Secretary-General of the Arab League, Dr. Nabil Al-Arabi, seeks to improve the league by changing its charter to make its decisions binding. He is also trying to bestow the organization with more efficiency so that it will do more than simply ratify international resolutions. The League has been faced with several complex problems, such as the situation in Syria, South Sudan and the occupied territories, as well as at the Egyptian-Palestinian borders and other hot issues in the region. In this interview, Al-Arabi expresses his fear that a civil war will unfold in Syria, claiming that this is the direction in which events are headed. He warns of its repercussions on the region, but he believes that Kofi Annan (the UN and the Arab League’s envoy to Syria) will succeed where the League has failed. Al-Arabi implicitly accuses the Arab world of being weak on the Palestinian cause. He says that Arab countries have the power to pressure the countries that support Israel, but that they do not bother to do so.
Below is the text of the interview:
Why do you think the situation in Syria is getting worse and why was foreign intervention in Libya easier?
We must not forget the geopolitical differences between Syria and Libya. The international intervention in Libya came after Qaddafi became a serious threat and was about to commit a genocide in Benghazi. He threatened to wipe it off the map. Furthermore, the course of events in Syria has directly impacted the situation in the region at large. In this way, it is different from the Libyan situation.
You mean because Syria is close to Israel?
I mean, it will not be in anyone's favor if, God forbid, there is widespread fighting in Syria. If a civil war breaks out, it will affect all neighboring countries, which is why everybody wants to avoid it. Also, Syria does not have oil... who will pay the bill for any foreign interference like they did in Libya? So far, the international community does not have any intention of repeating the Libyan scenario in Syria.
Are you afraid of a civil war in Syria?
Yes, I am very afraid. All the events that we have been hearing about indicate that the situation will lead to a civil war. This is what we are trying to avoid, because it will not benefit the Syrian people or their neighboring countries.
Why did the Arab League defer to the Security Council, even though it knew that Russia and the China would veto any action there?
We deferred to the Security Council given the special circumstances. We tried to deal with the situation within an Arab League framework; everyone knows the details. For the first time, the Council of Arab Foreign Ministers sent an Arab observers’ mission to Syria, but the Syrian government postponed the deployment of the observers for 33 days before it finally signed the protocol. After that, we were not able to deploy more than 163 observers, and they worked for 21 days under difficult conditions since the Syrian regime failed to adhere to its commitment to stop the violence.
In any case, it is over now, and we face a different situation today with Mr. Kofi Annan's mission, and we want it to succeed to stop the bloodshed as soon as possible. In this context, I would like to point out that, since last September, the Secretariat of the Arab League has been meeting with all of the Syrian opposition parties and will host a gathering on May 16th and 17th in Cairo [Syrian opposition canceled this meeting], where representatives of the Arab Ministerial Committee and the five permanent members of the Security Council, as well as Turkey, Tunisia, representatives of the European Union, the United Nations, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation will attend the meeting. We hope that we can help the opposition find common political ground and unite its ranks as much as possible.
But the Arab League was already aware of Russia and China's positions, which led some to say that going to the Security Council was an ineffective step before it was even taken...
This is not true. The Arab League went to the United Nations after studying the situation in order to remind the Security Council of its responsibilities after the failure of the Arab observers’ mission. It never intended to embarrass Russia or China.
What about Turkey's link to the situation in Syria?
Turkish diplomacy is very active and involved in Syrian affairs, and it has drawn its own conclusions. They have a real problem with the increasing numbers of Syrian refugees, and their government is cooperating with the Arab League with regards to the tragic situation in Syria.
Has the increase of refugees along its borders preoccupied its activities recently?
Maybe, I don't know.
What about the Shiite factor in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon and their relationship with this complex issue?
I am not one to promote sectarian or ideological conflict in the region, and I do not agree with those who see the situation from such a viewpoint. Syrian politics are very complex because the fabric of the Syrian society is made up of different communities and many of them are concerned about their future. The minorities are worried about a bloody and chaotic transitional period, something which we must all work to avoid. I would like to point out that many of the Syrian opposition parties — and I won't mention names — spoke frankly to me, saying "we want to change the rules governing the regime, and not the whole regime itself."
By this do you mean the ruling Alawite family?
There are different views. Some opposition parties are ready for cooperation and understanding with a government that is committed to change and development within the society — one which calls for freedom, pluralism and alternation in power. Others reject this and call for establishing a new system altogether. Generally, it is not up to me or to others to interfere in such an issue since it is an internal affair and the Syrians are the ones who will decide their future at the end of the day.
What about the hundreds of people being killed on a daily basis?
What is happening is horrible and unacceptable whether one person is dying, or thousands. I took my position on July 3, 2011, and a week later I contacted the Syrians and met with the Syrian leadership on July 13 to discuss stopping the violence, releasing the detainees and launching political reforms. Today, 10 months later, we are still making the same demands, but unfortunately nothing has changed.
What was Assad's reaction to your suggestions and requests?
He believes that the violence was the result of terrorism, that he is trying to eliminate the terrorists, that there is nothing going on in Damascus or Aleppo, and that these problems only exist in the border towns because of foreign intervention. This is similar to what Qaddafi used to say when he called the rebels "rats" and accused them of having affiliations to Al-Qaeda. Everyone tries to justify their behavior; no one wants to look in the mirror only to see his own flaws and understand that this kind of governance is no longer acceptable in modern times.
Is there any pressure on Bashar to relinquish power?
On January 22, the Council of Arab Ministers issued a recommendation that the Syrian president authorize the vice president to meet up with the opposition and reach a solution, form a transitional government, build a pluralistic regime and draft a new constitution. Kofi Annan is abiding by this particular plan because the political path is just as important as the attempts to cease fire, and without it we will not make any progress on other matters.
Do you think that Kofi Annan will succeed where the Arab League failed?
Yes, I believe so.
Because the United Nations has several pressure cards and it has the Security Council, which is able to issue important and binding resolutions, at least in theory. Our decisions, as a regional organization, are not binding even though we are part of this large global system and, according to the provisions of the United Nations Charter, we are obliged to resort to the UN if necessary.
Doesn't this embarrass the Arab League?
Not at all, since the United Nations Charter stipulates that. The African Union, for example, resorted to the United Nations to solve the Darfur problem.
Speaking of Darfur, do you think that North and South Sudan are heading toward imminent war?
I hope not. I think that, after the Security Council intervenes and the issues a resolution that threatens to impose sanctions if the escalation continues, things will calm down. However, we must recognize that South Sudan is the one which started the escalation and used force within Northern Sudan’s borders. We as an Arab League are cooperating with the African Union to resolve this problem, since the Arab League cannot intervene in this matter on its own.
Because South Sudan never requested to join the league, even though we have an office in Juba that has been active for a long time. Before the state of South Sudan was declared, I asked about this matter and was told that it was pending. I hope they will decide to join the league.
Do you think that South Sudan has contacts with African countries who do not want them to join the Arab League? Does this affect the Arabs?
It is in South Sudan's interest to join the league, since the South is a part of Sudan which was, as a whole, part of the league. But in the end, it is their decision, and North and South Sudan are members of the African Union. This is in the hands of the Security Council; the league does not have to intervene outside of his framework.
Given the League’s failure in Syria and its inability to intervene in Sudan and, before that, its referral of the Libyan situation to the Security Council, has the Arab League become a rubber stamp for ratifying the international community’s decisions?
Throughout its history, the Arab League has never been a rubber stamp for ratifying these decisions, nor will it ever be. This phrase greatly oversimplifies its role and its decision-making mechanisms. As I have mentioned several times before, the league carries out essential tasks. However, it desperately needs to develop and improve its performance.
An independent committee led by former Algerian Minister Lakhdar Brahimi has been formed that will submit specific recommendations which I hope to present at the league's board next September so that we can move forward with developing the Arab League.
How is this expected to take place?
The development will take place in three stages: The first includes developing the secretariat to prevent redundancy and improve performance. The second phase includes developing coordination mechanisms between the league's organizations. The third stage involves modifying the Arab League Charter provisions to be consistent with the spirit of our time so that the league's resolutions will be both binding and enforceable, thus positively affecting the average Arab citizen. I sincerely hope I will succeed in achieving this goal.
Do you expect that these changes will involve the formation of a joint Arab army?
It might be difficult at this stage, but it is possible to form joint peacekeeping forces. In any case, we could not use them except to defend a country exposed to an external attack, according to the joint defense agreement and the Charter of the United Nations. In the Syrian and Libyan cases, we cannot intervene militarily since the condition of a foreign attack on the state does not exist and is not applicable.
Even if there is a consensus that what is taking place is a massacre or a genocide?
This is something different, and it is possible to consider it for the amendment of the charter. But what I meant is that, under the present League charter, any military intervention must be predicated by the presence of external aggression against a member state.
How do you view the Palestinian cause, now that we commemorate the 64th anniversary of Al-Nakba?
The Palestinian cause is the most important issue in the Arab world. At the same time, it is the only issue that the Arab world as a whole cannot solve without the interference of the United Nations, the United States and Europe. Under the current modern international system, we see the United Nations issuing many decisions, some of which are not implemented by the international community. This is the reality that we must recognize, since the United States does not want to exert pressure on Israel, and that is why we need to think about what can be done in one way or another.
Currently we have a major problem that I would like to focus on: namely, the issue of the rights of prisoners and detainees in Israeli prisons. It is a very clear-cut issue. The detainees are being treated inhumanely, but no one is moving a finger to support or defend them. The Arab League seeks to introduce this humanitarian issue into various international forums, and we intend to launch a wide-scale media campaign to shift the world’s conscience toward this issue. There are detainees who have spent more than 25 years in prison under difficult conditions, and there are those who have been imprisoned administratively for 7 years or more without trial.
Does the League’s focus on the detainees issue reflect its inability to solve other important issues?
As it stands, the international community will not solve the important issues. For 60 years, the Security Council has been discussing this issue until Israel’s deceitfulness convinced the international Quartet, consisting of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia, as well as the international community, to postpone this issue instead of solving it. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accord; the agreement stipulated that the problem would be solved in 5 years.
So there is no pressure to resolve the issue?
Some Arab countries can pressure Israel but no one is ready or willing to make such a move at this point. Our one loophole is the abuse of the detainees, so we focus on that. Let us also focus on the settlements issue. Of course, a comprehensive solution involves the end of the occupation, but no one can do that now, which is why we should look for ways to exert partial pressure on Israel.
Have the Arab revolutions made it easier to resolve the issue?
The Arab revolutions gave the people a louder voice,which helps them create pressure on Israel and the international community. The proof is that, immediately after the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution, people started expressing their rejection of the siege on the Gaza Strip. When I was foreign minister in the post-revolution government, I stressed that such a siege should not be permissible even in cases of war, let alone in the case of occupation.
What needs to happen for there to be international consensus on resolving the Palestinian cause?
We need to create conditions and consolidate the idea that the current situation is not in the interest of peace, and that we must find a just solution to end the Israeli occupation.
Is this what the Arab diplomacy has been trying to achieve for 40 years?
Unfortunately, Israel has the strength and the capability to pressure all of Europe and the United States. Meanwhile we have not been able to properly exert pressure. Thus I cannot imagine a solution any time soon.
Have we been distracted over the years in negotiations by focusing on resolving the Palestinian issue?
We were obliged to do so, and no one knows when there will be results. One day it will change, and everything Israel is doing against history and geography will change too. The international community believes that this is wrong and must be fixed.
But the Gaza Strip remains under siege and the crossings have not been fully opened.
At the political level, there are no problems between Egypt and Hamas. I kept the door of the Foreign Ministry open to all the leaders of the movement; I received Khaled Meshaal at the league headquarters a few weeks ago and he visited me in my house. However, there is a security problem: Hamas cannot allow more than 400 people through the crossings per day because they fear letting arms smugglers and people wanted by the security authorities through, something which I totally understand.
When will the dispute between Fatah and Hamas end? There have been several initiatives and promises, but nothing has been fulfilled.
Reality states that both parties feel that they have to reach an understanding to best serve their interests. However, both have their own personal considerations, not only amongst each other, but also within their own party at home and abroad. We are waiting for a new government to form, but until they set the election date, we hope that an agreement can be reached.
Does the agreement reached between the Likud and Kadima on forming a coalition government have any political implications?
Of course. I have been negotiating with the Israelis since 1973, from their first disengagement until we signed their withdrawal from Taba in 1989. It seems that they realized that if they do not agree with each other, the votes become fragmented and go to minor parties... So, to avoid this scenario, the Likud, Kadima and the Labor parties agreed to cooperate with each other.
Does this pave the way, like some analysts say, for a pre-emptive strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities?
It is difficult to imagine that Israel would take such a step without US support. If Obama wins the upcoming US elections, then I don’t believe that he will give Israel the green light to do such a thing. There are other parties, like the Gulf countries, who are important for the United States and do not want the situation to escalate, even though there are serious and fundamental problems between these countries and Iran. Plus, Iran’s military reaction toward such a move has serious repercussions, so this makes me rule out the possibility of a war at this point.
Do you think that the Arab world is heading toward an Islamic nation, as Muslim Brotherhood leading figure Mahmoud Ghozlan had said, which will subsequently lead to the abolition of the Arab League?
This will never happen. Yes, there are Islamic trends that exist or participate in the governance of the Arab countries, just like what happened in Europe when it was ruled by Christian groups. Yet, it advanced and established democracy. These are natural stages which all states go through. There is a strong relationship between Arab countries, one that is not only based on religion. Just look at the presence of non-Muslim minorities in a number of countries, including Egypt.