x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

An opportunity in Rome to prepare for the 'day after' in Syria

Italy is continuing to assist the Syrian opposition in planning for the day after Assad, writes the country's foreign minister

The Syrian crisis has come to a turning point, which could spell change as much for the Syrian people, who have suffered intolerable pain and violence, as for the region. Indeed, after vain attempts to "divide and conquer" the opposition, and raise the spectres of Islamic fundamentalism (while the majority of Syrians are moderate Muslims) and terrorism (frequently sponsored by the regime itself), the Assad regime has tried to shift the crisis to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

The liberation of the Syrian people and broader regional vigilance must go hand in hand.

It is increasingly clear that only a united and democratic Syria can help to restore hope and stability to the entire Middle East; an incomplete democratic transition would condemn Syria to prolonged instability that would leave the door wide open to outside interference by terrorists dedicated to permanent chaos or to changes in the regional balance of power.

There is also the danger of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction - Syria has the largest arsenal of chemical and biological weapons in the Middle East.

With such high stakes, which include our "responsibility to protect" and regional stability, a sense of urgency to hasten the end of the conflict is being felt within the international community - especially among like-minded countries in the Friends of the Syrian People group, of which Italy is one.

A common strategy is being developed on two interconnected fronts: for the present, give every possible assistance, with the exception of military intervention, to the Syrian people and the opposition; and simultaneously launch plans for "the day after" post-Assad economic and political stabilisation.

The regime is in crisis, proved by the army's fatigue and its recourse to shabbiha militias, and now also to "foreign legions" - the 48 Iranians abducted in Damascus last month included various Revolutionary Guard and ex-military personnel. Defections and the resistance of the armed opposition, despite its military inferiority, continue.

The transition that is becoming inevitable must be led by the Syrian people and supported by an international community that, apart from self-interest, has a moral obligation to do so.

Italy is active on both of those fronts, offering concrete support in various forms to the Syrian people and opposition. We have maintained close relations with the Syrian National Council, representatives of which have frequently been guests in Rome.

At the same time, we are engaged in dialogue with the other components of the Syrian opposition, which represent the country's diverse groups and with whom we are planning a series of political meetings in Rome this month.

Along with the Arab League and our principal partners, we are pursuing efforts to persuade the opposition to put aside rivalries and build a political platform from which to launch the transition. We are also considering joining our allies in providing communications equipment to the opposition that would help prevent attacks against civilians, especially women and children.

On the humanitarian front we have completed and are planning initiatives on behalf of Syrian refugees in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and, most recently, of the citizens of Aleppo.

We are also planning post-Assad efforts, and in that regard have proposed an informal meeting to be held in Rome in the coming days with a group of partners to study the international community's role and responsibilities in post-Assad Syria. This will touch on aspects such as security, institution building, economic reconstruction and humanitarian aspects. In our opinion, the European Union is going to have to play a front-line role on humanitarian issues and in building Syrian democratic institutions.

But we must also be ready to begin immediately at the bilateral level, with institution-building and economic-reconstruction initiatives. For that purpose I have set up a task force on Syria within Italy's ministry of foreign affairs and suggested the creation of a special inter-ministerial discussion table.

The Syrian crisis is one of our highest foreign policy priorities and we must be prepared to continue to meet the challenge.


Giulio Terzi is Italy's minister of foreign affairs