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“A Lebanese model for Syria’s rebirth”, says Terzi (Avvenire)

Rome 18 September 2012
Avvenire
Luca Liverani

Syria’s rebirth must necessarily follow the “Lebanon model”, a historic example in the Middle East of the possible co-existence of cultures and religions. “It’s not a utopia but a necessary policy”, insists Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi, commenting on the visit by Pope Benedict XVI, “a visit that has imparted courage to the tolerant elements of the region”. The Italian Government, for its part, “is seeking to foster dialogue through numerous meetings with all the Syrian groups, both religious and political. The aim is to bring them together around an agenda that respects human rights and the fundamental freedoms, religious freedom first and foremost, to ensure an effective transition from a regime that is unsustainable”.

In his first-floor office in the Farnesina, the Foreign Ministry building, Giulio Terzi is analysing the hottest issues on the diplomatic agenda, starting with the fundamentalist violence spreading from the Arab world across Africa, from Libya to Somalia. He also voices his views on the Development Cooperation reform under discussion at the Senate.

In spite of the anti-Western tensions in many Islamic countries, the Pope has completed his visit to Lebanon. Is there a lesson there for diplomacy?

“This visit by Benedict XVI had a historic resonance, not least for the decision to go ahead in spite of the clear risks. The message is that Lebanon must continue to be a model of co-existence, thanks to Christianity’s innate tolerance and openness to dialogue. Not just in Lebanon but throughout the region. The enormous crowd that welcomed the Holy Father spoke volumes, and I didn’t hear any voices raised in disagreement. This model is not a utopia, but a goal that can be pursued and achieved. The Pope has also strengthened the determination of Middle Eastern Christians not to emigrate: that would weaken the forces for dialogue. This is a necessary policy, for Syria too”.

Do the simultaneous flare-ups of violence in so many countries mean that someone is directing events?

“Some incidents are inspired by sermons inciting to hatred and jihad. There are also groups acting in coordination. But I have no reason to believe there is any grand design aiming for unification behind the banner of combat, as Bin Laden called for in Khartoum in 1998, or for a mad plan for vengeance against the ‘Christian occupations’. Al-Qaeda itself has suffered serious blows and been sharply reduced in scale, although it’s taking root in the Maghreb”.

One of the areas affected by fundamentalism, Somalia, has sent out a signal with the election of President Mohamud. Is this a turning point?

“The turning point came on 10 August this year [2012], with the end of the transition period. Many people doubted whether this transition, which lasted 8 years, could be brought to completion. But it was, at the cost of a great effort by the UN, the EU and Italy. The Somali president is a well-known, independent personality. This is a good step forward. Now they need to consolidate the institutions and install a government that responds to the country’s immediate security needs. The picture is still shifting and fragile – al-Shabaab is a force to be feared, and is exerting pressure on Mogadishu”.

Will the consolidation of the new framework in Somalia help combat piracy, which has also struck Italian merchant ships?

“The pirates’ bases are in Somalia itself. The country’s security forces have begun to collaborate effectively, as they did to free the two sailors. Our armed forces have also managed to halt the kidnappings: if we include ships from other nations, the number has been reduced from 60 in 2011 to 5 in the last 9 months”.

In Kismayo, Kenyan and loyalist forces are nearing a showdown with al-Shabaab. Will the solution be purely military or will there be space for negotiations on the Karzai-Taleban model?

“I don’t feel that the question can be resolved through dialogue for the time being. But a lot depends on convincing the population, the clans, the local leaders, who as we know don’t spend their entire lives aligned with any one side. We must hope that the difficulties al-Shabaab is experiencing will reduce the social context in which the Islamic courts have become established”.

Countries nearer to home are also seeing fundamentalism gaining ground. In post-Gaddafi Libya, Benghazi is held by forces calling for sharia law. The same thing is happening in Egypt.

“The Egyptian President is working hard, we heard him at the Mosque in Rome, to stop the disorder. To many people, it looks as though the message has got through. In Libya too, a great effort is being made to ensure that the pathway to democracy and the conquests of the Arab Spring continue to rest upon firm ground. As soon as the new Libyan ministers are appointed, we’ll establish direct contacts for economic cooperation, security and border management”.

The international cooperation minister, Andrea Riccardi, has demonstrated his interest in the sector, which some commentators describe as being at its last gasp, by organising a Forum in Milan on 1 October and an inter-departmental working group. The Senate’s response has been to discuss the Mantica (PdL)–Tonini (PD) reform bill. The Directorate General for Development Cooperation has always been an important part of the Foreign Ministry. How does the Farnesina view this two-party bill?

“Development Cooperation is a key component of all of Italy’s foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis less developed countries. On this platform we need to design an architecture more in step with the times than that of Law 49. And one that definitely has more financial resources. It’s up to the Parliament to find the solutions. But I believe that we need a unified political leadership and stronger operational and management liaison capacity with all of the key cooperation actors: central and local government, and civil society. That’s the road chosen by other European countries”.

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