“An unprecedented chance”

10.03.2016 - Interview

Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, published in the Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung (10 March 2016). Topics: Syria and the EU-Turkey summit.

Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, published in the Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung (10 March 2016). Topics: Syria and the EU-Turkey summit.


The days ahead will see a new round of peace talks on Syria. Is this a time for optimism or pessimism in your view, Mr Steinmeier?

After five years of war, after hundreds of thousands have died and millions have become refugees, there’s no place for optimism. Nonetheless, the ceasefire has held in large part for more than ten days, and this does perhaps bring an unprecedented chance to now make progress as well on a political settlement for Syria, and to bring this violent civil war to an end. All parties must realise by now that this conflict cannot be won militarily, not by anyone.

What substantive steps are needed next?

The ceasefire will only hold in the long term if we also move forward on a political settlement to the conflict. It’s an ambitious path we have set out: the formation of a transitional government, constitutional reform and elections, and all within 18 months. It’s obvious that after so many years of terrorism, violence and profound distrust, we’re not going to get an agreement overnight. That is why it is important for concrete steps to be taken in parallel, steps that can restore trust, such as releasing prisoners and further improving humanitarian access – it is above all medical care that still can’t get through in numerous places.

What political contribution do you expect from the Arab states?

Experience has shown that progress is only made in Syria when everybody, the US, Russia and especially Syria’s neighbours are on board and work in concert to maintain the pressure on the parties to the conflict. Saudi Arabia is playing a positive role in uniting the opposition and keeping it together. That is a good thing, that is important. Now it is vital for all sides to resist the temptation to try to win momentary advantages by unilaterally resorting to the use of arms.

Do we need a Marshall Plan for the Middle East? What will the EU and the US have to do here?

It definitely has to be ensured that food rations are never cut again and people go hungry because the aid organisations run out of money before the year is out. At least we can say that the international community has now woken up. Germany has assumed a leading role, be it at the pledging conference in New York last year, or at the London Conference where more than €10 billion were earmarked to help care for the refugees in the region. Germany pledged the largest sum – €2.3 billion.

Assad’s position has been strengthened in the past weeks. Might it after all not be possible to achieve anything in Syria without him?

After all the hatred, the killing and the destruction, after hundreds of thousands of people have died, Assad is certainly not in a position to reunite Syria. I think that even the states which support his regime are aware of this. How many days or weeks could Assad remain in power without support from outside? If the regime and the opposition truly arrive at an understanding, and the regional and international players reach a consensus regarding the country’s political future, the question of Assad would no longer be insoluble.

Erdogan has proposed building refugee towns for returnees in northern Syria. What do you think of the idea? Is it an attempt by Turkey to extend its sphere of influence beyond its border with Syria?

Turkey has taken in more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees, an enormous humanitarian feat. If the ceasefire in Syria can be consolidated and the necessary security can be restored at least in parts of the country so that reconstruction can begin and refugees can return, that would be a tremendous relief, and not just for Turkey. It would also be what a majority of the refugees themselves long for. Nobody wants to leave their own country voluntarily.

Merkel considers the EU-Turkey summit to have been a breakthrough. Isn’t that very optimistic in light of the meagre results?

Many partners in Europe, as well as various obstructionists in Germany have in the past months claimed that a European solution is illusory, that it won’t work. The outcome of yesterday’s summit showed that a European solution is indeed feasible. We are reducing illegal migration, we are helping Greece instead of marginalising it, and we are moving forward on the development of a European asylum system, as the SPD has called for since last summer.

It is becoming ever more obvious that Turkey can dictate conditions to the EU, that Turkey holds the upper hand. Is it strategically wise to make ourselves dependent on Erdogan’s benevolence?

If I as a diplomat were to work only with partners with whom we have zero differences, I would indeed have more time to nurture our excellent relations with Luxembourg. But the world is more complicated than we would wish, and sadly not such a nice place. It’s a fact that if we want to block the dangerous migration routes to Europe, we have to work with Turkey. This does not however mean that we close our eyes and hope for the best. We make no bones about shortcomings in the field of freedom of the press and human rights. We have always conducted a frank and open dialogue with Turkey.

But Erdogan seems to have trouble with Western standards, especially in those areas. Why should the EU offer to enter into yet more accession negotiations?

We have to talk openly with Turkey about the meaning of fundamental freedoms, just as we always have done. Opening new negotiation chapters gives us a chance to address questions of the rule of law and the judiciary more intensively with Turkey.

This interview was conducted by Alexander R. Wenisch

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