German Foreign Minister 'A Military Solution Won't Yield Lasting Peace in Syria'

In a SPIEGEL interview, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, 51, discusses the search for a political solution to the Syrian civil war, controversial German arms exports and how his family's experiences in World War II inform his positions today.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Westerwelle, what goes through your head when you see images of the massacres taking place in Syria almost daily?

Westerwelle: I feel sympathy for the people, most of all. If you have been to a refugee camp, as I have, what you see and read in the news takes on a very personal note.

SPIEGEL: Almost every German is likely to feel sympathy. But as foreign minister, you have the ability to act. Why is so little happening?

Westerwelle: A great deal is happening, but what we have done so far hasn't led to peace. Nevertheless, as foreign minister I cannot allow myself to be guided by emotions. A large-scale conflict in the entire region must be prevented.

SPIEGEL: What evidence is there that your strategy will be more successful in the future?

Westerwelle: The United States and Russia have announced an international conference on Syria. This opens up new prospects for a political solution. A military solution will not yield lasting peace and stability.

SPIEGEL: The West has unsuccessfully sought a political solution for the last two years. Meanwhile, 80,000 people have died. Is there something like a sin of omission in foreign policy ?

Westerwelle: There is no easy approach in Syria . Nevertheless, we must try to lay the groundwork for a political process that can bring about lasting stability and peace. Additionally, I have expressed my disappointment, both in direct conversations and publicly, over the behavior of Russia and China in the United Nations Security Council.

SPIEGEL: Others are less scrupulous when it comes to arms shipments. Russia and Iran are supplying Assad and his allies with military equipment, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar support the Islamist rebels. Why is the West abandoning the moderate opposition?

Westerwelle: We support the moderate opposition in various ways. We support it by promoting reconstruction in the areas it controls. We assist in the care of the most seriously injured, whom we have flown to Germany for treatment. Germany is one of the largest donor countries in terms of aid.

SPIEGEL: The opposition wants weapons.

Westerwelle: We have to answer two questions: Will fewer people die if more weapons are sent to Syria? And can it be ensured that these weapons do not end up in the hands of extremists, terrorists and jihadists, for whom Damascus is merely a staging post on the road to Jerusalem?

SPIEGEL: Those forces have already been armed.

Westerwelle: Let's assume a modern antiaircraft system falls into the hands of anti-Semitic jihadists or a terrorist group like the Al-Nusra brigades. What would that mean for civil aviation in the region, and for Israel's security? There are also no easy answers to the question of arms shipments.

SPIEGEL: France and Great Britain now have a different response to this question than Germany.

Westerwelle: I respect that, because I can understand the motives. If our friends stick to their position, the European Union arms embargo will expire this month. Then we will have to ensure that the program of sanctions against the regime continues to apply in other ways.

SPIEGEL: Could you imagine agreeing to arms deliveries if the situation continues to worsen? Do you have any red lines?

Westerwelle: I don't draw red lines , nor do I say that all options are on the table. But the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction, no matter from which side, would lead to a completely different international approach.

SPIEGEL: So the German government sees no indication of the use of chemical weapons? Other countries say there is, and that they have evidence.

Westerwelle: Until the hour of this interview, we have had no information of our own on the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction. I have asked our allies who say that they do have proof to present all existing facts and information to the United Nations, as well as to us.

SPIEGEL: When you were in the opposition, you voted against German participation in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) mission off the Lebanese coast. You were opposed to deploying the German military in the war against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Under what conditions would you support the foreign deployment of German soldiers at all?

Westerwelle: The UNIFIL mission was completely different from the combat mission in Libya. And the situation in Syria also differs completely from the situation in Libya. In other words, while principles are necessary, decisions are always made on a case-by-case basis.

SPIEGEL: What are your principles?

Westerwelle: The most important principle is the culture of military restraint. This means that we prefer political and diplomatic solutions. It doesn't mean that we don't know that political solutions sometimes have to be supported or accompanied by military action. Besides, in pursuing a preventive security policy we also emphasize disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation. Even though this was derided as an ideological pet issue at the beginning of my term in office, it is indeed critical, as we all know today.

SPIEGEL: In other words, the previous coalition government of the Social Democratic Party and Green Party was too quick to participate in military operations, such as in Kosovo and Afghanistan?

Westerwelle: I too agreed to both missions. But we have to learn from what has happened in the last decade. An effort to bring about a political solution should probably have occurred well before the Afghanistan mission began. And we must enter into such missions with realistic expectations. For a time, some sought to create the impression that the goal was to turn Afghanistan into a sort of Switzerland of Central Asia. That was unrealistic.

SPIEGEL: So will we also intervene in the future when we know that we cannot achieve stability and democracy?

Westerwelle: Military missions are not democratic development aid. Their goal is to ward off threats -- to our security or to certain ethnic or religious groups in a country. And, of course, we also use the military to look after our own interests. Claiming anything to the contrary would be naïve.

SPIEGEL: You once implied that there are biographical reasons for your affirmation of a culture of military restraint.

Westerwelle: I was born in 1961. The presence of the war was still felt in our house, and we talked about it. My father didn't have to fight, but he did dig graves. My uncle, who was a few years older, experienced life on the front. We sometimes looked at family pictures from the war, and I remember that my uncle, who was a strong man, had tears in his eyes when we did. I thought about it a great deal at the time.

SPIEGEL: Did those experiences leave a lasting impression on you?

Westerwelle: I never forgot them. The fact that someone didn't experience the war itself doesn't mean that he doesn't perceive its consequences.

SPIEGEL: How does that affect your approach to policy?

Westerwelle: Military missions cannot be a normal tool of politics, but instead must remain the great exception. As a minister, I would rather be criticized for thoroughly weighing the options, and sometimes even voicing my doubts, than to be reproached for recklessly sending German soldiers into combat.

SPIEGEL: Especially abroad, Germany is often criticized for hiding behind its past, and also admonished to finally show military leadership.

Westerwelle: I sometimes read that it's time for German democracy to finally grow up. I don't see it as a sign of maturity if we treat military missions as something normal. This doesn't mean that I'm naïve. I was never a member of the peace movement or a pacifist, nor was I ever carried away from a demonstration outside a military barracks. Perhaps that's why I don't feel the need to compensate for anything today.

SPIEGEL: But we also learned another lesson from the war, namely that Germany was liberated from a dictatorship because others fought for it and lost their lives.

Westerwelle: Exactly. There are two sides to the notion of "never again," which is why one can always merely describe rules and principles, but must then make decisions in concrete situations.

SPIEGEL: Foreign military campaigns are unpopular with the German people. Isn't the culture of military restraint also a form of populism?

Westerwelle: It is if you want to see it that way. But I think it's an unfounded accusation, given my consistent position throughout my 30 years in politics. I'm completely opposed to the idea of becoming accustomed to foreign military campaigns.

SPIEGEL: Chancellor Angela Merkel also wants to avoid foreign missions by ensuring that Germany enables its strategic partners in crisis zones to provide for security. In other words, she wants to supply them with weapons. Do you think this is the right strategy?

Westerwelle: This alleged Merkel doctrine doesn't exist.

SPIEGEL: The chancellor put it that way herself.

Westerwelle: We pursue a restrictive arms export policy, and we emphasize disarmament. For instance, in 2011 arms exports made up the smallest percentage of total exports in 10 years.

SPIEGEL: Thanks to your restrictive export policy, Germany is the world's third-largest arms exporter.

Westerwelle: You know that these numbers and rankings are controversial. And you also have to take a close look at what is actually being delivered. A substantial portion of exports to Saudi Arabia, for example, consists of equipment for a border control system. We are helping an important partner in the region protect itself against the infiltration of terrorists from Yemen.

SPIEGEL: Saudi Arabia supports fundamentalist movements around the world, and yet it has received German tanks. Qatar has already bought 62 Leopard tanks and 24 tank howitzers. Are these countries so democratic that we should be selling them weapons?

Westerwelle: We don't just supply arms to democratic members of NATO. We also have to account for the security issues of other partners and allies, as well as those of the entire region. Once again, every case is different and is decided upon separately and responsibly.

SPIEGEL: Shouldn't it be possible to conduct a public debate on the issue? The Federal Security Council holds its meetings behind closed doors.

Westerwelle: And it needs to remain that way, because very sensitive security matters are discussed in those meetings. But you're right. The situation is unsatisfactory. Things do leak out occasionally, such as information about the companies involved. Then the public and the parliament want more information, but we are unable to state our opinions openly, because we are sworn to secrecy.

SPIEGEL: And how do you propose to solve the dilemma?

Westerwelle: We have to become more transparent. This means that reports on arms exports should be released more quickly in the future, once the respective decisions have been made.

SPIEGEL: How quickly?

Westerwelle: We'll have to discuss that with the parliament.

SPIEGEL: And then the parliament would always be presented with a fait accompli.

Westerwelle: We should establish a parliamentary committee in which the members of the various parties and the government can discuss everything. Because of the highly sensitive nature of security issues, this committee would also meet behind closed doors, much like the parliamentary control committee for the intelligence services does. We need to evolve. That's the lesson I have learned in this respect during my four years as foreign minister.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Westerwelle, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Christiane Hoffmann and Ralf Neukirch. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.