The Arab League has undertaken several diplomatic initiatives in an attempt to resolve the crisis in Syria, and has also been the venue for debates among its members about how to approach it. As the situation develops, there is no doubt that the civil war in Syria will remain at the top of the agenda—an agenda already crammed thanks to the aftershocks of the Arab Spring and the ongoing instability across the Middle East and North Africa.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to the assistant secretary-general of the Arab League, Ambassador Ahmad Bin-Hilli, as he flew back to Cairo from the organization’s recent summit in Doha. The ambassador spoke about the organization’s aims with regard to the Syrian conflict and the decision to grant the opponents of Bashar Al-Assad’s government the Syrian seat at the recent Arab League conference, as well as the other challenges facing the organization.
The following interview has been edited for length:
Asharq Al-Awsat: What has the summit achieved in regards to the Syrian crisis? Will giving the league seat to the opposition undermine prospects for a peaceful solution?
Ambassador Ahmad Bin-Hilli: As far as the Arab League is concerned, a political settlement remains the only sound means for resolving the crisis and ending the tragedy of the Syrian people. Even after giving Syria’s seat to the opposition, efforts for a peaceful solution will continue. This requires firstly that the opposition should expand the circle of representation to accommodate all opposition forces and to reflect the realities in Syria so that everybody in Syria would take part in the coalition.
The second message is to urge the regime to respond to initiatives for a political settlement and stop this tragedy which pains everybody. It should find alternatives and undertake initiatives to find a solution. The common Arab position is that, despite reservations by some member states on the resolution, everybody insists on the need to end the crisis of the Syrian people. This is clear in the agreement and the insistence on a political solution as the only way to end the crisis. Fourthly, the UN Security Council and the United Nations must be more active in finding the means for a practical solution. The joint envoy Brahimi must work towards these things.
Q: Can Brahimi’s mission continue after the summit and the decision to grant Syria’s seat to the opposition? Will he actually be able to bring about a solution?
There are still opportunities and solutions Brahimi can pursue. It should not be said that the time has run out and that the door to a peaceful solution has been closed. Syria is no longer an internal crisis but a regional and international crisis. Everybody must shoulder the responsibility for bringing about a political settlement.
Also, solutions must be found to the displaced and the refugees, problems that are getting worse every day because of the increasing numbers streaming into neighboring countries due to the ferocity of the battles in Syria. The issue has gone beyond the Arab domain. The responsibility is international.
Q: There are permanent UN Security Council member States that have expressed annoyance at giving Syria’s league seat to the opposition. They considered this step to be obstructive.
This is the viewpoint of Russia among others. But what is the practical solution these states have put forward? The Syrians are making the sacrifices now and the basic utilities and infrastructure in the country have collapsed. Are we going to keep going as before? Are we going to continue submitting protests and making initiatives without reaching a real settlement? I believe it is high time to move in a binding way toward a practical solution. I believe that the UN is always the most important factor in imposing a solution, since there is a feeling that there are states that have agendas and that say it is not time to act. Yet we witness more destruction, killing, destitution, and devastation. Is this what is required?
Q: What has this summit achieved in terms of the means of action to solve common Arab problems?
The General Secretariat and the Secretary General are in constant contact with the Arab States. There are attempts to propose initiatives and work out and promote compromise formulas. But I believe that the most important characteristic of that summit was that it emphasized the popular dimension and concern for the Arab citizen more than concern for the official positions of governments. This is why the summit’s final statement reflected concerns that some states are suffering because of the events across the region, and the desire to bolster Arab solidarity and assist these states, whether in dealing with their economic problems, or the need to bolster state institutions and bring stability.
The summit also emphasized the well-being of the Arab citizen as the principal factor, whether through the Arab Council for Arab Human Rights, or development, or what the Arab states can do [to improve the lives of] their citizens. An agreement was reached to establish a tribunal for Human Arab Rights that an individual can resort to when he is not treated fairly by national laws. This is a new development.
There is also the issue of Arab identity, and the request to States to increase their efforts to raise the living standards of the Arab citizen, make him feel pride in his identity, and open future vistas to him. By this, I mean that the summit asked its member States to create hope for Arab youth, to give them leadership positions, and involve them in civil society organizations. There is a coming meeting under the summit’s presidency for civil society organizations and encouraging them to strengthen this connection.
This is in addition to the Palestine, which has always been a pivotal issue, firstly through the Jerusalem Fund and also holding an additional, smaller, Arab summit chaired by Egypt to activate conciliation [between Fatah and Hamas]. It was also decided to send an Arab delegation from the Arab Peace Initiative Committee to visit Washington before the end of April to correct the course of the peace process.
There is interest in all Arab issues, not only Syria. Within days we shall have here in Doha an international conference for donor nations to support Darfur, and also for supporting Somalia after ensuring that the means are in place to help it out of its long-term crisis. . .There is the issue of Libya and its need for Arab support in improving security, cracking down on smuggled funds, and the state’s principal utilities.
Q: Will the League’s play a role in supporting reconciliation in Iraq and acting as an “honest broker” among the various political forces as it did in the past? Will you be able to help solve the crisis Iraq is currently experiencing?
I believe that this Arab summit proposed a number of practical initiatives that should be carried out. The General Secretariat will be working with the member states and the [state that holds the] presidency to implement these initiatives, whether concerning the situation Libya is experiencing or the implementation of the Gulf Initiative in Yemen. There will be an effective Arab role in coordination with the UN. There is the conference of donor states that focuses on reconstruction in Darfur. It is an extremely important conference because it will put the final touches on what is required to close this dossier and cooperate with regional organizations like the UN and the Islamic Cooperation Organization in coordinating with the Arab League to honor the pledges of assistance that have been made.
I will say that there were pledges made at this summit by the member states and that the Arab League has entered into a new phase. It must keep pace with and be active in addressing what is taking place in the national arena of every member state through joint Arab action.
Q: What do you think of Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi’s recent proposal for organizing a “mini summit” to discuss the crisis in Syria and draft quick solutions to end it? Do we need to hold such summits to invigorate the mechanism of joint Arab action?
We require intensive work to solve the Syrian crisis because giving the regime’s seat in the League to the opposition has not settled or solved matters. On the contrary, we are still in need of innovative and practical ideas on Syria from the Arab states. This is one of the absolute priorities that must be on everybody’s agenda. Syria will continue to crumble if we do not move forward with initiatives and ideas, whether from the opposition or the government, to reach an accord on national reconciliation.