Syrian membership in the Arab League will be resumed immediately after an agreement is reached at the Geneva-2 peace talks and certain changes take place, the organization’s Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said in an exclusive interview with RT.
The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership back in November 2011 over the government’s violent crackdown on civilian demonstrators protesting against the rule of President Bashar Assad.
The League’s Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told RT Arabic what conditions Damascus should meet in order to regain its seat in the regional organization. In the interview with Amal Hannaoui, he also shared his opinion about the settlement of the Syrian crisis as well as other tensions in the region.
RT: Moscow played a prominent role in the Syrian conflict and with the Iranian nuclear program. What about its role in Egypt? And what role should Russia play in Iraq and Libya?
NE: Since you mentioned Moscow’s role in the Syrian conflict, I would like to start with that, because as the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, I am seriously concerned by Moscow’s position on Syria. The people of Syria took to the street just like the people of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen did before them. People wanted to get rid of the regimes that had come to power through military coups and had ruled for a very long time. These regimes ignored the demands of their people. They sought to reassert their power with an iron fist. I expected Russia to show understanding in this situation. But the role Russia plays today is to stand in the way of much-needed change. It is Russia who vetoes UN Security Council resolutions. The Security Council has repeatedly attempted to take humanitarian action with respect to Syria – achieve a ceasefire, deliver humanitarian aid and medications for the suffering people of Syria. But all these efforts failed due to Russia’s opposition, and I don’t understand that.
RT: So, what about Russia’s role in Egypt? And what needs to be done in Iraq and Libya?
NE: First of all, Russia has a lot of positive experience with Egypt. There is real, long-standing friendship between our countries. I think that the recent rapprochement between Russia and Egypt is step in the right direction which enhances stability in the region.
RT: What should Russia do in Iraq and Libya?
NE: This is a totally different subject. In Iraq and Libya, we see different groups clashing with each other. Both countries have their problems. I think we just need a ceasefire between conflicting groups in both countries, and we need to provide necessary assistance for the governments of these two countries.
RT: Given the large number of problems and conflicts, where do you think the Arab world is going today?
NE: Who said the Arab world should go anywhere? Who said that? You have to be more specific. For example, if you were to ask me about the Palestinian issue, I would say that the Arab world should insist on changing the current situation and putting an end to the Israeli occupation. That’s the position of the Arab world. If you ask me about Syria, I will say that the Arab world has adopted enough resolutions with an overwhelming majority. The latest resolution, the on participating in the Geneva conference, was adopted unanimously.
RT: We will come back to that, but still, where is the Arab world going today?
NE: I don’t think this is the right way to put a question: “Where is the Arab world going today?” or “Where is the European Union going today?” You can’t talk about things like that. We have specific issues, and that’s what we should talk about.
RT: Some pundits say the Arab League’s role in resolving conflicts in some Arab countries, especially Syria, is not as prominent today. What is the League’s current position on Syria and the Geneva II conference?
NE: In all our resolutions, the Arab League supports the idea of a political solution to the crisis and speaks in favor of convening a conference in Geneva at an early date. The Arab League works on that in keeping with the resolutions it has adopted. I have had meetings with all the leaders, and I have sent numerous letters to the UN Security Council. We insist that the tragedy that goes on in Syria today has to be stopped as soon as possible. Millions of people suffer because of it. Six million refugees inside Syria suffer from the cold and lack of medications. Two million refugees are outside Syria in neighboring countries, which has a very negative effect on those countries. This is why we need to convene this conference as soon as possible. The Geneva conference will not resolve all the problems in a day, or in a week, or in 10 days. I don’t know how much exactly it will take. But at least this conference has a clear goal: first, to launch the transition period, which is, by the way, what the final communique of last year’s Geneva conference says, and, second, to form a viable government that would have full executive power in Syria.
RT: Some say that the Arab League’s role in the Syrian crisis did not go beyond imposing sanctions against the Syrian government by suspending Syria’s membership in the League. At the same time, the League does nothing to improve the situation in Syria. Why do you think this happens?
NE:This is wrong. The League did all it could from July 2011 to January 22, 2012. I personally went to Damascus three times – twice on my own initiative and once with a group of foreign ministers on behalf of the Council – trying to influence the regime’s policies. We made three demands: First, we demanded that government forces should stop opening fire on peaceful protesters; second, release political prisoners; and third, real political reforms. We did what we could for six months. Then, based on a request by a part of the Syrian people and on our own initiative as an organization operating under the auspices of the UN and engaged in issues of peace and security, we appealed to the UN Security Council asking them to discuss this issue. The Security Council discussed this issue on January 22 2012, and the UN Secretary General agreed to appoint a special envoy on behalf of two organizations, the UN and the League of Arab States. So, we are involved in this process, but so far we have been unable to resolve this problem, just like the entire international community with the UN Security Council has been unable to resolve it. You should not criticize the League, saying it was unable to do anything. The entire international community was unable to do anything.
RT: When will Syria resume its membership in the League?
NE: This will happen when certain changes take place in Syria after the Geneva conference and when we see concrete results. The idea of the Geneva conference is based on an agreement between the government and the opposition. As soon as this happens, Syria’s membership in the League will be resumed.
RT: Why is it that you don’t receive certain members of external and internal opposition in preparation for the Geneva II conference?
NE: We had a meeting in Cairo in August 2012, where we had about 250 people from Syria, representing all sorts of opposition groups, both internal and external. The opposition delegation at the conference should represent all internal and external groups, regardless of whether it is the Free Syrian Army or any other group. We are willing to organize a meeting in Cairo where everybody’s interest will be taken into account.
RT: Why is it that you did not invite, say, the National Coordination Committee?
NE: You see, we have the League Council in the League of Arab States, and the Council has decided that it is the Syrian National Coalition who represents the Syrian opposition today. If the National Coordination Committee, or any coordination committees, want to join in, they are welcome. We will not determine who should represent Syria. The League Council has recognized the Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The Secretary General has to follow the Council’s decisions.
RT: Could the League host a conference where all conflicting parties in Syria would come to the table? Don’t you think that, by allowing certain Arab states to supply weapons to the Syrian opposition, the League complicated the situation in Syria even further?
NE: I’ll start with your second question. None of the resolutions we have adopted in the past two years says anything like that. But if we were to discuss supporting the opposition in any way we can, including weapons, we would only do this in response to Russia, the country your channel represents, supplying weapons to the Syrian government, which is a party to the conflict. Iran does the same. We would be burying our head in the sand if we were to ignore the need to support the opposition. But the opposition began to receive aid only two years after Russia and Iran began to supply their weapons and Hezbollah got involved in the conflict.
RT: Could the League host a conference where all conflicting parties in Syria would come to the table?
NE: Of course.We are absolutely ready to organize a meeting for all the parties. We have a little over a month left before Geneva II, and I think it would be good to have a meeting like that. I absolutely support this idea – to have a meeting where everybody would be present. But the government will not participate. We have, on numerous occasions, talked to the Syrian leadership about the possibility of having a meeting at the League headquarters for all the parties, including those inside and outside of Syria. But they refused outright, saying they will only meet with the opposition in Damascus.
RT: What role does the League play in solving the problem of Syrian refugees, considering that many Arab states consider themselves friends of the Syrian people?
NE: We are in close contact with the governments of the countries receiving refugees. League experts have visited refugee camps in all the Arab countries. We provide aid for refugees. We work to take care of this issue. But the proper solution would be for them to go back to their country. But they can’t do that now, with war going on, and also considering what will happen to them if they return to Syria.
RT: Mr. Secretary-General, I’m just trying to ask some questions that many people have.
NE: Very well. I will try to answer them.
RT: Do you think the Syrian opposition can form one delegation to represent it at the Geneva II conference, as Moscow insists?
NE: In this kind of conflict, the opposition always tends to become fragmented, because it represents different groups. This is only natural. For example, remember what happened in Algerian 1961-1962. The opposition there was fragmented as well; certain opposition leaders were even assassinated. Coming back to your question about the Syrian opposition, I would say yes. Many groups, including Kurds, have joined the National Coalition. I think they will come to an agreement to send a delegation to Geneva.
RT: You do a lot to resolve the Syrian conflict. Whom do you blame for what is happening in Syria?
NE: Like I said from the start, it is all the regime’s fault. During my visits to Syria, I spoke about the need to have a proper understanding of history. When people take to the street, you have to respond to their demands. The crisis started in March 2011, and until the end of 2011 there was no civil war. The problem could have been easily solved at that point. All the resolutions that the League adopted from the beginning of the crisis and until November 2011, said unequivocally that the Assad regime could continue until 2014 but real political reforms were necessary. That was our position.
RT: Let’s move on to Egypt. Do you think the current situation in Egypt is favorable for a referendum on amending the Constitution?
NE: We need a referendum on the Constitution. We have to start taking steps according to the roadmap in order to calm things down. I am not excited about the overall situation. Bitter confrontation continues. But I hope things will calm down after the referendum.
RT: Mr. Secretary-General, why is it that we don’t see any Arab initiatives regarding Egypt while Americans and Europeans have come up with quite a few?
NE: What do you mean by “Arab initiatives”? We’ve had numerous visits. True, we did not have a common initiative but we had visits. We visited many Arab countries.
RT: But Americans and Catherine Ashton, while on a visit to Egypt, spoke about the need to bring the Muslim Brotherhood back into the picture.
NE: No, that’s not what they said.They said that the political process in Egypt should be inclusive. That is, I think, the word they used. The political process should include everybody except for those who chose the path of violence and terror.
RT: Do you think the recent statements by the Egyptian military government may help relieve tensions in Sinai?
NE: I don’t know what you mean by “Egyptian military government.” There is a government in Egypt; it is not a military government. There is a government: The president is the former chairman of the Constitutional Court; the prime minister is a lawyer with a PhD in economics.
RT: The military say they will not tolerate attacks on the army and police anymore.
NE: There is no such thing as “the military.” I don’t know what this is. There is the minister of defense. There is the minister of the interior. There is the minister of industry and trade. There is the minister of foreign affairs. I don’t know what the “military” is.
RT: For example, the defense minister says…
NE: Of course, it is the defense minister’s responsibility to defend the country. He wants security. He wants to exterminate terrorist strongholds in Sinai. This is perfectly normal. This does not mean that there is some kind of “military” in Egypt.
RT: Do you think Egypt can afford having two presidents on trial at the same time?
NE: I will tell you what I think. I don’t want any trials. I don’t know anything about that. I have not read the indictments. I don’t know what the charges are. I can’t talk about that. I would like us to use the same methods some other nations have used.
RT: What I mean is both presidents have their supporters. Ex-president Morsi has his supporters, and ex-president Mubarak has his. Morsi and Mubarak’s supporters stage street protests. The political and economic situation is unstable. Do you think Egypt can afford having these trials at such a time?
NE: I can’t answer this question because I am not fully familiar with the situation. But I would prefer to keep things calm. I know that there are serious reasons for having those trials. But all I know about the charges is what they say in the media. Unfortunately, I don’t know anything apart from that.
RT: Could you please comment on the current tensions between Cairo and Ankara?
NE: This is an important question, and I will answer it. I met with [Prime Minister of Turkey] Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan a few times. I admire him and his ideas. What’s more, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is my friend. But I absolutely don’t understand the methods the Turkish authorities have been using recently to interfere in the affairs of our region. Especially considering how emotional they get. Perhaps this is because the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had an effect on the “Islamic project” Turkey has announced. So, of course, I would like to see things calm down. Turkey is an important nation. It plays an important role. Historically, Turkey has always had a special relationship with Egypt and other Arab states. I hope that the situation will improve.
RT: Could you please comment on the concerns some Arab states have regarding the agreement on the Iranian nuclear program reached at a recent conference in Geneva?
NE: Let’s start with Iran.It is an important state as well. Iran has a long history with all the Arab states, especially in the Gulf. But I can’t agree with the policies Iran has been pursuing in recent years. Iran has been interfering in many situations. This morning I met with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. I won’t go into the details of our conversation but we discussed, among other things, how Iran interferes into Arab states’ affairs. Just like any other nation that has joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has the right to enrich uranium under international supervision. Iran is entitled to use nuclear technology but only for peaceful purposes. Iran has recently taken steps to rectify the situation, which is encouraging to me, and I have said so. But I think the reason this is important is because it is a first step towards turning the Middle East into a nuclear-free zone. Arab countries have been demanding this since 1974. We live in a region where we have the nation of Israel, which has a nuclear program and nuclear weapons. Everybody knows that. But until this day the Israeli nuclear program is not under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). So I regard the Geneva agreement as a good occasion to address this issue in earnest and create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
RT: What do you make of the recent reports suggesting that some Arab states are siding with Israel against Iran? Do you think this may be an exaggeration?
NE:I don’t know about that. I don’t think it’s possible. There is a real problem between Arab states and Israel. It has to be resolved by Israel withdrawing its troops from all the occupied Arab territories.
RT: Do you think that tribal and regional strife in Libya can be just as dangerous as sectarian strife in Iraq?
NE: The Libyan people are quite homogeneous; they are not divided into different denominations. Unfortunately, the Gaddafi regime ruled over Libya for 42 years, and there were no institutions in the country during this time. Currently, Libya tries to establish proper institutions. The League stays in close contact with Libya. We have our office there helping the government to set up proper institutions. Perhaps I will soon visit Libya in order to help the Libyans together with the UN to form government institutions and normalize the situation in the country. We have been in close contact with the Libyan authorities since 2011, helping them with these issues. In October, we had a large delegation visiting Libya. The UN also helps the country to set up proper government institutions.
RT: Could you be a bit more specific?
NE: I am specific.
RT: These government institutions you talk about, do they help the Libyan people?
NE: Yes, they help normalize the situation and establish dialogue. That’s our goal.
RT: Since we see uncontrolled circulation of weapons in many Arab states, maybe the League should re-establish its military committee?
NE: This issue regarding the military committee has been under discussion for quite some time. We need to revisit it. We have the Arab Peace and Security Council within the League, and we can ask this council to take up this responsibility. We have to do something about this issue. We have been considering necessary steps for a few months now. Next March, the League will have a summit in Kuwait, and we will discuss the matters related to the further development of the League’s structure, including making the Arab Peace and Security Council more efficient.
RT: It’s been over two decades since the Madrid Conference took place, and Washington is still playing the leading role in the peace process. What is then Moscow’s role in this process?
NE: Speaking of the Madrid Conference, I want to be frank: I am personally against the concept that was adopted at that conference because it halted the processes that the UN was working on prior to the conference. Granted, the UN failed to put an end to the conflict…the Security Council set up the Middle East Quartet, which holds talks but to no avail.
The conflict needs to be resolved. The Arab states captured it as their final decision on November 17 of the last year. After that, we had consultations with the involved countries and the permanent members of the UN Security Council to confirm their commitment to this track. They all pledged their support. For example, the US Secretary of State visited Cairo and confirmed that the US wishes to have this conflicted resolved in an established timeframe just like the Arab states do. After this, the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations resumed, yet they have not yielded any results so far. The timeframe for these negotiations is set at nine months. There are still a few months left till the end of this period. Let’s see what outcome we get.
RT: What is Moscow’s role in this process?
NE: Moscow always plays a key role. At the end of day, this matter will go to the UN Security Council which will have to make a decision. So, the role of Moscow in this settlement process is quite obvious. Russia has always been an advocate for the rights of the Arab nations, and especially of the Palestinian people, in this conflict with Israel. I always speak very highly of Russia’s role.
RT: Two years ago, Moscow suggested hosting a peace conference similar to the one that took place in Annapolis. Yet some believe there are forces out there trying to keep this and other related issues under US control. Could you comment on this?
NE: I support every effort aimed at reaching peace by putting an end to Israeli occupation and establishing two states living side by side in peace, with Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. We support whatever Moscow does along this track.
RT: Are there any forces trying to keep this and other related issues under US control?
NE: Let’s be honest. The United States is the only country in the world that can force Israel to accept the conditions I just mentioned. I would like to tell you something. When Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula, Moscow and Cairo had a very close relationship. I worked at the Foreign Ministry at the time, and I personally heard Russian officials suggesting to the Egyptian authorities that they should improve their relationship with the US in order to maintain proper balance between the US and Russia. So, we all know that Russia plays an important role but Russia does not have leverage with Israel.
RT: Some say the League is unable to make Israel stop settlement activity or the Gaza blockade. What would be your comment?
NE: So you’re saying the League is unable to make Israel stop settlement activity? Well, can anyone in the world make Israel stop settlement activity? What can the League do if even the UN Security Council can’t make Israel stop? What can the League do if no institution in the whole world can stop Israel? Washington alone has the leverage.
RT: Some think it may be a while before the Palestinian issue is resolved. What are the chances of achieving Palestinian reconciliation? How long will it take? Why aren’t efforts made to at least implement the existing agreements?
NE: In keeping with the decisions made by the League, the government of Egypt continuously makes efforts along this track. I am in contact with [Palestinian] President Mahmoud Abbas. He fully supports the Palestinian reconciliation agreement which was signed in Cairo on May 4, 2011. As of now, the action is due on the side of Hamas to facilitate the elections across all of the occupied Palestinian territories.
RT: Moscow believes that Geneva, diplomacy and compliance with international law are the best way to address issues in the Middle East and in the Arab world. At what level is the cooperation and coordination between the Arab League and the Kremlin, and what are the prospects here?
NE: We maintain contact with Russia continuously. Sergey Lavrov is an old friend of mine. Last time I saw him was about two months ago. We had a disagreement on the Syrian issue but we maintain contact at all times. I have regular meetings and phone conversations with the Russian ambassador, so everything is in order.
RT: Our guest today was Secretary-General of the League of Arab States Nabil Elaraby, many thanks for being with us.
NE: My pleasure.