Ausgabe 50/2006

Spiegel Interview with Germany's Foreign Minister "Splitting Iraq Would Lead to Terrible Bloodshed"

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier discusses German policy on Iraq, the merits of dialogue with Syria and Iran and Turkey's stalled EU membership talks.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Washington during a versit with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Washington during a versit with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

SPIEGEL: You have just returned from a lengthy meeting with your colleague Condoleezza Rice. Do you have the impression that there will be a change of course in America's Iraq policy?

Steinmeier: I am impressed by how openly and profoundly American foreign policy makers are dealing with the recognition that Iraq has not been a success. Now there is a real chance to make important corrections. Nonetheless, it became clear during the discussions in Washington that there was a great deal of skepticism towards some of the most important recommendations of the Baker Commission, for example establishing dialogue with Syria and Iran.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean that your hopes were dampened during the discussions?

Steinmeier: This issue is still being intensively discussed in Washington. No decision has yet been made on future policy. President (George W.) Bush has announced that he will make a statement on United States commitments abroad -- primarily with regard to Iraq -- by the end of the year.

SPIEGEL: There are growing calls in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party for a stronger German engagement in Iraq. Have you offered additional assistance?

Steinmeier: We are staying with what was already decided by the previous (German) government. German soldiers will not be deployed in Iraq. But that doesn’t mean we are just sitting here twiddling our thumbs. We have participated in providing debt relief for the country, we have helped with reconstruction efforts and we have trained police officers. Unfortunately it has not been possible to create more stability in this beleaguered country. The security situation there prevents us from sending civilians to assist in the reconstruction. For that reason, I don’t at the moment see any possibility of how we can help more than we've been doing until now.

SPIEGEL: And politically? Are there any proposals from your side as to how the conflict could be resolved?

Steinmeier: For the time being, all efforts have to be focused on preventing Iraq from breaking apart. Diplomats like to talk about “territorial integrity,” which has to be preserved at all costs.

SPIEGEL: Why is that? Wouldn’t the easiest solution simply be to split up the country into separate Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite territories?

Steinmeier: No, that would be the most dangerous solution because the borders of the individual territories would be hugely disputed. Does the oil-rich Kirkuk region belong to the Kurds or the Sunnis? And both Sunnis and Shiites live in the greater Baghdad area. I am convinced that splitting up the country would lead to terrible bloodshed. Also, it has to be taken into account that neighboring countries would get involved. There have already been warnings about this from Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

SPIEGEL: The Baker Commission has proposed the withdrawal of US troops by the spring of 2008. Is this a good idea?

Steinmeier: In Washington I got the impression that the US administration is aware of the large risks that an overly hasty withdrawal would entail. In order to end the civil war, the warring religious and ethnic groups have to be brought into a process of national reconciliation.

SPIEGEL: What sort of role could Germany play in such a political process?

Steinmeier: I assured that we would provide political and diplomatic assistance, to the extent that is possible and desired. But for the time being we have to wait and see what sort of national consensus emerges in the US. Indeed, my last trip to the Middle East demonstrated that a stronger American engagement would be welcomed everywhere.

SPIEGEL: In September Condoleezza Rice described your planned visit to Damascus as a mistake. Is she still of that opinion?

Steinmeier: America’s reservations towards Syria are well known. And we are in agreement, in terms of what Ms. Rice and I expect from Damascus. Still, in my opinion, a refusal to engage in dialogue should not become the standard method for dealing with difficult partners. I intentionally traveled to Syria before Germany took over the European Union presidency because, on the one hand, I didn’t want to ask too much of the skeptical partners within the EU, but on the other hand I also wanted to be able to accommodate those who call for more dialogue with Syria. Our goal should be to formulate a coherent EU policy towards Syria.

SPIEGEL: Was the trip worthwhile?

Steinmeier: It was worth it to speak directly with the stakeholders in Syria and leave them with clear messages. Those who prefer to deal with these things by passing resolutions from a distance are taking the easy way out. We have to engage personally with those people whose behavior we are trying to influence.

SPIEGEL: Did you also receive any corresponding messages from Damascus?

Steinmeier: President (Bashar) Assad made it clear that Syria no longer wants to be part of the problem in the Middle East, but rather part of the solution. In return, I underlined that there is a need for concrete steps to be taken toward this goal. For example, Damascus must recognize Lebanon’s sovereignty and it must commit itself to not interfering there.

SPIEGEL: But Syria will hardly give any ground unless the US and Europe do too.

Steinmeier: That is why I traveled to Damascus. I wanted to personally make it clear to Assad that there is an alternative to Syria’s current policies. If they put their money where their mouths are and Syria makes an active contribution to peace and stability in the Middle East, then that would create new opportunities for the country. I know that there are people in Syria who reflect in a self-critical manner about their country’s dependence on Iran. We need to support those people.

SPIEGEL: Is the government in Tehran the next unjust regime that can look forward to a visit from you?

Steinmeier: Iran is really the last country that can accuse us of not paying enough attention to them. If any country has been the subject of initiatives aimed at promoting dialogue in the past year, then it's Iran.

  • Part 1: "Splitting Iraq Would Lead to Terrible Bloodshed"
  • Part 2

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