Italian rapprochement with al-Assad: backed by right-wing, constrained by West
Enab Baladi – Lujain Mourad
Italy took the initiative to respond to the Feb.6 earthquake in the regime-held areas with rapid and successive steps and under humanitarian cover. It was the first European country to send two aid convoys via Lebanon on the seventh day of the earthquake, which included four ambulances and six packages of medical supplies.
Since the disaster of the earthquake, the Chargé d’Affaires of the Italian Embassy, Massimiliano D’Antuono, and his accompanying delegation have appeared several times alongside Khaled Hboubati, head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), most notably during the signing of an agreement between the Syrian Red Crescent and the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS), which includes the latter providing emergency aid worth one million euros to those affected by the earthquake, on February 23.
These steps shed light on previous movements and indicators showing the growth of Italian-Syrian relations, especially after Giorgia Meloni took over the leadership of the Italian government in 2022.
Under humanitarian cover
Despite the sanctions imposed on him for his organization’s involvement in supporting the Syrian regime, the Pope of the Vatican, Pope Francis, received SARC’s head, Khaled Hboubati, in Rome to talk about the developments of the humanitarian response in Syria.
At that time, Hboubati also met with Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and a number of figures concerned with the humanitarian field, according to what the Syrian Red Crescent reported last January.
Francesca Scalinci, Italian writer and activist concerned with Syrian affairs, told Enab Baladi that the Syrian Red Crescent is a “theoretically neutral” organization, which can be exploited by parties wishing to support the Syrian regime.
Scalinci added that Italy is benefiting from the external image of humanitarian organizations close to the Syrian regime to take diplomatic steps with a “humanitarian cover.”
The cooperation between the Italian organizations and the Syrian Red Crescent is not limited to the AICS, as the Italian organization “Intersos” works in partnership with the Syrian Red Crescent.
Although “Intersos” is a non-governmental organization that claims to be neutral, Scalinci believes that the organization is working closely with the Damascus government through the Red Crescent.
Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics (GSA) – geopolitical risk consulting company – told Enab Baladi that Italy is seeking to play a humanitarian role in Syria, which in one way or another will require a certain degree of participation with al-Assad’s government.
The tragic situation in Syria, which was left behind by the catastrophic earthquake, created a huge wave of human sympathy for the victims, whether at the level of the Arab region and its neighboring countries or at the global level. Certainly, there are attempts to exploit this situation politically from many parties, including Italy.
Faisal Abbas Mohammad
Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies
Meloni, before assuming the presidency of the Italian government, showed strong support for al-Assad’s remaining in power, as well as her support for the survival of his Russian ally, Iranian militias, and Hezbollah within the Syrian map.
Meloni leads the Brothers of Italy party, which belongs to the extreme right-wing, which makes her support for the Syrian regime linked to allegations that “the Christian community in Syria is still standing thanks to the government of the Syrian regime, Russia, Iran and (Hezbollah),” according to what she mentioned during a press statement in 2018.
This appears in Meloni’s statement about the Russian presence in Syria, as she said that Russia is an essential part of the solution in Syria and that it should play an important role in that.
The Syrian-Canadian professor Faisal Abbas Mohammad told Enab Baladi that the Italian steps towards the Syrian regime are linked to the nature of the ruling coalition, as Meloni leads an alliance that includes the Italian far-right parties.
Meloni and her party support the Syrian regime from an ideological standpoint that is hostile to Muslims in general and Islamic jihadist movements in particular, and believe that the Syrian regime and its allies are waging war against “terrorism and Islamic extremism.”
Francesca Scalinci agrees with what Dr. Mohammad said, as Meloni and her party see the Assad regime as the defender of Christian rights in the Middle East.
The expert on Syrian affairs added that these political and religious forces have always called for the restoration of Italian-Syrian diplomatic relations, pointing out that most of the organizations that deal with the Syrian regime are part of the Catholic Church and Italian right-wing political parties and movements.
Giorgio Cafiero, the executive director of GSA, also believes that the current Italian government will seek rapprochement with Syria more than the previous government because of its affiliation with the extreme right-wing, pointing out that this will not happen any time soon.
On the other hand, a report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) in 2019, entitled “Targeting Christian Places of Worship in Syria is a Threat to World Heritage,” stated that the Syrian regime forces are responsible for 61% of the attacks targeting Christian places of worship.
Marked with red lines
The European Union continues its firm stance rejecting normalization with the Syrian regime without full implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254, which raises questions about Italy’s ability to take serious and clear rapprochement steps with the Syrian regime.
Dr. Mohammad ruled out that the mixed signals by the Italian government towards the Syrian regime and mutual contacts would lead to normalization with Damascus.
The academic researcher attributed this to the fact that normalization will anger Italy’s allies in the European Union, of which it is a cornerstone, and in NATO, which is led by the United States, and these allies reject political normalization with a regime they still assert that “its record is full of criminal acts.”
Meloni is trying to pursue foreign policies that do not contradict much with the European Union, despite her previous position in favor of the Syrian regime, according to Dr. Mohammad, in reference to the decline of Meloni’s public support for the Syrian regime and her support for Ukraine after the Russian invasion.
The Meloni government’s steps towards the regime will not likely cross the European and US red lines, but it will satisfy, to one degree or another, the allied right wing and the Italian Christian voter, to whom the Italian right forces suggest that the Syrian regime protects minorities in Syria.
Faisal Abbas Mohammad
Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies
On the other hand, the Italian activist Scalinci believes that Italy’s membership in the European Union does not negate its being a sovereign country.
Italy’s steps towards rapprochement with the regime could reach the extent of reopening the Syrian embassy in Rome and the Italian embassy in Damascus, noting that this will not happen soon, Scalinci said.
Italy’s relationship with the US and European countries is a major factor that explains why Italy did not give full legitimacy to the Syrian regime and avoided formalizing diplomatic relations with the Damascus regime, according to the GSA’s executive director, Cafiero.
During the past years, Italy showed many positive attitudes towards the Syrian regime, as Meloni, in 2018, after the regime’s chemical attack on the city of Douma in Damascus suburbs, opposed the accusations leveled against the regime by the international community, saying, “Once again there is no tangible evidence, we are afraid that one party is looking for an excuse to start a new war.”
This was followed by a visit by a delegation of Italian deputies and politicians, headed by Senator Paolo Romani, in 2019, and his meeting with al-Assad to talk about the reality of Syria, the political track, and reconstruction.
This came after the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it was working to assess the situation in Syria to see if it was possible to reopen its embassy in Damascus in January 2019, noting that the stability of the situation there “is still a prerequisite for opening the embassy,” while its embassy remains closed to this day.
The Italian, French, and British embassies were closed in Damascus in early 2012 in protest of the regime’s repressive practices against the Syrian people following the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011.
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