Asharq Al-Awsat Interview: Arab League SecGen Nabil Elaraby
Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat in his office at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Secretary General Nabil Elaraby has stressed that the keys for resolving the Syrian crisis are now in the hands of the United Nations, and that it is the only side that can issue a binding resolution on this crisis, starting from a ceasefire up to military intervention to rescue the Syrian people from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Elaraby reveals the efforts he exerts to repair what he claims was spoiled by the consequences of the situation in the region. Elaraby points out that the mission of Kofi Annan in Syria has not failed, and is continuing, and that Annan has proposed to President Al-Assad sending international observers as a suitable mechanism to monitor the ceasefire.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How would you grade Kofi Annan’s mission, especially after his statement that he is dissatisfied with Al-Assad’s reply?
[Elaraby] Before we talk about Kofi Annan’s mission, I have to explain that since July 2011 the Arab League has been concerned with dealing with the Syrian issue as a whole. The Arab League has contacted the Syrian Government, and asked for three measures, namely: halting the violence, releasing the detainees, and commencing real political reforms. The Syrian Government from the beginning has announced its agreement, but it did not do anything. After some time, the reaction of the Syrian people by defending themselves started. Therefore, action and reaction, and exchanged violence started, until the situation reached the current escalation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you mean the Syrian people defending themselves is considered an act of Terrorism by the Syrian authorities?
[Elaraby] The escalation of violence reshuffles the cards, and the situation becomes not exactly clear. However, what is important is that the Syrian Government stops this violence, The Arab League more than once has asked for halting the violence, in addition to other demands, including allowing the entry of the humanitarian relief, and opening the doors for the Arab and international media organs. The Syrian Government has agreed to this, and consequently the observers were sent. The mission of the observers was specific, namely to ascertain that violence and fighting had stopped, and that the Syrian government was adhering to its commitments, and what it signed in the mission’s protocol. It was shown that it adhered to its commitments, but not sufficiently, i.e. it did not adhere completely and immediately as the Arab League ministerial resolution stipulated; this was shown after the issuing of Lt-Gen Al-Dabi’s report, which was misunderstood.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who misunderstood Al-Dabi’s report?
[Elaraby] Syria did, and exploited it. Some Gulf countries have observations on the report within the context of the nature of the duties of the Arab League mission, especially within the partial point of violence and counter violence. However, the report does not talk about the origin of the problem since 15 March 2011, when there was no counter violence, and violence was one-sided. Therefore, in order to judge the report we ought to put it in the complete context of the mission duties from 24 December 2011 until 18 January 2012.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the Arab League has not done anything to rescue the Syrian people?
[Elaraby] The Arab League Charter does not stipulate imposing sanctions, as the UN Charter does. The Arab League Charter stipulates boycotting, and we have issued a resolution imposing economic boycott, but it did not have an impact, and hence we imposed political boycott by suspending the regime’s participation in the meetings, but nothing has been achieved, and there was no impact; then we opened the doors for the Syrian opposition according to resolutions issued six months ago at the ministerial meetings. The aim has been to conduct a dialog between the government and the opposition. Despite its (the opposition’s) lack of unity, it is present, and we work with it and listen to it. The important point in this issue is that the Syrian Government has announced that it is prepared to engage in a dialog with the opposition in Syria, and in exchange, the opposition announced that it is prepared to engage in negotiations with the government with the aim of transferring power, and not of conducting reforms under the supervision of the government.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is a huge gap between the viewpoints of the government and the opposition. Therefore, the talk of dialog between seems futile?
[Elaraby] Yes, in my opinion, the gap is huge. The opposition has told us that we cannot do anything, because the Syrian Government will not respond peacefully, and that the solution is military intervention. The reply of the Arab League has been that it does not have armies or aircraft, and that the UN Charter forbids us from doing so. The only exception is contracting a legitimate collective defense agreement, and hence in the Arab League Charter there is a joint Arab defense agreement.
To explain, the position of the Arab League is that it is a regional organization whose status is stipulated in the international system under a specific chapter of the UN Charter that defines our power. Consequently, the Syrian opposition called for submitting the dossier to the UN Security Council. The dossier has been submitted more than a month ago, but nothing has happened, because there is a dysfunction in the contemporary international system – the Chinese and Russian veto – that enables one country to bring everything to a halt. This is clear as we see that the United States uses the veto always for the benefit of Israel, and Russia has used it for the benefit of the regime in Syria. However, the Russian stance now has started to change; I cannot say anything more than pointing to some indications that appeared to us in our dialog with Russia.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Then, how do you see the solution for all these complications?
[Elaraby] There are two courses. The political course, which is undertaken by Kofi Annan, joint UN and Arab League envoy, together with his deputy, former Palestinian Foreign Minister Dr Nasir al-Qudwah; Annan will start his work in two days, and I will meet him today. The second course is a humanitarian one, for which currently I am calling. This means the immediate issuing of a cease fire resolution, because it is impossible to continue in this situation any more.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you calling for the setting up of safe corridors to transport humanitarian relief?
[Elaraby] The humanitarian relief organizations have rejected this offer, because these corridors are difficult to secure or control. This idea was carried out in the Balkans, and its failure was proved, and all those who then were in the safe corridor were slaughtered, especially as at that time everybody rejected the military intervention. Thus, we call for a ceasefire.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are many disaster areas in Syria?
[Elaraby] It is better to have comprehensive and immediate ceasefire so that we would be able to bring in the humanitarian relief, the day-to-day living necessities, and the medical aid. I consider the humanitarian course, which will be established by issuing a resolution by the UN Security Council, to be similar to an ambulance that is sent to carry out first aid for the wounded, who then are transferred to hospital. The situation cannot be left as it is.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Whenever the Arab and international community call for immediate ceasefire, the pace of killing and destruction rises, and the brutality of the military operation increases?
[Elaraby] When the Arab league mission was in Syria, the military operations decreased. When eight countries withdrew from the mission, the number became small, merely 70 observers, we said that they would not be able to do anything, because the positions to which they were required to be deployed were nearly 15 positions. Today, during his visit to Syria, Kofi Annan raised the issue of sending international observers within the framework of what is called a suitable mechanism for monitoring the adherence to the ceasefire, and hence it would be possible to send international observers. However, such a measure has not been decided, and it still is within the domain of dialog between the joint envoy and the Syrian Government.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has Kofi Annan asked President Al-Assad to step down from power as a political solution?
[Elaraby] This has not been proposed to Al-Assad.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Then, what are the results reached by Annan after the UN official spokesperson announced that the dialog between the Syrian Government and the joint envoy was continuing?
[Elaraby] There are no results that can be announced. What happened is that Annan received a reply, and then a second reply. I was in touch with him a short while ago.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did the answers given to Annan indicate the existence of any change in the Syrian Government stance toward the ceasefire?
[Elaraby] The Syrian Government has not rejected the ceasefire, but there is no pledge to undertake this step.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The reactions in the Arab street indicate that Kofi Annan’s mission has failed, even before it started, and that the Arab League is helpless and has no role. The proof is that the situation in Syria has become worse, and has reached the level of war crimes and genocide?
[Elaraby] The dossier now is at the United Nations, and no one can blame the Arab League. The United Nations has the authority and the power to send troops, and to issue a binding resolution. The Arab League cannot issue a binding resolution, but the UN Security Council can issue a binding resolution that has to be implemented.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean that the Arab League has not been negligent in rescuing the Syrian people?
[Elaraby] I have to remind you that I hastened to visit Syria since 13 July 2011, and called for what I said earlier, but the Arab countries did not move until the end of August.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] A year has passed since the Syrian revolution erupted, but the daily killing of the Syrian people continues. Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
[Elaraby] Everybody talks about the importance of this light, but so far the decisions on this issue have not been taken at the international level.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The military intervention is rejected at both the Arab and international levels, but the opposition calls for it, and the regime has been excessive in its use of all kinds of weapons and force against the people. How can this be stopped?
[Elaraby] There is a dysfunction in the international community and in the contemporary international system, which is not just; however, this is not the problem of the Arab League, but it is the problem of the United Nations. The answer is that the international community should take the steps and shoulder the responsibility.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With the failure of the UN Security Council because of the use of the Russian-Chinese veto, is it possible to emulate the Iraqi model, namely to form an international coalition to establish a ceasefire in Syria, and rescue the people?
[Elaraby] This issue has not been discussed at the Arab League at all.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In a few days the Arab summit will convene in Baghdad, and during the latest ministerial meeting there were calls for Arab recognition of the Syrian National Council. Is this expected?
[Elaraby] The Syrian crisis will be discussed at the Baghdad summit, and this issue will be discussed. However, the result is up to the Arab leaders. Bear in mind that the Arab League does not recognize anyone, but the Arab countries do, and the same applies to the United Nations; I mean that the countries are the ones that undertake the recognition, and not the organizations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Baghdad summit is concerned with the issue of restructuring the Arab League. What are the features of this plan?
[Elaraby] In general it is possible to say that the Arab League ought to keep pace with the developments on the ground. The Arab world is changing, and development ought to take place. I have indicated this citing a folk proverb; I said that the current Arab League Charter is “like a 1945 car, which cannot work in the streets of 2012.” Now, I have before me the stage report drawn up by the committee, and I am studying it. I will meet the chairman of the committee, former Minister Lakhder Brahimi this morning (Saturday), and then I intend to select some of the issues in this concept to propose to the Baghdad Arab summit; these issues are related to improving performance, increasing the efficiency, and restructuring some of the organizations within the Arab League.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the restructuring be based on the 16 points that were drawn up by the five-man Sirte summit of 2010 that was concerned with the issue of the concept of restructuring?
[Elaraby] I will not go into details. I convene many committees, but all of them, ultimately, become mere ink on paper. Therefore, I have formed another committee to gather all the agreements of the Arab League since 1945, which have not been activated.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the added value expected from the Baghdad summit, especially as the Arab street no longer has confidence in the institution of the Arab summit?
[Elaraby] The mere convening of this summit has a great value. Second, the summit was not convened last year, and there are many issues that ought to be presented to this summit. These issues will not deviate from the customary subjects of discussing the issues of Palestine, Syria, the Arab situation, and other things. I consider that the meeting of the brother Arabs is important.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] is it true that the summit is restricted to five issues only?
[Elaraby] Indeed, we have selected five issues only in order to be able to discuss them seriously and well.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the issues of combating terrorism and sectarianism?
[Elaraby] This is an important issue. There also are three other issues, namely the issue of Palestine, and the many problems that have emerged in this dossier, which will be presented by Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas; secondly, the Syrian problem and what can be done about it; and thirdly, the economic cooperation among the Arab countries. We have other ideas related to the cultural cooperation among the Arab countries. It is very important that we do something that gathers the Arab culture, civilization, and language; this requires undertaking giant projects that link all the Arab countries to each other. This is in addition to studying the establishment of centers that support the renewable energy in this field. Today, I have before me a study on this issue, because I would like to present it in my address to the Arab summit.
All these are subjects felt by the ordinary citizen, such as the economic cooperation, the customs union, the free zones, and the common market. These are important issues, and if we manage to proceed in them in a positive way, they will contribute a great deal to the resolution of the issues of the region, and will turn the economic summits into an important value to the Arab peoples, especially with the convening of the Arab economic summit scheduled to be held in Riyadh next year.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Arab-Iranian relations are currently dysfunctional, while Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal has talked about the importance of discussing relations
with Iran at the summit. What is your opinion on the matter?
[Elaraby] Iran is a neighboring country, so is Turkey; they both have active policies. This is good, and it is their right. However, it is important that Iran should not interfere in the internal relations of any Arab country, or in the internal affairs of the Arab countries; this is completely rejected by any Arab country.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think it’s possible for the Summit to resolve this issue?
[Elaraby] The Arab countries are the ones to decide this.