View from Rome: Vision quest

The search for a common European approach to Syria dominates in Italy.

The Russian intervention in Syria has put Italian-Russian relations under a new lens of analysis. So far conceptions of Moscow-Rome relations have followed a two-track approach: on one side, a strong, vital and historical relationship, weakened latterly by sanctions. On the other side, a firm Italian position on the need for a political solution to the Ukrainian crisis and on the need for the Minsk agreement to be implemented by all parties.

The Russian intervention in Syria has put Rome in a new position and has given rise to many concerns, both in official circles and among analysts and experts and a quite lively media debate.

According to the official governmental position, a military intervention in Syria has the potential to further destabilise the entire Middle East. Italy, as in the case of Ukraine, claims there is an absolute need for a “political” solution, linked to an agreement signed by all parties, as the only strategy to avert the collapse of national institutions and to avoid a vacuum which could be easily filled by terrorism.

Prime minister Renzi has repeatedly stated that international problems cannot be solved with “spot solutions”, but by building conditions for dialogue that are as wide as possible. A day after Obama and Putin met at the UN General Assembly, Renzi stated, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, that Russia is crucial to any permanent resolution of the Syrian crisis that would ensure long-term stability in the country and in the region. In explaining his position, he repeatedly made the parallel with the 2011 Libya situation, in order to avoid a new eruption political-military and diplomatic chaos. Italy is perfectly aware of the fact the Putin has a crystal clear vision of what he wants, and this is why the West should intervene more actively and with a long term vision of their own.

The sudden military escalation on the ground has, however, triggered strong alarm. Renzi has openly expressed his disappointment, stating that bombings risk creating a more volatile situation in Middle East. Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni claimed that Russia “could” have a role – a potentially positive role – but this should take the route of a political solution in Syria not a mistaken military escalation. In the Gentiloni’s opinion, the crisis cannot be solved with air strikes, and, in any case, all military action should be concentrated on Islamic State jihadists. Additionally, Russia’s intervention should not be analysed as a single and separate factor. According to the minister, Russian intervention, alongside with the migration emergency and the Iran deal, could give Italy and Europe an opportunity to play a more relevant role in the region.

Italian press and analyst circles strongly believe that Russian intervention has changed the cards on the table. The current main political debate has been focused on understanding the reasons that prompted Putin to intervene. Some refers to the naval base at Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean Sea coast, others stress the need for Putin to divert attention of the Russian people from the economic recession. Still, others argue that Putin intervened in the Middle East to restore its status of superpower and to push the West to change its sanctions policy. The general mood is that the cold war seems to be back, and that, ultimately, the American focus will shift once again to anti-Russian containment.

Many prominent politicians think that the West should reach a deal with those ruling Syria but not with Assad: while there is a need for a compromise, this cannot include a transition with Assad staying on power. There remain difference on how long this transition ought to last, with some saying that pragmatically it cannot be a short transition and that it will require at least four years to implement, during which Assad will remain.

Often in Italy the comparison with the Kosovo experience has been made. However, there is a clear difference between the current Syrian crisis and the then situation in Kosovo given that. with Kosovo, Europe and the world had a clear plan and goal. Today there is no common plan and no common goal.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Rome Office

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