Idlib: “The attacks must stop”

13.02.2020 - Interview

Interview with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” ahead of the Munich Security Conference at the weekend.

Foreign Minister, have you already put out some feelers? Is anyone able to stand in for Germany’s EU Presidency in the second half of the year?

No, that won’t be necessary. But so far I haven’t met anyone outside Germany who was happy about the developments here in the past few days. On the contrary, people are expecting a lot of us – Libya, the next Normandy summit, and of course our EU Presidency, which will involve issues such as the EU budget for the coming years and Brexit. We play a leading role in many areas. The message to us is clear. And that message is: “We need you, especially now.”


This legislative period is marked by enormous domestic political problems – the difficulties forming a coalition, the conflicts on migration and social policy, the change of leadership in the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and now in the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU). At the same time, there is huge pressure from outside Germany to act. Is the Government still able to live up to this pressure?

I meet people all over the world who are experiencing processes of change in their own countries. When it comes to our problems, they can only muster up a tired smile. We shouldn’t act as if the world is coming to an end in Germany. Mistakes have certainly been made in this legislative period, but we have also made significant progress. We have got a great deal off the ground. And it’s not just us who says so. It has also been confirmed by studies, such as those by the independent Bertelsmann Stiftung.

All over the world, orders are dissolving, the most important partners in NATO are becoming unpredictable, the EU is under pressure, Russia is behaving aggressively, and rivalry between China and the US is increasing. Can Germany’s foreign-policy tools still cope with all this?

Our methods are the only sound ones for dealing with these crises. Disruptive politicians may prove popular with the public in the short term. Their approach is seen as interesting and exciting. But our foreign policy needs to offer an alternative to the disruptive reality.

In the medium and long term, sustainability, rules, international organisations and multilateralism are the only way to meet the challenges we face – digital transformation, climate change and migration. An approach like Trump’s is not suited to getting a grip on the major global issues and crises.

Turning to Libya, the impact of the Berlin Conference seems to have fizzled out. Has the delivery of even a single weapon been prevented?

No one was naive enough to claim that the parties to the civil war would turn into fervent pacifists on the Monday after the conference, following years of fighting. We always said that this is a process which is only just starting. The military sides, for example, have now held direct talks for the first time. We’re trying to get a UN Security Council resolution adopted. On Sunday, we’ll have the first meeting with all Foreign Ministers involved in the Berlin Process. All this is progress on a very long path.

Hasn’t the time come to name the countries violating the arms embargo?

Our aim is that the Security Council and the Libya Sanctions Committee will name the countries violating the embargo. Along with the United Nations, we want to safeguard the results of the Berlin Conference on Libya. This includes adherence to the arms embargo. Those who breach it must be in no doubt that they will face consequences.

Even in the EU itself there’s no consensus on Operation Sophia, which could monitor an arms embargo.

Unfortunately, some countries have a problem with the idea of ships monitoring the embargo. However, a new mission could also start with air observation. That would enable us to set up an operation step by step to monitor all access to Libya by sea, air and land. No one should be able to deliver arms to Libya undetected.

Don’t most arms arrive by cargo aircraft?

Prime Minister al-Serraj is mainly supplied by sea, General Haftar by land and air. We need to control all routes in equal measure.


Images can be taken from the air.

Monitoring won’t achieve anything on its own. Might sanctions be imposed?

We can imagine a whole range of instruments. We’re liaising closely with our European partners on this topic.

When you see the images from Idlib in Syria, what does it feel like to be powerless as German Foreign Minister?

I mainly feel angry and frustrated. The attacks must stop. The situation in Idlib is escalating dramatically once again and is becoming akin to a humanitarian disaster.

Have you made clear to your Russian counterpart that these are war crimes which are also being perpetrated by Russia?

Naturally, we spell out our expectations very clearly to Russia. And still it is unbearable how the war is continuing to rage at the expense of the civilian population. That is also why we are providing a further seven million euros for a UN programme for cross-border humanitarian assistance.

Is Turkey’s presence in Idlib playing a part in escalation?

Turkey and Russia had an agreement on de-escalation in Idlib. Unfortunately, what we are currently witnessing is more the opposite. Assad is cruelly condoning the deaths of defenceless people. Russia must exert its influence on the regime. There will be no winners in a conflict between Turkey and Russia fought on the backs of the people in Syria. That’s why we need a political solution that includes making Turkish involvement in Syria a thing of the past.

Are you afraid there’ll be a new wave of refugees?

We are doing our utmost to foster de-escalation and to help people on the ground. Refugees would first arrive in Turkey, where three million refugees already live. That would make the refugees’ humanitarian situation there even worse. We must urgently try to prevent such escalation.

The Iraqi Parliament has called for the withdrawal of foreign troops. Can the Bundeswehr continue providing training in Iraq despite this?

We all share an interest in preserving what we have painstakingly achieved in recent years in the fight against IS. It is equally evident that we will only continue our engagement in Iraq with the consent of the Iraqi Government.

Can the Bundeswehr stay in Iraq even if there are far fewer US soldiers there?

That will depend on which parts of the US troops are withdrawn. So far, the US has been saying that it’s not willing to withdraw its troops. However, I think it is very likely that the mission will change in some ways.

There’s not much appetite in your parliamentary group for continuing the mission, is there?

Well, let’s not forget that the mission was extended again with the SPD’s agreement, although the previous mandate was supposed to have been the last one. That deserves recognition. The mandate for the Tornado reconnaissance flights is in place until 31 March. We’re discussing whether the Italian armed forces may take over from us then. The training mandate will last until October.

Will the Tornados be withdrawn even if the Italians don’t jump in?

That is a decision for the German Bundestag to make. But at the moment I can’t imagine a further extension after the two final extensions.

There’s talk about continuing the air-to-air refuelling from Jordan. Does the SPD agree with this?

We shouldn’t rule out this kind of idea if Italy’s armed forces don’t have air-to-air refuelling capabilities and the country’s takeover of the mandate depends on that.

Robert Habeck, the leader of The Greens, recently described Donald Trump as an opponent. Is he?

I see transatlantic relations more broadly. Naturally, we have noted that the US President has already described Russia, China and the EU as opponents. However, we shouldn’t restrict our view across the Atlantic to Donald Trump alone. A strategic connection cannot be made dependent on who’s in charge in the White House. Our security, economic and foreign-policy interests involve a much longer time frame. We have an interest in the United States, which shares our democratic values, remaining our partner.

Nevertheless, interests are becoming diametrically opposed in many areas.

We didn’t always agree with the United States in the past either. This has now intensified under Trump. We need to form a joint European counterweight on certain issues and to pursue our interests. In the case of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, for example, we have not allowed ourselves to be dissuaded from doing what we think is right from an economic point of view. We have made it clear that decisions on European energy policy are made in Europe.

In view of the new great power rivalry between the US, China and Russia, can Germany find a path of its own?

Yes. It must be a European path.

In a Europe that’s so divided?

Despite all the difficulties, I believe that what former Belgian Prime Minister Paul-Henri Spaak once said still holds true. He said: “There are only two types of state in Europe: small states, and small states that have not yet realised they are small.” When it comes to great power rivalry, I agree with President Macron. If we don’t pursue joint foreign and economic policies, we will become a plaything of global interests and no longer be able to decide on our future.

Macron goes a step further and demands that Europe be able to defend itself. Do you agree with that?

Yes, Europe must be able to defend itself in the future. Our joint efforts in NATO remain important in this regard.

Macron appears to be talking more about defence without NATO and the US if need be.

Well, there are in fact European military initiatives at the moment. Both the EU and France are active with missions in the Sahel zone. However, we also need to constantly consider preventive and civil components in order to resolve these conflicts. When it comes to responsibility, the public focus is far too often solely on the military side.

Is that really only the public focus? Your French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian has also called for greater German military engagement in the Sahel.

We are discussing that. The mandate for Mali will need to be extended and amended. The question here will be whether it will only cover Mali or if countries such as the Niger and Burkina Faso will be added to it. Germany has currently deployed around 3500 soldiers to ten international missions. I won’t let it be said that we’re staying out of everything military.

Can you live with Macron’s term “strategic autonomy”?

Yes, but this term doesn’t only refer to military aspects either. For example, we need digital sovereignty just as urgently, too. There are currently two poles in the digital world. One of them is American. This is the profit-maximising model we see in companies like Facebook. The other is the Chinese model, which also has a repressive side. I’m not happy with either model. In a world where digital technology will have ever more power over us, we need more autonomous control in Europe over our digital resources, from routers to the cloud. This will also be a topic for our EU Presidency.

Then why doesn’t the German Government decide in favour of European suppliers for the expansion of the 5G network?

Let’s wait and see what the Government decides.

Huawei will be excluded?

No one can exclude specific suppliers. It’s not even that simple from a legal perspective. But security aspects must play a far greater role when licences are granted than they did in the case of 4G or 3G. All future smart technology in the world, from cars to essential infrastructure, will use 5G. Companies involved in this must meet tight security standards. Otherwise, the risk is too high.

Germany will host the EU-China summit in Leipzig in September. What is China? A partner, a competitor or an opponent?

China is a partner and a competitor.

Not an opponent?

The aim of foreign policy must always be to have as few opponents as possible. China is our most important trading partner. It has a permanent seat with veto power on the UN Security Council. We need China in order to solve international conflicts. But we must also voice what we do not find acceptable. We did that in the past as regards the treatment of the Uyghurs and on Hong Kong. It will be crucial that we present a united European front to China.

China lost a lot of time in the fight against the coronavirus. Do the Chinese need to recognise that their authoritarian system is not in fact superior?

Authoritarian systems are inherently not superior to democratic ones.

Interview: Daniel Brössler Stefan Kornelius


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