change this?
Our policy is clear and very concrete. In the EU, we agreed on an action plan with Turkey. It combines Turkish steps to secure the border and better integrate refugees in Turkey with European support for these very projects. We are in close contact – last weekend the EU foreign ministers with their Turkish counterpart, yesterday Chancellor Merkel’s visit to Ankara and the concrete proposals that emerged for example on bilateral police cooperation in tackling traffickers and on Turkey’s more intensive cooperation with Frontex and Greece. It is obvious that complex steps to secure borders or repatriate people are not going to work overnight.
Merkel suggested Turkey could get NATO support for securing borders. Is the refugee crisis going to end up as a state of defence?
NATO cannot play a role in steering refugee migration. What we are talking about is making available situation assessments so we can combat human trafficking more effectively.
This interview was conducted by Ulrike Demmer and reproduced by kind permission of the Märkische Allgemeine.