Although Syria is probably not the first item on the agenda of Giorgia Meloni, the new Italian prime minister, sooner or later the new government will have to come to terms with the Syrian issue. What developments can we expect?
After having been appointed by President Sergio Mattarella to form a new government, Giorgia Meloni took the oath of office on the morning of October 22, thus becoming Italy’s first woman prime minister and the first far-right premier since Benito Mussolini took office in 1922. The new cabinet led by Meloni will take office next week after a vote of confidence in the House and the Senate, which should go quite smoothly, considering that in the early general election held on the 25th of September, Meloni formed a right-wing coalition with Matteo Salvini’s Lega and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, winning 115 out of 200 seats in the Senate and 237 out of 400 in the House of Representatives.
Much could be said about this government as many fear that the anti-immigrant/anti-refugee, anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion stances often expressed by Meloni herself could be transformed into laws, thus limiting personal freedoms and making the country plunge into a nightmare of intolerance and fascism again. The presence of ministers such as Salvini, Santanché and Calderoli encourages such fears and make many shudder.
when talking about Syria, we should not take anything for grantedFrancesca Scalinci
What about Syrian-Italian Relations?
This said, it is important to focus on the possible repercussions the new Italian situation might have on the Syrian issue and especially on Syrian–Italian relations, because when talking about Syria, we should not take anything for granted. Following the decisions of the European Union, which already in 2011 had posed an embargo on the Assad regime, the Syrian embassy in Rome was closed at the beginning of 2013. The then ambassador of the Syrian Arab Republic in Rome, Khaddour Hasan, was declared persona non grata by the Farnesina, the Italian Foreign Affairs Ministry. At that time, Italy had already withdrawn, in 2012, its diplomatic body from Syrian territory, declaring the Assad regime as illegitimate while at the same time refusing direct military intervention, unlike other NATO states. Despite Italy’s official stand against the Syrian regime, there are political groups, both in the left — and the right — wing, that have always actively supported Bashar Assad.
In particular, neo-fascist groups have offered their support not only politically, but also through catholic NGOs working in regime-held areas. Also Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, has always winked at Bashar Assad despite Italy’s official stand on the matter. In 2019, a delegation of Italian MPs led by Senator Paolo Romani visited Assad to talk about Syria’s reconstruction. On that occasion, as he often does, Assad stated in front of complacent Italian MPs that “Turkey and the United States […] continue to hinder the complete defeat of terrorism and consequently pose obstacles to the achievement of political results. They even prevent the Syrians from returning to their country.” He then observed that European countries, instead of providing for their own interests, “have continued to pursue a policy that protects the interests of the United States and its lobbies.” Prior to that, in 2017, Forza Italia’s senator Antonio Razzi had visited Syria with a group of Russian and European MPs to encourage the creation of a constitutional committee within the Syrian Parliament that might give way to a possibility of dialogue between the warring factions. During that trip, Razzi happily posed for a selfie with Bashar Assad himself.
What to expect?
Considering Forza Italia and far-right movements are an important part of this executive, we might easily think Italy will soon lean towards the complete rehabilitation of the Assad regime. As previously said, however, when talking about Syria, nothing should be taken for granted. Among those interested in the Syrian issue, some have recalled the words pronounced by Meloni in 2018. While rejecting the label of “Islamist terrorists” for Hezbollah, Italy’s new prime minister claimed: “If in Syria it is still possible to make cribs, if it is still possible to defend the Christian community, it is also thanks to a front in which there are the government of Bashar al Assad, Russia, Iran and also the Lebanese militias of Hezbollah.” On that occasion, Meloni mentioned Assad, as well as Hezbollah, as fundamental Isis opposers and therefore as the bulwark of war against terror.
all roads to Damascus pass through Moscow (and now through Kiev as well)Francesca Scalinci
Nevertheless, many things have changed since then and, all roads to Damascus pass through Moscow (and now through Kiev as well). And Meloni’s opinion on Russia and Putin seems to have changed a lot. Surprisingly, unlike Berlusconi, Meloni supports Ukraine and, while accepting to form the new government, has once again clearly stated Italy’s complete support to the European Union and NATO. But in order to make predictions, it is a must also to take into consideration the opinions of other members of the government, such as the minister of foreign affairs and the minister of defense.
When doing this, it will be clear that there is no uniformity in the ministers’ views on Syria. In 2018, for example, the new minister of defense, Giulio Crosetto (Fratelli d’Italia), strongly condemned NATO attacks on Syria. He also described the Syrian situation as complex and unexplainable, and although not excluding the possibility of chemical attacks by the Syrian regime, also he stated that it would be “illogical” for Assad to commit such crimes. On the other hand, Antonio Tajani, the new foreign affairs minister, seems to have had clearer ideas on the matter, at least in the past. Tajani, belonging to Forza Italia, besides having been Rome’s mayor, has been for years European commissioner for transport and subsequently president of the European Parliament (between 2017 and 2019). In this role, while encouraging a diplomatic solution and the protection of innocent civilians, Tajani acknowledged the Ghouta chemical massacre and condemned the Syrian regime for it. Furthermore, he encouraged the implementation of UN resolutions and stated that all those responsible for war crimes should pay the price for their deeds.
it is difficult to predict what will be Italy’s new government’s stand towards Syria and the Assad regimeFrancesca Scalinci
This said, it is difficult to predict what will be Italy’s new government’s stand towards Syria and the Assad regime. It is sure, however, that in Italy “Radicali Italiani” (former Radical Party) is the only political entity that has always unmistakably and strongly condemned the Syrian regime, campaigning for years for Assad’s incrimination at the Hague.
Of course, many hope the new government will continue to be hostile to Bashar Assad, although recent developments in Father Dall’Oglio’s case might make us think of the worst. A few weeks ago, the Rome prosecutor’s office requested the dismissal of the investigation into the kidnapping of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who disappeared in Raqqa on July 29, 2013.
The magistrates explained this decision arguing that it is not possible to ascertain Abuna Paolo’s fate but this came anyway as a surprise and has made many think Italy is ready to “archive” crimes committed in Syria in view of a possible restoration of Syrian–Italian relations.