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INTERVIEW with Helle Thorning-Schmidt on Syria

We listen to our closest allies

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Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt goes to Stockholm to meet President Obama today with Denmark as the only Nordic country to support US plans for a strike against Syria, without a United Nations mandate if necessary.

“When a leader uses chemical weapons against his own population, a line has been crossed and the international community must ask itself ‘Are we to react to it – yes or no?’ You could let it pass, but we do not believe you should. Clear support for our allies is not just a direct extension of Social Democratic policy, but has also been Danish foreign policy for many years. So it is quite natural,” Thorning-Schmidt says.

But this suggests a solution – perhaps a military one – that, for example, the centre-right Swedish prime minister is against.

“People have different traditions and histories. It is important to remember that there are also consequences of not taking action in this situation. That sends a signal to dictators around the world that they can use poison gasses against their own people without a reaction from the international community. I would like to make it clear – it is not easy. I don’t think President Obama thinks it’s easy either. But you have to decide whether you will quietly accept a leader using poison gas against his own population – yes or no?”

As pretty much the only one, you say that there is an alternative to the UN. Why is Denmark going it alone?

“It’s more nuanced than that. It is correct that the British Social Democrats voted against. But they have not said that they cannot envisage a situation in which they would enter the conflict. I don’t think we should go through what European Social Democrats have said. It is natural that we listen to what our closest allies say about this issue. And that is the British, French and Americans.”

But aren’t you about to make the same mistake that you criticised the Anders Fogh Rasmussen government of making in Iraq. Acting in desperation without having enough proof?

“Syria is a completely different situation than Iraq was. This is not about whether there are weapons of mass destruction. It is about weapons of mass destruction having been used in a civil war in which the population is scared out of its wits and fleeing. If we are to compare Syria with anything, it would be other regions in the world where there have been what are described as crimes against humanity. In Syria we already have a human catastrophe – we can see it already.”

What concrete documentation do you have to show that Assad was actually behind the poison gas attack?

“The Americans and French claim to be able to document it. And I think we should listen to our closest allies.”

That’s what Anders Fogh Rasmussen believed in 2001

“But that was a different issue. It was about whether there were weapons of mass destruction. That was another discussion. There was no humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq. Masses of people weren’t fleeing. There was no civil war under way. There was no hard evidence of a leader who had used poison gas against his own people.”

Yes, there was heavy evidence that Saddam Hussein had used poison gas against the Kurds.

“Yes, but then you also had weapons inspectors who were sent to investigate. The weapons inspectors we have in Syria were prevented from going to the location. We should also remember that the weapons inspectors’ job is not to answer the issue of guilt – it is to investigate what type of gas attack there has been. I really do not believe you can compare the two situations.”

So an evaluation from the United States is enough for you?

“I find that the Americans have compelling circumstantial evidence on the issue. As do the French. As a result I have expressed support for the view that the international community cannot remain passive if the UN track ends in a cul de sac – which it appears to be doing at the moment.”

Sweden is now prepared to give permanent residence to 4,000 Syrian refugees. Will Denmark be doing the same?

No. We have our asylum rules and we are sticking to them of course. We have given asylum to Syrians and treat their applications just as everyone else’s. But last week we decided to ask Parliament to rush through a new appropriation of DKK100 million for those affected by the crisis in adjacent areas. We obviously have a responsibility for the many, many people who are displaced,”

So the bottom line is that your Social Democratic government is more willing to act outside of a UN remit than the Swedish government – but less willing to help Syrian refugees with residence?

“You may conclude as you will. But those are my answers.”

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