Italy and Syria: Potentials and Contradictions
Director, Mediterranean and Middle East Program, Italian Atlantic Committee
17 October 2015
The EU has not been able so far to outline a consistent stance towards the recent developments in Syria. This is mainly due to the lack of a shared approach among the so called EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) on relevant issues such as the Russian military intervention, the participation of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the political transition, and the set-up of a no-fly zone in northern Syria upon Turkish request. As a result, the trojka has failed to provide the High Representative Federica Mogherini with the necessary drive to state at least a pretense of a European common foreign and security policy on Syria.
Against the backdrop of the trojka’s inability to have a positive impact in the crisis, Italy has a broad leeway to step up its engagement in Syria with a view to favoring a political solution and the stabilization of the country. However, the loss of its foreign policy culture and the lack of a strategic vision continue to curb Italy's ability to assert its great potentials as main reference point for conflicts resolutions in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
ITALY’S UNEXPLOITED MIDWAY APPROACH
Following the Russian military intervention, which marked a turning point in the crisis, effective diplomacy in Syria is today as essential as ever to coalesce the parties around the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups, opening the way to an agreement on the timing and modalities of the political transition.
Building upon its good relations with all the stakeholders and its traditional mediations skills, Italy is in a privileged position to facilitate the convergence of different orientations and interests in both the security and political tracks of the ongoing conflict.
Italy has promoted the midway approach which is currently required in Syria since the outset of the crisis. In February 2011, the then Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Franco Frattini visited Damascus and met with Assad and his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Muallem. Frattini did not deny the existence in Syria of the same kind of discontent that had already surfaced in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya during the Arab Spring, but he also reasserted the importance of keeping Syria “stable and immune from external interferences”, while “accompanying the country in the process of democratic opening”.
In continuity with Frattini, the incumbent Minister of Foreign Affairs Paolo Gentiloni explained that “Italy has always been skeptical about ruling out Assad, being aware [of] the risk of creating a void to be exploited by terrorists”. Before the Italian House of Representatives, Gentiloni remarked that “a political transition is necessary to get to the overcoming of the present regime and Assad’s leadership”. Nevertheless, the transition should not “create power and institutional vacuums which have generated further tragedies in other contexts”. Gentiloni’s warning is based on the negative experience in Libya after the fall of Muhammar Gaddafi, a warning recently reiterated by the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Then, the Italian government has identified the very middle ground where the opposing positions on the future of the Syrian President could eventually meet. The formula crafted by Gentiloni − “a political transition at the conclusion of which Bashar al-Assad will leave the field” − is a realistic medium-term deadline, which is gradually being accepted across the board as “the only one path to end the Syrian crisis”.
The Italian formula has been endorsed by the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany. Unprecedented openings have emerged from Turkey, while Russia’s availability to achieve a compromise solution could favor a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia on Assad’s longevity in power. The immediate ouster of the Syrian President as a pre-condition to start the transition is still being asked by France alone.
Therefore, looking to the relaunch of the peace talks in Syria, Italy is best placed to undertake a diplomatic initiative aimed at leading the regional, international, and local actors concerned towards a settlement to usher in a new political phase. Nevertheless, the Italian government does not seem prone to seize the opportunity to assert neither its farsighted standpoint, nor the positive and constructive function that would ensue.
Renzi should consider that leaving the whole field on the future Syrian developments to other countries risks to be the recipe for Italy’s sidelining at the negotiating table. The Prime Minister stigmatized the French airstrikes which targeted an ISIS training camp in Syria. In doing so, however, Paris has secured its share of influence over the course of events, despite that the ambitions inspiring its actions had already been highlighted by the recent Libyan affair.
To remark that Libya is the top priority issue for Italy in the Mediterranean does not suffice to explain why the government decided not to be in the frontline in Syria. If Libya is at the doorstep, Syria is not much further away. Moreover, the two crises are interconnected from a geopolitical and security angle, and the developments in the fight against ISIS in Syria, as well as in Iraq, will affect Libya’s stabilization.
While measuring out its engagement in Syria, the Italian government should also consider the objective limits of its efforts in Libya. The mediation work in the Libyan political process continues to be led by countries other than Italy. The appointment of the German Martin Kobler as the new UN Special Representative speaks for itself. Germany is not even a Mediterranean country and, along with France, opposed the launch of a stabilization and reconstruction mission in Libya that would have been fundamental to support the country at the beginning of the post-Gaddafi era.
Needless to say, the nationality of the UN Special Representative for Syria Staffan De Mistura makes a major Italian involvement in the Syrian crisis even more natural and obvious.
A secondary role in Syria is unsuitable for Italy also taking into account the relevance of its strategic relations with neighboring Lebanon. Italian generals have been succeeding for years at the helm of the UNIFIL mission in south Lebanon, where over one thousand Italian soldiers are deployed, and Italy is the first Lebanese trade partner.
THE NEED FOR EXTERNAL TRIGGERS
The Italian governments tend not to assume a proactive posture in foreign policy even if the overall circumstances would allow for it, unless a drive to action intervenes from the outside: from NATO, the EU, the UN, or an allied country, particularly the United States. The present executive is still not an exception.
Among the main countries engaged in the US-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq, Italy is the only one not to conduct airstrikes. So far Italy has provided reconnaissance and refueling aircrafts, light weapons to the Peshmerga, and trainers to the Iraqi army, but the Italian warplanes cannot target ISIS directly.
Following a request of President Barack Obama, Renzi is said to be considering the authorization of airstrikes. Yet, the enhancement of Italy’s military contribution to the anti-ISIS coalition would not be the result of a political deliberation of the government, rather a mere and due response to an external stimulus.
In return, Italy is supposed to gain the US support to a leading role in an international stabilization mission in Libya. The inception of such a mission, however, remains uncertain given the volatility of the political and security situation in the country, while the hesitations being displayed in the Iraqi case cast doubts over the credibility of the Italian level of ambition in Libya. In addition, there are no indications that striking ISIS in Iraq will be part of a broader strategy to bolster Italy’s role in Syria.
Nevertheless, the complex and ever-changing dynamics of the Syrian crisis keep calling Italy to be at the forefront of the conflict resolution process. The Russian increasing involvement has opened new diplomatic avenues and it is a task of the Italian government to pursue them.
A BRIDGE BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND RUSSIA
Historically, Italy has been a meeting ground for the United States and Russia. After the Cold War, it was by an Italian diplomatic initiative that the NATO-Russia Council was founded in 2002. Today, Italy can relaunch its role as a bridge between the two major powers in Syria.
As the Russian first airstrikes demonstrated, the understanding reached by Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin at the UN General Assembly is still fragile and needs to be consolidated. The Italian government could help this understanding evolve into a genuine cooperation, based on a shared strategic vision on how to conduct the fight against ISIS and to start the political transition.
From Syria, the Italian mediation between the United States and Russia can be extended to Iraq. Recently, Russia has established an anti-ISIS task force in Baghdad including Iran, Syria, and the Iraqi government. The task force could lay the groundwork to Russian airstrikes also in Iraq, as requested by the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other Iraqi officials.
However, the attempts by some forces in the region to make the Russian-led task force into an alternative anti-ISIS alliance (labeled as the “4 + 1”) to be set against the US-led coalition, risk to undermine the strategic convergence of Moscow and Washington in Syria, Iraq, and the broader region.
Therefore, Italy should ensure that Russia, and also the other countries and actors involved in the task force, will not remain trapped in such a confrontational scheme. Building walls to keep the belligerent factions apart and uphold the unsustainable status quo in Syria, would only encourage a further sectarian escalation of the conflict to the benefit of ISIS and of those groups which are interested in fueling the hostilities.
Actually, the Russian Foreign Ministry declared that Moscow could join the US-led coalition “if a number of conditions are met”. Whether or not the United States and Russia will officially form a single broader front against ISIS, it is crucial that the two major powers will effectively cooperate according to a common strategy in Iraq as well.
To this end, Italy would be the ideal bridge between the US-led coalition and the Russian-led task force, both in operations and at the political level, especially if the Italian military engagement in Iraq will be enhanced.
PROSPECTS FOR THE ITALIAN ENGAGEMENT IN SYRIA
The fact that Libya is obviously atop the list of priorities of the Italian government should not come at the expense of its engagement in Syria. Italy has the capabilities and the instruments to play a key role in both crises. Its unique sensitivity for the Mediterranean and Middle East issues, combined with its wealth of regional relations, can be the source of the smart and effective diplomacy that has been missing so far in Syria, mainly from the Western side.
Regrettably, today the country is not up to its great potentials, so much so that it looks unable even to sustain its traditional “chair policy” without much fatigue. To bring about a qualitative leap in the Italian foreign and security policy, the attitude to adjust to complementary functions in international politics, fully internalized after the Second World War, should finally be overcome, but the current government does not seem to be ready yet to accomplish such a transformation.
Therefore, to encourage the government to enhance its engagement in Syria, an outside drive to action remains necessary. A drive that could also come from Italy’s major partner countries in the Arab world, such as the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Egypt.