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EDITORIAL
from issue no. 02/03 - 2010

Syria and the Middle East


The State visit to Syria of the President of the Italian Republic Giorgio Napolitano on 18 March last, was part of a long tradition of friendship and cooperation between Italy and Syria, a key country for the Middle East, which is undoubtedly the area most troubled by conflict and causes of tension


Giulio Andreotti


Italian President Giorgio Napolitano with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, 18 March 2010 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, 18 March 2010 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

The State visit to Syria of the President of the Italian Republic Giorgio Napolitano on 18 March last, was part of a long tradition of friendship and cooperation between Italy and Syria, a key country for the Middle East, which – even if one can’t say that in recent decades the world has been and is still a great oasis of peace – is undoubtedly the area most troubled by conflict and causes of tension.
Conflicts that until a few years ago seemed insurmountable and that today, in certain moments, give tenuous glimmers of solution that must be made to go ahead at all costs on pain of situations and armed conflicts deteriorating.
Because of its geographical position and certain unique characteristics of its inhabitants, and because of its great tradition and culture, Syria has a significant influence on the equilibrium in the Middle East. It has such weight that at times outsiders with shortsighted and biased views have also falsely charged it with influence and complicity in subversive phenomena the why and wherefore of which, however, need to be better understood.
I myself, who have made several trips to Syria, every time I crossed the border was made aware of their great tradition. Once, for example, I was much struck by the long description that the Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad gave me of the figure of Saint Maron, surprised that I, a Catholic, knew so little about him. In June comes the tenth anniversary of the death of this great statesman who spoke very little, but who in the few words he did say packed such comunicative wisdom that one was fascinated.
Intelligently, with an amendment to the Constitution, the Syrian Parliament allowed Assad’s son Bashar to succeed his father. I have many memories of Hafiz al-Assad, among which that of his willingness in trying to help us out of the delicate matter of the “Achille Lauro”. Although he would have preferred not to get involved, he told me he was willing to accept the request of the terrorists to land in Syria. The US, however, fearing that once on Syrian soil the terrorists would get away, challenged that solution. The tragic outcome is well known.
Precisely in terms of relations with the United States I remember Assad’s disappointment when Washington backed an agreement between Lebanon and Israel. Not only because there are deep roots linking Syria to Lebanon – roots that the passage of time may weaken but cannot do away with and that explain the stabilizing influence of Syria on Lebanon – but also because Assad was always convinced that peace with the Israelis should be simultaneous with all the neighbors (the Palestinians, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria). “I do not want to end up like the Horati and Curiati,” he told me on the eve of the Madrid Conference in 1991, in which he agreed to participate though skeptical about the real possibility of the conference reaching a positive outcome. What occured afterwards enabled even those who at the time – not understanding what was happening – behaved with arrogance, making hasty judgments about Assad and Syria, to reconsider their positions. Abandoning the simultaneous peace sought by Assad was the result of the widespread myopia that prevents us from getting a clear view of situations that require not only perfect sight, but also ears pricked to listen. Then, as often happens when one realizes errors too late, corrections are attempted, in vain, because they come when the situation has changed again.
Giulio Andreotti with former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad in Damascus in February 1988

Giulio Andreotti with former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad in Damascus in February 1988

Italy has an unexceptionable position and must hold on to it. We were not disturbed when the factious tried to interpret our peace effort as a unilateral and polemical taking of sides. We just have to avoid thinking something has been resolved when there is still a long and difficult distance to cover.
In his statement to the press after the meeting with President Bashar al-Assad, President Napolitano not only reminded us of the role of Syria in the peace process in the Middle East, but also the commitment of Italy and the European Union to the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, the need to address the very grave humanitarian situation in Gaza and Syria’s contribution to a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear problem. The latter problem may be positively influenced by the decision of the United States and Russia to sit down at the table to negotiate a drastic reduction in the nuclear arsenals. Indeed, we must increasingly grow used to the interdependence of events happening in the world: there is never a place where a process or an event can occur without it not affecting the people close by and sometimes even those who are farther away. Napolitano did not forget to mention the concern caused by the recent decisions of the Israeli government to put up new buildings and settlements in East Jerusalem. The consequences can be serious, but even if one may think that in Israel there are some people who have little love for peace, I remain of the idea that it is only in peace that people’s interest can actually find an answer. And that most Israelis think so too. Facts like this, however, show that there is no alternative to choosing the right path and emphasize the importance of the peace process, because if things do not follow the right track, long and hard though it be, they can also quickly degenerate.


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