Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Turkey’s role in the war in Syria and Germany’s relations with Ankara and Moscow. Published in the “Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung” and elsewhere on 5 September 2016.
When you see the images from the civil war in Syria, are there times when you despair?
I am every bit as moved by these images as anyone else is. And after lengthy negotiations, I too ask myself if we really have done everything we can. Is there a faster and easier way to finally put an end to the dying in Syria? But even if the small steps we have achieved in talks on ceasefires and humanitarian access leave a lot to be desired, peace cannot be reached in Syria by military means. That is why we must continue to stand up again and again for a political settlement to the Syria conflict and to work on ways and proposals to accomplish this. I hope it will now be possible to resolve the final outstanding questions on the path to a ceasefire in Aleppo that will last several days and allow us to provide people with essential supplies.
Turkey is intervening militarily in the Syria conflict again. It is taking action against IS terrorists, but primarily against the Kurds. Does the West have to put up with this?
Turkey’s intervention is making what is already a complex military and political situation in Syria even more difficult. But one must also acknowledge that Turkey has repeatedly been attacked from Syria, mainly by the IS terrorist militia. People in south-east Turkey live in constant fear of new attacks. It is thus understandable and right that Turkey takes action against this. With regard to the conflict with the Syrian Kurds, the Kurdish militia have agreed – also following mediation by the US – to withdraw from the areas to the west of the Euphrates. This means that the West is not simply putting up with the situation. We have told Turkey that the Counter-ISIL Coalition, to which it also belongs, needs to focus on weakening and combating the IS terrorist groups. And we have told the Kurds that they cannot provoke the emergence of further battlefields in the chaos in Syria.
Turkey is playing a dubious role in Syria, supporting terrorists groups in the Middle East, and brutally cracking down against actual and alleged opponents of President Erdoğan. Do you regard Ankara as a reliable partner in NATO?
There is no doubt that German-Turkish relations have seen more relaxed days in the past. It is all the more important to now end the phase of taking about each other and to start talking more with each other again openly and honestly. Turkey is and will remain a not always easy, but an important partner, particularly during these times of disorder in the entire region. Turkey holds the key to many pressing issues, such as the refugee crisis, the fight against IS terrorists, the conflict in Iraq, and in particular the conflict in Syria, to name just a few.
Is it a good idea to leave more than 200 Bundeswehr soldiers stationed at the NATO base in İncirlik in southern Turkey?
We are not alone there. Other partners from the Counter-ISIL Coalition, such as the US, are also present. İncirlik is the right base for German reconnaissance aircraft, both for logistical and political reasons. Naturally, this is only possible if Members of the German Bundestag can visit the soldiers and inspect Germany’s deployment in İncirlik.
The German Government has indirectly distanced itself from the German Bundestag’s resolution on Armenia, in which the Ottoman Empire’s actions against the Armenians more than 100 years ago are classified as genocide. Is this a fair price to pay for German parliamentarians to be allowed to visit soldiers in İncirlik again?
Where do you get such absurd ideas from? I am a member of the same German Bundestag that adopted this resolution, and I stated publicly once again this week that I stand by its contents. The Government Spokesperson stated this on behalf of the entire German Government. I am aware that many people would now prefer to distance themselves as far as possible from Turkey because of the current conflicts with and about the country. But that can’t be my role. I need to speak with Turkey – and I need to speak openly, to express criticism if necessary, and not only in front of the cameras and microphone. Although the public debate is focused on the ban on visits by Members of the German Bundestag to İncirlik, far, far more is at stake. Whether everyone in Germany likes it or not, Turkey remains the key country for the Middle East not just because of a military airport we use there, the 2.5 million refugees from the region who Turkey has taken in or the three million people of Turkish origin living in Germany, but also because the two major conflicts in Iraq and Syria are taking place close to Turkey and because Turkey is also a partner country in NATO.
Do you have the impression that Russia is interested in a solution to the conflict in Syria?
It cannot be in Russia’s interest either for the fighting to continue forever in Syria. In Moscow – like everywhere else – people know that the conflict in Syria cannot be resolved by military means. I have spoken several times with John Kerry, Sergey Lavrov and UN Special Envoy de Mistura over the past days. It seems possible that Russia and the US will soon agree on a ceasefire, that is, a ceasefire for the entire country and not just for Aleppo, where it is particularly urgently needed. The US has made its offer. Russia now has a chance to show that it is actually interested in the fighting in Syria coming to an end. But the whole story is that a ceasefire in Syria does not depend on Moscow alone, but also on other players, both in Syria itself and elsewhere, who want to continue fighting.
Moscow wants to keep Syrian dictator Assad in power. Do we have to resign ourselves to that?
Definitely not! But my advice is to take a somewhat closer look. It is true that Russia is pursuing its interests in Syria very actively. And there is no doubt that Moscow is working closely with the regime. It is equally apparent that Moscow’s intervention in Syria has stabilised and reinforced Assad’s regime. However, it is less clear whether this cooperation will remain focused on Assad in the long term. None of this changes our position or that of our partners, namely that we cannot imagine peace in Syria while Assad is in charge.
You repeatedly create the impression that you are too tolerant of Moscow. Are you a Putin sympathiser, Mr Steinmeier?
You overestimate me! On a more serious note, however, this sort of simplification in the media poses a danger – a danger that we will forget and devalue our own history. To this day, I see the historic value of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik in the fact that he – even in the coldest days of the Cold War – warned people not to ignore reality or geography. This was of benefit to Germany, and it fostered détente during the periods of the toughest confrontation between the blocs. And Brandt was in no way naive about the communist Soviet Union. His actions were informed by the knowledge that Germany is firmly anchored in the western alliance.
Times have changed.
That’s true. Russia is not the Soviet Union and the world is no longer divided into two blocs. But the task remains the same – in awareness of the differences and conflicts, not to allow the rifts to become even deeper and to work on ways to improve relations between Russia and the West. My ideas about a new start in arms control also go in that direction. We will certainly not create greater security in Europe by engaging in an arms race, but rather only if we succeed in including Russia in new agreements reliably and on a long-term basis. This proposal has met with great support from our OSCE partners and even from the NATO Secretary General. We don’t know if it will work. But it would be irresponsible not to try.
Interview conducted by Michael Backfisch and Jochen Gaugele