The Secretary-General of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, called on the Syrian opposition to reach a unified position and participate in the Geneva II Conference. In an interview with Al-Hayat at the UN Headquarters in New York, he said that the solution in Syria “must be political, while many in the Syrian opposition believe that military intervention is the only solution.”
Elaraby confirmed that discussions are underway to hold the conference “to form a governmental body for the transitional period,” so as to avoid the collapse of the state in Syria, and for it not to become a “failed state.” He also said that “all parties” agreed that the transitional governmental body would include “the army and intelligence services.”
The following is the text of the interview:
Al-Hayat: There has been some sort of dissatisfaction among some Arab countries with the way the United States has been dealing with Arab states, while it has been making diplomatic overtures with Iran. Did you have the same impression?
Elaraby: I sensed there was a change in the US policy and a concern among some Arab countries, there is no doubt about that. However, I have not noticed that there has been any change in the Iranian policy in light of this diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries. I have never met [Iranian President] Hassan Rouhani, but given his history and from what I heard, he is an open-minded man. [Iran’s Foreign Minister] Mohammad Javad Zarif has been a dear friend of mine for over 25 years. I have met with him twice and I believe he is planning on changing a lot in politics. I have clearly said to him that first and foremost there will be no Iranian interference in Arab countries. I gave him the example in Egypt and what the Grand Imam of al-Azhar had already mentioned to me, which I conveyed to former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi. [I told him] we hope that Iran, a neighboring country with which we share historical ties, would stop interfering in Arab countries. In Egypt in particular there have been attempts to spread the Shiite faith, which was what the Grand Imam of al-Azhar protested against. He gave me some books that were printed in Iran [in this regard].
Al-Hayat: What did the Iranian foreign minister say to you in this regard?
Elaraby: The foreign minister has denied it. The current minister was present with one of his associates. He said that we will study the issue to check whether the matter was true or not so as to put an end to it. I told him about the issue of the islands and the dispute with the UAE in this regard. I said to him: “You and I are both men of law, and we have already worked together in many cases within the framework of international law. We would like this issue to be solved.” I also mentioned to him Article 33 of the UN Charter, according to which all disputes between nations shall be settled, starting with negotiations and ending by restoring international justice.
Al-Hayat: What reassurance did he give in this regard?
Elaraby: “In this context, negotiations may be the solution.” This is what he said to me. The foreign minister of the former regime used to tell me, “This is our land and we will not discuss it with anyone.” Therefore, this is a positive development.
Al-Hayat: Is there a positive development in the issue of the three UAE islands then?
Elaraby: To what extent [this was true] in regard to the islands of Abu Musa, and Greater and Lesser Tunbs? What will happen? I don’t know. All I know is that he met with a number of Arab foreign ministers.
Al-Hayat: You must have talked about the Syrian issue and the Iranian crisis.
Elaraby: Certainly, we dealt with this issue; in fact it was the first to be brought up. I mentioned to him that all Arab countries with all their different inclinations agree on one idea: the necessity of a political solution and the necessity of holding the Geneva II conference. If you are a part of the problem, you should be a part of the solution. [I asked him:] Do you agree to go to Geneva? He said, “We do, yet without conditions, without anyone imposing conditions on us.”
Al-Hayat: Were you designated to ask him this question?
Elaraby: No, no one designated me. I personally took the initiative to talk to him. This is the wish of the Arab countries. As a general secretary for the Arab league, I have to implement and stick to the decisions.
Al-Hayat: In the past, Saudi Arabia opted not to take part in the Geneva conference so as not to give a pretext to invite Iran to the conference. Is there any development in your stance? You are saying you want Iran to participate in Geneva II. Is there an Arab readiness to participate, especially among the countries that had reservations before?
Elaraby: I did not talk to any Arab country. All that happened last April when there was a possibility to hold the Geneva conference in May is that the UN secretary, given that we are all part of Lakhdar Brahimi’s mission, asked my opinion in regard to forming a delegation and the measures related to me. I repeated this to him. Maybe some countries were not satisfied with what I said. I repeated more than once that, first, all regional countries, notably those who believe they have a role in this issue, should be present. Second, the issue of overcoming the influences of any country can be done through calling on an open meeting in English where all regional countries take part and each of them set forth their points of view and then leave, leaving [the rest] to negotiators.
Al-Hayat: Let us talk further about the issue of Geneva II. You stayed in New York for a while. Are you fully cooperating with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when it comes to deciding on the date of the conference? What was the result? What is your role as secretary-general of the Arab League in the context of preparations for the conference? How far have you gotten?
Elaraby: It is in the context of preparing for the Geneva conference. The Arab League decided on May 22, 2012, to refer to the Security Council as required by the provisions of Chapter VIII of the UN Charter. We are a regional organization and we have to commit ourselves to the mother organization, the UN. We cooperated to appoint a special envoy, Kofi Annan. In this context, we went together to Geneva. Of course, you know that the UN is the major partner. And we are the junior partner, no doubt about it. But I met with the secretary-general here several times and he told in our meeting that happened yesterday: "You are the only one whom I have met twice." Because I met him the day after I arrived and I met him the day before I traveled.
Al-Hayat: Tell me about the essence.
Elaraby: The essence is that it is important for the Geneva conference to be held at the earliest opportunity. In my view, it’s wrong that the Syrian problem — which has resulted in four million displaced, more than a hundred thousand dead, and refugees in many countries, where they are suffering — be reduced to dealing with the chemical weapons issue, despite its importance. Therefore, the whole problem must be addressed. And that will not happen except at the Geneva conference. My presence yesterday was to emphasize the importance of the Geneva conference and to confirm the importance of starting the process of humanitarian relief to the Syrian people, who are really suffering.
Al-Hayat: Who will be invited to Geneva? Regional states? Neighboring states?
Elaraby: That has not yet been determined. Unfortunately, in relation to Geneva this time, at this stage, the United States and the Russian Federation are the ones who decide.
Al-Hayat: This time?
Elaraby: This time it’s with the UN secretary-general. We are not participants at this stage.
Al-Hayat: Why don’t you have a role?
Elaraby: We are not participating in these meetings because they are UN meetings. The difference between this meeting and the meeting last year is that Kofi Annan was the one who made the invitation. This time, the secretary-general decided to be the one who invites. The United Nations — [interrupted]
Al-Hayat: But you are a partner, as Arab League secretary-general.
Elaraby: We talk over the phone a lot. And there is a lot of back-and-forth correspondence between us. But we are the junior partner. Everything reaches me today — [interruption]
Al-Hayat: The question is, who will be invited to Geneva II?
Elaraby: This hasn’t yet been decided. Even in regard to Iran, it hasn’t yet been decided, nor whether there will be other regional countries.
Al-Hayat: It hasn’t been decided whether Iran will be invited to Geneva?
Elaraby: No, it hasn’t yet been decided. It hasn’t yet been determined which Arab countries will be invited. Last time there was a big problem. And I suggested that we invite in accordance with the positions, i.e., the chairman of the summit … the prime minister.
Al-Hayat: What is the reference for Geneva II?
Elaraby: Geneva I. The closing statement of the Geneva I meeting, which at the end of the day decided two important points: first, starting a transitional phase, and second, forming an executive body with full powers.
Al-Hayat: In the past, there was the problem of President Bashar al-Assad. What happened with that problem? Has it been resolved?
Elaraby: No, it hasn’t been resolved. In Geneva I, there was ambiguity on this point. But the logical interpretation that is consistent with the whole situation is that when the transition begins, it means that there is a difference between the previous phase and the transitional phase.
Al-Hayat: But at the same time, there’s a new development: there is a role for the Syrian government and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the implementation of the agreement regarding dismantling the chemical weapons. And therefore the presidential elections date in Syria and the completion date for destroying the chemical weapons may coincide. So, do you see a deliberate attempt to keep the Syrian president in office until the end of the process?
Elaraby: The issue of the Syrian president and his mandate is up to the two parties that will sit and negotiate in Geneva. The difficulty here, in my view, is not with the opposition, because if the opposition goes to Geneva, it will gain something. But whatever is agreed to, the regime will lose something. I don’t know how President Assad will be able to clearly instruct his negotiating delegation to not say no. Don’t forget that when the transition phase starts, the Syrian regime will lose something. With the situation that arose from the use of chemical weapons, the Syrian regime has lost because there will be inspectors on the ground, and there will be a search — I will not say more than that — on how to protect them.
Al-Hayat: To protect the inspectors?
AlElaraby: The inspectors, of course. When there are many people going here and there, and opening … that weakens the regime’s prestige.
Al-Hayat: Yes but there is another opinion that says that Russia and Iran, the regime’s partners, are betting that the Syrian opposition will fail to take a position that would make it a serious partner at Geneva II.
Elaraby: Frankly, I don’t think that the government, Russia, and Iran, as you said, are influential at all. On the contrary, the opposition’s problem is that it is composed of different groupings.
Al-Hayat: The countries are betting that the opposition will fail to consolidate itself and head to Geneva and participate effectively.
Elaraby: I’m not talking about these two criteria. But with Russia, clearly, I have met with [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov and he told me that the opposition is fragmented, of course.
Al-Hayat: I’m talking about his role in Geneva. Have they commissioned you, the Arab League secretary-general, to try to convince the opposition?
Elaraby: Yes, there are constant contacts. And the opposition asked me things I will not talk about now because some papers reported that they want an Arab cover.
Al-Hayat: What does that mean?
Elaraby: It means that Arab countries are urging them to go because there are differences inside the opposition on whether to go. There are still many in the opposition, and I cannot mention their names, who see that the solution must be military. And in the Arab League, despite our different backgrounds and orientations, we think that the solution must be a political solution.
Al-Hayat: Mr. Ahmed al-Jarba talked of a framework of Arab guarantees and of an Arab cover. But that is still unclear, especially that there are differences in the positions of the Arab countries themselves on this issue. How do you explain that?
Elaraby: I don’t think that this disagreement between the Arab countries affects the framework of the resolution taken by the Arab League. For example, on Sept. 1 there was a ministerial meeting of 18 foreign ministers in Cairo. They were discussing the subject of the military strike that the United States was threatening. There were different opinions. Some were with it and some were against it. But the matter ended with an acceptable compromise whereby the UN is called to take action against the use of chemical weapons in accordance with the UN Charter and international law. So I can say with assurance that the Arab countries, when they sit together, do reach an acceptable solution that [they think] should be [implemented].
Al-Hayat: The question was about the meaning of the Arab cover and the guarantees?
Elaraby: No one can give guarantees now. What I mean is that, quite frankly, about half the Syrian Coalition opposes going to Geneva. We want there to be an Arab cover. As I have said, the Arab countries are urging them to go to Geneva. This is what I meant.
Al-Hayat: You have mentioned that there are of course differences between those who believe that they should adhere to a military solution and those who believe that a political solution is the only solution. Do you think it makes sense to continue arming the opposition in order to strengthen their negotiating cards, as some have said, especially if the opposition wishes to use diplomacy when it has more strength on the ground?
Elaraby: First, the Arab League has nothing to do with the arming, which was never mentioned in its decisions. But I want to be clear that both sides are being armed. Some Arab countries think it is their duty to help the opposition militarily. They know at the same time that a lot of military aid is coming from Russia and Iran. Everyone is being armed.
Al-Hayat: Regarding Iran, that would constitute a flagrant violation of the Security Council resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, if what you say is true.
Elaraby: Yes, they have to change this policy. And if you want to say some should stop arming the opposition, or the regime, then it has to apply to both sides. I think there will be agreement on this point in the Geneva meeting.
Al-Hayat: You, the League of Arab States, have a position on the Syrian issue. But I don’t remember that you talked about the Iranian armament to the regime in Damascus or of Hezbollah’s overt participation in the fighting.
Elaraby: No, we have taken a clear decision against Hezbollah. We took a decision against assisting all other parties. We did take decisions.
Al-Hayat: Have you taken decisions regarding Iran arming the regime?
Elaraby: We have criticized it and asked it to stop. We can’t do more than that. Iran is not a party. It is not a member of the League of Arab States. So we can only express our opinion.
Al-Hayat: In your talk with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, have you discussed Hezbollah’s role in Syria?
Elaraby: I didn’t discuss that with him. First, the discussion was very short. And I did not discuss Hezbollah with him. But I discussed with him the foreign interventions in Syria in general.
Al-Hayat: He didn’t describe it as interventions. What did he say?
Elaraby: Everyone should stop what they are doing and go to Geneva. We were talking about going. I was looking forward and not backward.
Al-Hayat: President Barack Obama was clear in addressing both Iran and Russia from the UN platform to tell them that it would be better if they abandoned Assad. He offered a sort of a pledge, from his side at least, to the side supporting the opposition, to preserve the state’s institutions. And he provided a pledge to the minorities. Is there some kind of a deal going on behind the scenes now?
Elaraby: Yes, I think that the trend now is that a large number of countries, including the United States, want there to be a change. But at the same time, they don’t want to see the state collapse and become a failed state. This is the idea behind the Geneva meeting and the formation of a transitional government from both the regime and the opposition: it is to prevent the collapse of the state. There is also concern that some extremist groups will gain the upper hand.
Al-Hayat: So that the regime doesn’t collapse?
Elaraby: No, the state, not the regime. The regime will change. We would move to a transition phase whereby the regime is immediately changed.
Al-Hayat: What do you mean?
Elaraby: Yes, Geneva. When the final statement of the First Geneva Conference is implemented: The start of a transition means that there is a change in the regime, immediately.
Al-Hayat: The political regime or the military regime? The army also?
Elaraby: No, the political regime on the one hand, and the transitional government body with full powers. So everyone agreed to an explicit provision that the transitional government will control the army and the intelligence services.
Al-Hayat: Do you agree with those who say that the United States bypassed the Arabs on the Syria issue? Some say that the United States misled some Arabs when it talked of a military strike and about who among the Arabs will take part, and then made the decision to cancel the strike and use diplomacy with Iran and Russia?
Elaraby: All that is speculation. There is no definite information. I feel is that the United States was genuinely intending a military strike. No doubt about it. But the British government’s failure to get an approval, and the positions taken by the members of the US Senate and House no doubt changed the situation. This change came in spite of the government.
Al-Hayat: A little while ago, you spoke about a loss for the regime in Damascus, but in fact there are those who say that there is a failure of the Arab strategy in Syria and a victory for the Iranian and Russian strategy.
Elaraby: To be accurate, the Security Council is the one that failed to resolve the Syrian crisis. The Arab League referred the matter to the Security Council in January 2012. And the Council has been failing for the last 20 months in resolving the crisis, while more than 100,000 people in Syria were killed. The Arab League has done all it can in accordance with its charter and more. But it could not solve the crisis. At a certain stage, it became clear that it cannot solve this problem on its own. Initiatives were presented to Assad, including him staying till 2014 and conducting political reforms. But they were all rejected.
Al-Hayat: Who rejected them?
Elaraby: The Syrian regime. I met him on Sept. 10, 2011, and spoke to him about this initiative even if I didn’t mention the word initiative because it had appeared in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper, and not Al-Hayat, even though it was supposed to be a secret. But they were not interested in any changes.
Al-Hayat: But after that, Russia and Iran insisted on keeping Assad in power until the elections. And you were calling on him to step down.
Elaraby: We decided that we are ready to arrange for him, and for those with him, a safe exit, similar to what happened in Yemen.
Al-Hayat: But is it too late for that?
Elaraby: He refused from the outset. He refused. What do you mean too late? He refused.
Al-Hayat: So you failed in your efforts. The Russian-Iranian project succeeded and the Arab project failed?
Elaraby: There is neither a Russian project nor an Iranian project. It was the Syrian government’s determination to stay in power. Now 100,000 have been killed. This is a very large historic mistake that history will remember.
Al-Hayat: You personally, your situation with Syria has deteriorated of course.
Elaraby: They have cut off relations with me. I admit that. After the observers were withdrawn, some contacts continued between me and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. Then they were cut off. I then met him in Iran. We embraced and I told him that there must be a relationship between us. He said yes. I contacted him by telephone once or twice and we talked. Then he stopped taking my calls. There is no longer a relationship between him and me. Because, after freezing Syria’s participation in the Arab League, they say that the Arab League is not an Arab League without Syria.