Syria: Time to Act for Italy

Despite the handshake between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin at the end of the UN General Assembly, the way back from confrontation to cooperation for the United States and Russia remains arduous and full of potential tensions.

From Ukraine to Europe at large, the rift between Moscow and Washington seems to extend to the Mediterranean, where the Syrian crisis is at a turning point.

In Syria, Italy could and should be a key actor in facilitating a diplomatic settlement, given its good relations with both the United States and the Russian Federation, and its traditional attention and sensitivity toward the problems and dynamics of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Therefore, Italy is expected to play a greater role in promoting a “political transition following which Bashar al-Assad will have to leave the scene”, as called for by the Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni.

This entails seeking a medium-term compromise to coalesce all relevant regional and international actors around the fight against the common enemy of terrorism and, more specifically, ISIS.

A mediation is even more necessary in the light of the criticalities inherent to the understanding reached by Moscow and Washington. This understanding is not based on a shared strategic vision, but on the fear that ISIS will destabilize the neighboring countries, particularly Lebanon and Jordan, owing to its control over a vast region between Syria and Iraq and its increasing ability to recruit militants on a global scale.

The disagreement between US and Russia is evident especially on the timing of the transition. While Putin prefers a long-term solution, Obama aims to a more rapid transition that takes into account the opposition of some strong European partners, such as France, which is opposed to any deal with Assad’s regime.

The developments of the negotiations and of the conflict on the ground are interdependent. As a consequence, the acceptance of a longer stay of Assad in power should correspond to an actual military and security coordination by Russia.

The start of a political transition could be jeopardized by the recent military developments of the crisis. The first Moscow’s bombings did not seem to be pointed to ISIS, but to other rebel groups close to al-Qaida, which are not currently considered a priority by the United States.

If Russia and the United States will not start fighting the same conflict on the battlefield, the hints of compromise from Turkey will fail, along with the possibility that Saudi Arabia will gradually get to an understanding.

That will dismiss the prospect to end the conflict after over four years and 250.000 victims, with a dreadful refugee emergency that is now sweeping Europe besides Syria’s neighboring countries.

The direct involvement of the Russian Federation has undoubtedly helped overcome a stalemate and re-launch the political process, compensating for the feebleness of the US and European engagement in Syria, Iraq and beyond, as demonstrated by ISIS presence in Libya.

However, Moscow’s real intentions are yet to be verified on the ground. If the actions of the Russian Federation will not aim to promote a real transition − as Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have reassured − the terms of the confrontation with Washington and the Europeans will become more apparent also in the Mediterranean.

If this will be the case, it would be desirable that the EU, through the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, would be able to express a cohesive and credible position, preventing the emergence of instabilities and security threats that would require NATO intervention in the Mediterranean.

UNHCR_refugees_mediterraneanUNHCR Refugees/Migrants Emergency Response – Mediterranean

Nevertheless, the irrelevance of Europe in the current crisis is considered an obvious fact. Among the so called EU-3 there is no unity of views on the future of Assad.

Contrary to Great Britain and Germany, which have embraced the US position of compromise, France maintains a hardline approach, insisting to request his immediate resignation. Moreover, Paris did not fail to mark its presence in Syrian skies with air strikes against an ISIS training camp, thus reaffirming its leadership ambitions.

Despite the recent trilateral summit in the French capital, in which the High Representative Mogherini was invited to participate, the trojka continues to be divided, lacking the minimum cohesion necessary to express an EU common position.

Against the background of such an inconsistency, which reflects the serious crisis of Europe, Italy has now a unique opportunity to return to play a key role in the Mediterranean, through a major diplomatic initiative on Syria that would allow the achievement of a political solution for the stabilization of the country, according to the directions of the first Geneva peace conference held in June 2012.

To this end, Italy is called to encourage the consolidation of the understanding between the United States and Russia, and to make it evolve into a genuine cooperation. This cooperation should lead to shared strategies and policies able to bring about peace and stability in Syria and other areas of crisis in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, furthering detente also in the Caucasus and Ukraine.

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President of the Atlantic Treaty Association and President of the Italian Atlantic Committee, Fabrizio W. Luciolli is Professor of International Security Organizations, Military Policy, and National Security Policy at the Center for High Defense Studies of the Italian Ministry of Defense (2000-2015). He is a regular lecturer in various national and international, military, and academic institutions. Coordinator of Training Courses for military officers and diplomats in the Western Balkans and Middle East, he is Director and promoter of NATO and EU cooperation projects in Central and Southeastern Europe and in the Mediterranean countries. Prof. Luciolli is also a Consultant on foreign affairs and security matters to various Governments and Members of Parliament as well as Advisor for International and Institutional Relations of private groups. He is the author of several papers and articles published in national and foreign journals.