Asharq Al-Awsat Talks to Arab League Sec-Gen Nabil Elaraby
Secretary-General of the Arab League highlights efforts to resolve the crisis in SyriaCairo, Asharq Al-Awsat–Speaking in the run up to the Arab Economic Summit in Riyadh, scheduled to take place on 21 – 22 January; Arab League Secretary-General spoke about the chances of resolving the Syrian crisis, Palestinian reconciliation and the restructuring of the Arab League. Nabil Elaraby also spoke about his recent meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He revealed that he has called on Salehi to stop Tehran interfering in Arab affairs, whilst he also said that he was “optimistic” regarding the prospects of Palestinian reconciliation.
The following is the full text of the interview:
Q: What are the expected dimensions and results of the economic summit taking place in Riyadh?
A: The Arab peoples are right to expect the summit to have results and achievements on the ground, not just to issue decisions. This is the problem of all international institutions, not just the Arab League, namely we issue decisions and then following this we find a big gap between the decision that was taken and the actually implementation of this. For this reason, I am hopeful that we will be able to accomplish a number of projects.
Q: Would you agree that the problem is not in the issuance of decisions, but rather the mechanisms of implementation?
A: I agree with you that decisions should be implementable and contain mechanisms for this. We are exerting genuine efforts regarding the importance of implementing Arab League decisions, particularly in terms of the project to restructure and develop the organization.
Q: Will the economic summit discuss the issue of funds stolen from Arab Spring states? What about the phenomenon of emigration from Arab states?
A: The stolen funds are a legal issue, not an economic one. Meetings have been held on this issue, whilst this was also raised in the Qatari meeting. The United Nations tasked the Qatari Attorney General to monitor this issue and he is cooperating with the Arab League. This is all based on judicial rulings from the concerned countries and the summit will focus on returning the stolen Arab funds, in addition to creating suitable opportunities for investment.
Q: What about crucial political issues in the Arab region, such as the Syrian file? Will the Riyadh summit include political consultation regarding the implications and impact of this crisis, particularly after you yourself announced that there is no solution in sight?
A: The Syrian file has taken a number of strange dimensions, whilst also taking far more time [to resolve] than necessary. The Syrian people are suffering, day after day and hour after hour, from unprecedented displacement, violence, destruction and death. Therefore, there is no solution to the Syrian crisis without the intervention of the UN Security Council. Last April, the UN Security Council requested the issuance of a binding ceasefire resolution and the deployment of peacekeepers between the two forces, as well as establishment of a buffer zone to enforce this ceasefire. We ourselves tried to implement this with a limited number of Arab League observers during General al-Dabi’s missions nearly one year ago.
Q: How do you feel about the accusations and criticism that the Arab League has faced in this regard?
A: What is the Arab League supposed to do? Are we supposed to launch a war?
Q: Why have we yet to see a solution to the Syrian crisis, whereas there was strong international movement to find one for the Libyan crisis?
A: In the Libyan crisis there was only one requirement of the UN and that was the establishment of a no-fly zone. This request was made following threats that Muammar Gaddafi could use high-tech warplanes to commit genocide against the city of Benghazi. However this issue developed in a different manner, namely in the UN Security Council, not the Arab League. Therefore, nobody can make accusations against the Arab League in this regard; rather these accusations should be issued towards the countries involved in managing the Syrian crisis.
Q: Do you think Russia’s intransigent position is responsible for lengthening the Syrian crisis? Could a change in this position therefore shorten it?
A: Russia’s intransigent position in terms of reaching a solution has transgressed all bounds. All that I can say at this point is that communication is taking place at the highest level between Russia and America, but they have yet to finalize this and select the best approach to pursue.
Q: In your view, the fact that no US –Russian agreement has been reached regarding the Syrian issue is due to differences in opinion between these two parties?
A: No, I do not believe this. The presence of a new US Secretary of State, taking up new tasks and forming a new team…may take time, perhaps until the end of the month. Whilst joint UN – Arab League envoy [Lakhdar Brahimi] has also put forward a report to the Security Council regarding the results of his discussions and communications that he has carried out abroad over the past week or 10 days.
Q: Do you agree with those who claim that the delay in finding a solution to the Syrian crisis is due to negotiations between the US and Russia to resolve other files, including the issue of Iran and Tehran’s meddling in Gulf affairs?
A: In my view, the Syrian crisis cannot be resolved without a Russian – US agreement, whilst the issue of Iran must remain in the second, or even fourth, rank.
Q: You met with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in Cairo a few days ago. You said that you conducted “frank” talks with him…can you tell us what you talked about?
A: My position has not changed…I had met with him before and I confirmed that Iranian non-interference in Syria is a necessity. I also asked him to ensure Iranian non-interference in the domestic affairs of all Arab states, including Egypt.
Q: What was the Iranian foreign minister response to your request?
A: The Iranian Foreign minister denied that his country interfered in Arab affairs; he said “we do not do this.”
Q: Do you think Salehi is willing to conduct dialogue over the current problems?
A: He is very willing, and is very interested in this. He also speaks the Arabic language fluently.
Q: Returning to the Syrian crisis, there are a number of issues on the table. There are differences of opinion between the UN Security Council members, whilst you also mentioned that Brahimi is set to present a report in a few days’ time. He also recently spoke about the formation of a transitional government with full powers that does not include al-Assad, something that Russia is committed to preventing. So how do you think we can get out of this crisis?
A: In my view, the starting point for this must be the Geneva Communique, the final statement issued in Geneva [by the Action Group for Syria] on 30/6/2012, particularly the article providing for the start of the transition phase and the formation of a government with full executive powers. This means that President al-Assad cannot intervene in this issue; however the implementation of this is being hampered by Russia and its refusal to countenance al-Assad stepping down. If this is the case, we ask, why was there this provision for the establishment of a transitional government with full executive powers in the Geneva communique? This is something that can be resolved between the US and Russia.
Q: The Syrian National Coalition has received recognition from more than 100 countries worldwide…what’s happening now? What is the latest?
A: This is a question that you should ask them.
Q: Is the Syrian National Coalition still in contact with the Arab League?
A: I have not been in contact with the Syrian opposition for two or three weeks.
Q: The Syrian opposition has rejected Moscow’s call for dialogue, viewing this as a trap that they must avoid. What’s your view?
A: Firstly, we must congratulate the Syrian opposition for forming this coalition, in addition to forming a unified military leadership. These are genuine and important steps and the opposition is now very close to achieving their goals, therefore we do not expect anything more than this.
Q: Is the Arab decline in support for the opposition a reason behind the Syrian National Coalition failing to complete its tasks?
A: To be clear, the provision of financial and military support to the Syrian opposition does not take place via the Arab League.
Q: You recently met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as with Hamas chief Khalid Mishal. You spoke about reconciliation and the future of Arab support for the Palestinian Cause. What did you agree on?
A: I spoke separately with President Abbas and Khalid Mishal. The meetings were very frank and I sensed a genuine interest from both side to complete the Palestinian reconciliation that began two years ago, signed on 4/5/2011, but which was delayed. Therefore, I recently agreed to the formation of a special committee to work on this issue for a period of three weeks and we must leave it to complete its task; however I am very optimistic about this step.
Q: What about heading to the UN Security Council?
A: This is the major issue, and this must be in front of the eyes of all Arab states now, particularly after Palestine obtained observer status. This is something normal for countries that are beset by problems. Even East and West Germany and Korea held observer status, not to mention the Vatican. In fact, even Switzerland was a UN observer state until 2002. This was not due to any political problems but rather at Switzerland’s own request so that it could avoid holding certain responsibilities, particularly in terms of the Security Council and the issuance of instructions and resolutions.
At this point, we must take note that the primary problem in the Palestinian Cause is not the issue of prisoners or settlements but rather the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Plans to end this occupation were first issued 45 years ago, namely UN Security Council Resolution 242 which called for Israel to withdraw from the territory it occupied in 1967. However this did not happen with regards to Palestinian territory. Following this we saw the 1979 [Egypt – Israel] peace treaty, the 1994 Israel – Jordan Treaty of Peace. As for Syria, it signed a partial treaty with Israel, namely the 1974 disengagement agreement.
From here, the course of the Palestinian Cause began to change, and rather than abiding by the resolution and withdrawing their troops, Israel pursued a policy of so-called “interim agreements”. This approach has been exposed today, 45 years following the issuance of the resolution. This is why the Arab states took the decision on 17 November, 2012 [worldwide protests for Palestine] to work to end the occupation and undertake all the necessary procedures in this regard. This will require, at a certain stage, going to the UN Security Council for discussions and consultation regarding putting forward a work plan to end the occupation. We will not surrender this in favor of the so-called peace process that has been pursued over the past years, particularly as this has not led to any peace. Therefore, the UN Security Council must carry out its responsibilities regarding the resolutions that have been issued to end Israel’s post-1967 occupation.
Q: What about implementing the decisions of the peace initiative conference taken on 17 February, 2012?
A: We agreed to take specific steps and I visited the European Union, France and the UK in this regard. We are going to make contact with the US after the appointment of the new Secretary of State. There is also a view to send a high-level Arab delegation to meet with the US President and Secretary of State.
Q: How has the Arab League, its policies, performance and finances been affected by the Arab Spring?
A: The Arab Spring gave rise to new governments and approaches…even the states where revolutions did not break out saw changes to suit the ambitions and interests of the people. All of this constituted additional responsibilities for the Arab League. That is why we finished restructuring the Arab League secretariat, whilst on 10 January we received a complete report from Lakhdar Brahimi following continues work by the Arab League Development Committee that he has headed for more than 15 months. This report is more than 50 pages long and I am currently in the process of reading it with a view to submitting it to the Arab League summit scheduled for March in Qatar. We have already implemented some of what was include in the development report and the rest will be put to the Arab leadership in March.
Q: What about the financial aspect, particularly as many of the states that underwent revolutions have stalled on their financial commitments to the Arab League? Has this affected the Arab League’s operations?
A: This issue will be presented as a whole at the Arab League summit.
Q: How has the situation in Syria affected Iraq? Has this affected Iraq’s stability?
A: The current situation in Iraq is tense. I have been in touch with the Iraqi government and everybody is trying to understand the current issue.
Q: Many people are linking al-Assad’s fall with the rise of a Kuwaiti state. Do you expect this?
A: The Kurds are Iraqi. There is coexistence and understanding in Iraq, and I have nothing more to say about this. To be certain, the fall of al-Assad will include many things, both inside and outside of Syria, and the longer that we delay resolving this issue the bigger problems that we will face.