Cancelled Syria visit by Arab League Secretary General may take place on Saturday

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 7 Sep 2011

After a short-notice cancellation of Nabil El-Arabi's visit Damascus, Syria is again expressing willingness to receive the head of the Arab League in a few days.

arabi big
Arab League Secretary General, Nabeel El-Araby talks during a press conference at Arab League Headquarters, Sept 4, 2011 (AP)

"There has been a round of consultations and most probably it will take place on Saturday. It is not 100 per cent confirmed because they can always cancel it again," said an Arab League source who asked for his name to be withheld.

The two-day visit that was supposed to start this afternoon was essentially designed to allow for a meeting on Thursday between Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the Chief of the Arab League, Nabil El-Arabi.

The visit was subject to much debate from the day El-Arabi announced his intention to visit Syria, over ten days ago, to discuss a deteriorating political and humanitarian situation. According to Arab League sources, the Syrian authorities did not want to seem to be on the receiving end of an ultimatum regarding their violent suppression of political demonstrations that have been demanding an end to the Assad regime since March.

Late last month a group of Arab League foreign ministers convened to discuss the situation in Syria. They demanded the Syrian authorities to immediately end the bloodshed and to promptly gratify the demands for reform made the Syrian people. The Syrian foreign minister did not attend the meeting. However, the head of the Syrian delegation, Ambassador Youssef Ahmed, Syria's permanent representative to the Arab League, told the foreign ministers that their demands are unacceptable and that Syria would refuse to receive any Arab delegation, as proposed by the meeting, to discuss their demands.

Damascus issued an official statement to denounce the results of the league’s meeting. However, a couple of days ago Ahmed, who had been to Damascus after the ministerial meeting, visited El-Arabi to inform him of Syria's willingness to receive him today. However, this was only on the condition that he is not visiting on behalf of the Arab foreign ministers. El-Arabi kept his word.

However, on Tuesday afternoon he told reporters that he would be communicating a message to the Syrian leadership. And although the Chief of the Arab League made no reference to the contents of the message, Syria was offended and decided to delay the meeting.

Sources say that El-Arabi has promised Syrian Foreign Minister Walid El-Moallem that today he is planning to remain silent on the matter. El-Arabi, according to the same sources, is unlikely to make any press statements in Damascus following his talks with Syrian officials.

Arab and foreign diplomats have been talking increasingly about the influence of Maher Assad, the president's brother, who is basically in charge of the army. It is very common to hear diplomats coming out of Syria, referring to the president’s isolation and his growing depression.

El-Arabi’s visit to Syria comes against a backdrop of international impatience and anger towards the regime’s appalling treatment of its people. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke openly about the need for the international community to force Assad to step down.

"We know that he has to go but the issue is what the alternatives are for Syria; we need to be sure about these alternatives before we can think of lobbying a collective position against [the Syrian president]," said a Damascus-based Western diplomat while on a holiday a few days ago.

One thing is clear: at this point the US and its Western allies are not planning any military action against Syria, due to the sensitive situation of continued Israeli occupation of Syrian territories since the 1967 war. However, what Western diplomats are increasingly talking about is a crippling set of economic sanctions that could be imposed on Syria.

Short link: