Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Nabil Elaraby has been dealing with the deteriorating Syrian crisis on a day-to-day basis over the past two years.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the Arab League secretary-general spoke about the prospects for the Geneva II conference and his fears of the Syria crisis spreading across the region, in addition to his views on the Palestinian Cause and the Taksim Square protests.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What’s your view of the situation in Syria? What is the possibility of holding the Geneva II conference in light of the current difficulties?
Nabil Elaraby: First, we should refer to the beginning of the events in Syria and the winds of change that blew through the country. It was natural for the people to rise after 42 years [of Assad family] rule which alas did not act reasonably, or undertook real reforms despite the Arab League’s warnings. In my first visit to Syria in June, 2011, I demanded that the Syrian regime end the violence, release detainees, and introduce real political reforms. At the time, there were no demands to topple the regime or anything of the sort, but the regime did not listen and sought security and military solutions.
Although protests at this point were peaceful, they were met with violence and arrests; something that escalated into a civil war. In this case, one undoubtedly should acknowledge the involvement of foreign parties and the grave violations being committed against human rights. This brings to mind the most famous civil war which spanned for years when the Franco regime seized power in Spain. It also reminds us of what happened in World War II when the Axis powers lined up against the Allied Forces in a war that saw unbelievable atrocities. We wonder how brother can kill brother in such wars, but that is what happens in such cases.
Q: So what is the likelihood of the Geneva II conference taking place on Syria?
There is a strong possibility which is based on an understanding—I do not want to say ‘agreement’—between the US and Russia after US secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow and met with Russian president Vladimir Putin and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. Arrangements [for the conference] are underway. In their first meeting on June 5 in Geneva representatives of Russia, the US, and the UN met with UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and agreed on a significant number of issues, including organizing another meeting on June 25 in Geneva to discuss the remaining arrangements.
Q: Can you reveal what was agreed on, and what was not agreed, during the preparatory meeting on June 5 in Geneva?
I prefer for the UN to announce the outcome of the meeting. They agreed on a number of issues although some minor issues remain unresolved particularly those relating to who will participate in the international conference on Syria which is known as Geneva II.
Q: Did they agree on the conference’s agenda?
The agenda is well-known, namely—to implement the agreed-upon points that were included in the final statement of the Geneva I conference which was held on June 30, 2012. These points can be summarized as follows; first, preparing for a transitional period; second, forming a government with full powers, as well as ending the military operation and releasing all detainees.
Q: Do you think the battle that has raged over the border town of Qusayr has reduced the likelihood of a Geneva II conference?
We can say that it has complicated, rather than reduced the likelihood, of the Geneva II conference. I believe a sort of military equilibrium is required for Geneva II to achieve its goals. In other words, when one side has the upper hand on the ground, negotiations will be tougher because the winning side will be more intransigent. This is not to suggest that it is impossible to reach an agreement. There is every indication that the Geneva II conference will take place in July.
Q: Wouldn’t you agree that the current situation continuing as it is in Syria poses a risk?
The Geneva II conference will achieve its purpose if it successfully prepares for a transitional period and forms a government with full powers. [However] I agree with you that the military situation is affecting the atmosphere.
Q: What’s your view of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian crisis despite the Arab League condemnation of its role in Syria and the death of civilians?
This is extremely dangerous. The Arab League opposes any military aggression against any Arab state. The Arab League’s stance is clear. Hezbollah does not represent a state; however, the party’s military forces crossed the border and entered another state’s territory to participate in an armed conflict. This is unacceptable and the Arab League has expressed this point of view lately.
Q: What do you think of Lebanese president Michel Suleiman’s warning against the repeated attacks on Lebanese citizens from Syrian territory?
President Michel Suleiman spoke to about this issue two days ago, pointing out that the situation is extremely complicated owing to the fallout from the Syrian crisis.
Q: Have you met with Lakhdar Brahimi? Are there any developments following his preparatory talks?
We met and he briefed me on all his ideas.
Q: Will the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) be able to take Syria’s seat at the Arab League, particularly given that it considers its newly established political council the equivalent of a foreign ministry?
I have been outspoken about this issue and I have submitted a report to the Arab League about this. On several occasions I have spoken of the need for the SNC to form a government in order to be able to take [Syria’s] seat. Only independent states can have a seat [at the Arab League]. According to international law, an independent state is comprised of people, territory, and sovereignty. By sovereignty I mean authority of international representation. When there is a government, or a full executive body representing the government, the coalition can clarify to us in writing who represent them.
Q: How do you refer to the SNC in your dealings with them?
We refer to them as the SNC and the Arab League has been dealing with them since September, 2011.
Q: Did you agree to the SNC’s suggestion to hold a meeting at the Arab League’s headquarters?
We welcome them and they have met at the Arab League’s headquarters more than once.
Q: Will there be any developments regarding Syria in the Arab League Council meeting scheduled for June 19?
The meeting is set to discuss amending the Arab League charter according to reports prepared in this regard.
Q: Are there any developments regarding the Arab League’s charter amendment, given your interest in the matter?
I am interested in amending the charter for an objective reason, namely—the Arab League was founded in March, 1945. In other words, when the member states at the highest levels signed and drafted the Arab League charter they used the League of Nations as an example, and this is outdated now. At the time, the modern principles of the UN charter were not available for them to refer to. Therefore, the Arab league charter is in much need of amendment. The committee, which has been formed with the approval of the ministerial council and the Arab League summit under Lakhdar Ibrahim, is working on the issue. It has submitted an excellent report about the matter but there are other pending issues.
Q: Didn’t the Doha Summit refer the report for further study and put forward new suggestions?
Absolutely not! The Doha summit made a decision to implement the report, not revise it. This is a misconception. I am aware that some [countries] have demanded that the report be returned to the committee for further study. In fact, such suggestions need to be ratified by the member states before they come to be implemented. In the meeting scheduled for June 19 we will discuss what and how the countries’ suggestions can be implemented or amended. Therefore, we have formed two committees of experts in the Arab League; one to discuss the charter and the other to consider all of the international agreements signed since 1945, discuss whether they are in line with Arab issues and how they can be amended. The process of amendment is significant and will take some time to ensure it is consistent with the present and the future.
Q: As for the protests in Turkey, was this a shock for you? Is it possible to link this with the Syrian crisis?
What is happening in Turkey was a very big surprise for me, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the Syrian crisis. I visited Turkey on a number of occasions and met with prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. I must say that I was very taken with him and what he has achieved in Turkey, while his foreign policy—particularly in terms of supporting the Palestinian Cause—must be commended. However the recent events were a surprise to me, and I spoke to the Turkish foreign minister [Ahmed Davutoğlu] about this two days after the initial protests and he reassured me about what was happening.
Q: Do you expect the change in leadership following the Iranian presidential elections to produce a change in Tehran’s policy towards the region?
I think that nobody can answer this question, and this depends on who is elected and the policy that the next president will adopt. In any case, I do not want to discuss hypotheticals.
Q: Yes, but this is part of an attempt to understand what may happen in the future.
Very well, from monitoring the situation I am of the view that Iran’s foreign policy has a specific agenda and that this is being decided by the Supreme Guide. Therefore I don’t think that the election of a new president will change Iran’s policy as a whole, but maybe some things will change.
Q: Do you expect to see a more moderate Iranian policy?
Iran has been pursuing a policy of expanding its influence in different regions. I personally spoke with the Iranians—when I was at the [Egyptian] Foreign Ministry until now—about the importance of not interfering in Arab affairs.
Q: The Arab League issued a statement condemning Hezbollah’s role in Syria, while the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is contemplating taking action against Hezbollah affiliates over this issue. Do you support this move?
Following the attacks against Syria and the involvement of Hezbollah in the on-going battles I can understand any actions taken in this regard.
Q: What is your priority as Arab League secretary-general over the coming days and weeks?
We have the Palestinian issue, and we are waiting for the position to become clear, particularly following the US contacts with the Israeli side. There is also the Syrian issue regarding the June 25 meeting in Geneva to set a date and prepare for the Geneva II conference. There is also the issue of reforming the Arab League, which is an on-going process.
Q: Are you expecting any foreign visits? What about support for Libya over the forthcoming period?
We are in the process of discussing this issue in order to provide the assistance Libya is requesting. The deputy secretary-general, along with an Arab League delegation, is expected to travel to Tripoli sometime within the next two weeks to discuss areas of cooperation and the nature of the assistance that is required, not to mention the nature of the work being carried out by the Arab League’s office in Libya.
Q: The Arab Spring has had significant repercussions on regional stability, what’s your view of the situation today? Is there any chance of the Arab Spring states stabilizing themselves?
Every country has its own special circumstances, but in general all the countries that the wind of change blew through—in one way or another—is dealing with this in its own way. These winds of change led to transitional stages, which require some time. For example, this week I met with the Romanian Foreign minister at the Arab League headquarters and I asked him a specific question about what had happened in that country. The answer was that the transitional phase in Romania began in 1989 with the coup against Ceausescu and it ended in 1999. This means that it took Romania ten years to extricate itself from the transitional stage and return to the rules of good governance and four years later it joined the European Union (EU). This means that the transitional phase lasted for a decade before the country reached a phase of genuine democracy.
Yesterday, I met with the ambassador of Latvia which had been occupied by the Soviet Union since the Second World War. I asked her the same question, and she answered that Latvia remained in a state of transition for 14 years.
However we in the Arab world are in a rush, and we thought that we could see a transition from a state of bad governance to good governance in two years. It is true that some mistakes have been made and things could have been easier. If we talk about Egypt, for example, it was not under a complete dictatorship but there was mismanagement and a kind of stagnation and a lack of studying issues in the manner that serves the people, not to mention serious delays in decision-making. This is what I mean by a state of stagnation, however it was possible—at least from my point of view—for things to be easier, and we should have begun with drafting a constitution. If Egypt had begun with this, everything would have been much better than it is today.
Q: Do you fear the repercussion of the mass protests that are being called for in Egypt on June 30?
I am not just afraid of June 30 but of everything. I have genuine fears, and in my view the forthcoming period is raising serious concerns and fears.
Q: So what’s the solution? How can we get out of this transitional phase and reach a period of stability?
I personally have no opinion on this, and things are moving at a rapid pace, and we must reconsider the methods that are being used by both the government and the opposition.
Q: Do you support the Arab Spring, as some have claimed?
I’ve participated in different ways, I was part of a small group called the “Committee of the Wise,” and we would meet with the opposition youth and conduct dialogues with them. I represented them during a meeting with then Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq; we were also accompanied by Dr. Ahmed Kamal Abu Al-Magd. I also met with then vice president General Omar Suleiman.
Q: So how do you view the nickname that has bestowed on you by some of your opponents, namely the “Secretary-General of the Arab Spring?”
I am not the “Secretary-General of the Arab Spring,” but I did modestly contribute via the Committee of the Wise.
Q: How do you think we can resolve the crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam?
I call for dialogue and negotiation, as did the African Union, according to the rules of law that govern this issue.