The European: After the chemical attack in Syria the world looks to Washington, London and Paris. What is your appraisal of the situation?
Asselborn: There is no doubt about the usage of chemical weapons in Syria. The first results of the ongoing UN inspections confirmed this. Regarding the legality of an eventual military strike, I feel a great unease – and I am not the only one in that respect – about the willingness to intervene without a mandate from the UN Security Council.
The European: If agreement can’t be reached within the Security Council, a “coalition of the willing” will be set up to plan military action against Assad.
Asselborn: If agreement becomes impossible, then we should consider such options. We can’t play waiting games or fall back into apathy. If all diplomatic channels break down, the countries that want to keep up international responsibility must take action themselves. I don’t like the term “coalition of the willing” – it has a negative connotation because of the Iraq War. And we shouldn’t forget that this mission bears no resemblance to the former. This mission would be about upholding civil rights and safeguarding the Syrian population; not about taking control over the country.
The European: Would your country – Luxembourg – also be part of this coalition?
Asselborn: Yes, we know that we have to live up to our humanitarian responsibilities. But it must be clear from the outset that military action should have the sole purpose of preventing chemical attacks in the future and to protect the Syrian population.
„There can be no room for speculations“
The European: The US, France and the UK are profoundly convinced that the Assad regime is behind last week’s chemical attacks. Do you share that opinion?
Asselborn: If chemical weapons have been used – which by now is almost undeniable – then it is the duty of the international community to take the culprits of these vicious attacks to the International Criminal Court. The use of such weapons is a severe violation of human rights. Proponents of a military intervention believe that only the Syrian regime has the capabilities to launch such an attack.
The European: You don’t?
Asselborn: I don’t want to question the American, British or French motives but one can only hope that they won’t fail to deliver hard evidence. They claim to have trustworthy leads but keep them hidden from the rest of the world. If there are evidence-based arguments for an intervention, then they should be discussed within the UN Security Council. If not, the motives for a potential military intervention will be harshly scrutinized and challenged by the international community.
The European: Washington, London and Paris think that a UN mandate would be desirable but not mandatory for concrete military action.
Asselborn: They argue that such an intervention would be fully in accord with the “Responsibility to Protect”. The use of power under these circumstances can only be allowed if the Security Council fails to reach consensus. The principle of the “Responsibility to Protect” should only be evoked as a means of last resort.
The European: The Assad regime has strengthened its position over the last months and the rebels failed to make any decisive gains. Why would the regime use chemical weapons under these circumstances, given that it is well aware that the use of such weapons would provoke an American counterstrike?
Asselborn: I find it hard to believe that the rebels have carried out the attacks in order to provoke an international response – that scenario transcends my power of imagination.
The European: But…
Asselborn: I am still awaiting hard evidence that would justify a military intervention. There can be no room for speculations. Still, I believe that the Assad regime is capable of conducting such gruesome acts. Assad is trying to regain some territories surrounding Damascus – that might have been the reason.
„Peace can’t be ensured by military means“
The European: The Syrian crisis has unfolded amidst Western hesitation. Obama’s “red line” has shifted numerous times. Why are the US and its allies suddenly pushing for concrete action?
Asselborn: The possibility of a military operation has been on the table for quite a long time now but it has always been judged counterproductive. The military action that is currently being discussed is a desperate attempt to safeguard the Syrian population. It must be clear however, that peace in Syria can’t be ensured by military means.
The European: Do you think that the planned maneuver could develop into a long-term commitment?
Asselborn: That is hard to predict. But I can tell you that whoever decides to intervene in Syria must also take responsibility for the country’s future.
The European: What if the undertaking fails to intimidate Assad?
Asselborn: Such a scenario is currently pure hypothesis and therefore hard to predict. Instead of speculating, we should put our energies to hoping.
„The Security Council stands to lose its credibility“
The European: What are you hoping for?
Asselborn: That a consensus can be reached within the Security Council. If that doesn’t happen, the Security Council stands to lose its credibility. If it fails to put an end to mass-murder, it is not fit for its purpose.
The European: Do you still believe that an agreement can be reached?
Asselborn: It doesn’t look very promising at the moment but we mustn’t give up hope.
The European: Russia has argued that any intervention by the West would be a “grave mistake”. How do you evaluate Moscow’s stance?
Asselborn: Russia stays firm and criticizes any moves to safeguard Syrian civilians. The reaction to the planned intervention is in line with Russia’s overall strategy and stance on the Syrian issue and therefore not surprising.
The European: How do you think Iran will react to a Western intervention right on its doorstep?
Asselborn: The newly elected president Rohani has criticized and denounced the use of chemical weapons. After all, the Iranian people know what disastrous effects these weapons can have – the memories of the 1980s attacks are all too alive. Yet at the same time, the stability and endurance of the Assad regime rests largely on Iranian backing. Iran is therefore a key player that could prompt the Syrian government to refrain from using chemical weapons against its population.
Translated from German