Italy and Syria: Chums up to a Point!

Published April 17th, 2022 - 09:51 GMT
Old Damascus
A view shows the courtyard of Naasan palace, a historical landmark, in the old part of Syria's capital Damascus (AFP File Photo)

Rome’s stance on the Syrian regime has diverged from its Western counterparts, but rapprochement is unlikely to happen soon.

Italy and Syria once maintained a robust relationship. But one year after the Syrian crisis erupted, Italy joined its western allies in closing its embassy in Damascus, citing “unacceptable violence by the Syrian regime against its own citizens.” Since then, Italian officials have joined their western counterparts in condemning the regime’s efforts to portray Bashar al Assad as legitimate.

Yet Italy has pursued a far less hawkish approach to Syria’s conflict compared to some other NATO members. Rome has refused to join its closest Western allies in military operations against Syrian regime targets. Italy’s leadership has also called for a diplomatic solution that involves Russia and Iran. In a historical context this is understandable mindful of Rome’s foreign policy tradition of generally seeking to maintain healthy diplomatic relations with all powers in the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea.

“[Italy is] not a country that chooses to side with NATO sometimes and other times with Russia,” said then-Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni when addressing Italy’s position on Syria in 2018. “It has always been a consistent ally of the United States, whoever is governing it.” Yet Gentiloni added the caveat that Rome does not blindly follow Washington and isn’t afraid to “signal differences” when necessary.

Unlike certain EU members in Central and Southeastern Europe, which have either maintained diplomatic relations with the regime in Damascus or have since reestablished them, Western European nations have maintained a consensus about the illegitimacy of the Syrian regime.

That said, a few years ago when Italy had a populist government under the leadership of the Five Star Movement and Lega, it appeared that Rome was on the verge of renormalising relations. In 2018, Ali Mamlouk, a Syrian regime official, reportedly met with Italian officials. By early 2019, Italy’s then-Foreign Minister said that Rome was mulling reopening its embassy in Damascus.

Today, however, with Mario Draghi serving as Italy’s Prime Minister, experts agree reconciliation is far less likely. “Draghi is a prominent economist and former president of the European Central Bank; his figure is one of the most respected in the Old Continent and he is highly devoted to Europe’s values and principles,” explained Mauro Primavera, a Teaching Assistant at the Catholic University of Milan, in an interview with TRT World.

Moreover, while Europe grapples with the Ukraine conflict, there is a high level of polarisation between the West and Russia. Within this context, Rome has aligned its foreign policy far more closely with its fellow NATO members. This reality greatly dims the prospects for any formal reconciliation between Italy and Syria, which is essentially governed by a Russian proxy regime.

Giuseppe Dentice, the head of the MENA Desk at the Center for International Studies in Rome, told TRT World that under a renormalisation scenario, “Italy could run into several problems with its Western partners, particularly with the United States” while Italy’s reputation in numerous Western capitals would suffer. 

Washington’s Syria policies also mean that there are serious limits to what a renormalisation of Rome-Damascus relations could do for Assad beyond symbolism. Italian entities would still be unable to enter the Syrian market without losing access to US markets by virtue of Washington’s secondary sanctions under the Caesar Act.

Assad’s Italian supporters

Despite these external pressures preventing Rome from warming up to the regime in Damascus, there are groups inside Italy — who have existed both in government and the fringes — that strongly favour rapprochement. Some are extremely pro-Assad while others view him as Syria’s least bad option. 

“I prefer Assad to [Daesh],” was how Italy’s former Deputy Prime Minister of Italy and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini put it in 2015 when voicing his opinion that “jihadist” militias — not Assad’s regime nor the Russians — should be viewed as Europe’s enemies in Syria.

Outside of the mainstream, certain far-right and neo-fascist groups in Italy have expressed solidarity with the regime. Some of these movements’ figures have travelled to Syria to show support to the country’s dictator. “There is a clear and strong ideological motivation behind this support,” explained Primavera. These movements in Italy view the Syrian state as “a follower of a fascist-like doctrine which includes social and nationalist projects.”

He added that the anti-Muslim stance of these organisations also added to their favourable view of the Syrian regime forces.

These pro-Assad voices in Italy have used “distorted rhetoric and narratives about Syria and Assad’s role as the last bastion against anarchy and the terrorist invasion of [Daesh], fuelling conspiracy theories and racist and xenophobic ideologies against clandestine immigration,” explained Dentice. 

Left-wing Italians, on the other hand, have much more diverse views. “Since Baathism was initially a leftist revolutionary movement, the Syrian government gained, somehow, the favour of some communist formations as well,” said Primavera. “For instance, the Italian Communist Party claimed the legitimacy of Assad and denounced the mistakes of the West in fomenting turmoil in the Levant.”

Many Italian organisations and individuals on the Left have also condemned Assad’s regime for its human rights abuses or blamed the West for Syria’s crisis without praising the regime. Others have channelled their support to the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK terrorist organisation, rather than Assad.

Ultimately, those in Italy who are supporters of the Syrian regime leader lack the political influence in Italy’s political arena to push Rome toward an official rapprochement. Nonetheless, they can put some degree of pressure on policymakers to consider such a move. 

Regardless, Italy and all other countries which have interests in Syria must contend with the fact that at this point Assad’s regime is highly unlikely to fall. Officials in Rome will need to find a strategy to advance Italy’s national interests mindful of all the external and internal pressures in play.

Although it seems unlikely that Italy and Syria will soon reconcile, there will probably come a day when Rome and most other Western capitals eventually determine that only by re-formalising relations with Damascus will they be able to have any influence in Syria.

Until that point, Italy will have to accept that it is in basically no position to shape events on the ground in the war-torn country. For now, the leadership in Rome believes this is a price to pay to defend “European values."

 

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.


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