Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni Silveri spoke about this common aim in an exclusive interview with Arab News during his two-day visit to the Kingdom on Wednesday and Thursday.
“Italy and Saudi Arabia share the basic philosophy that Bashar Assad has to go,” he said. “In order to reach this goal, we need to have a cease-fire or, to be more accurate, a cessation of hostilities, the initiation of a transition process to build a non-sectarian and united Syria, and, as this process moves forward, the departure of Assad from power.”
A political science graduate from Sapienza University of Rome, Gentiloni is a professional journalist. He was appointed foreign minister by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Oct. 31, 2014. He succeeded Federica Mogherini, who became the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy.
Gentiloni appreciates Saudi Arabia’s role in bringing the Syrian opposition together. “We hope that the negotiation process, led by UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura — who by the way is an Italian diplomat — will be successful. We hope that the Syrian opposition will continue to take the chance of participating in these negotiations,” he said.
The Italian foreign minister described Saudi Arabia as a fundamental part of the Middle East and a pillar of stability in the region. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the Arab world, its economic strength and its oil power make it a very influential country,” he said. “It has a critical role to play for the stability of the region.
”Following are excerpts from the interview:
Q: You have just had meetings with the Saudi leadership. Can you share some of the details of those meetings?
A: I had the honor of being received by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir. For many reasons, it is very important for the Italian government to be here at this moment. One is because of the extraordinary opportunities offered by the recently launched Saudi Vision 2030. Two, this visit is significant because of the interests that bind us in the region. On several pressing issues, including instability and terrorism, we share the same goals. Both bilateral and regional reasons push us to have stronger relations. My meetings with the deputy crown prince and the foreign minister were very interesting. The deputy crown prince gave us his view and some details of Vision 2030. In the meeting with the foreign minister, whom I have got to know very well having met him more than 10 times in the last 12 months, we had the opportunity of dwelling a little more deeply into several regional issues.
Q: How do you see Saudi Arabia’s role in the region and the wider world?
A: Saudi Arabia is a fundamental part of the Middle East and a pillar of stability in the region. Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the Arab world, its economic strength and its oil power make it a very influential country. It has a critical role to play for the stability of the region. Unfortunately, the region is very unstable which makes the role of Saudi Arabia highly relevant. In every single crisis in the region, we need to be able to count on positive roles by major players. There are no easy solutions. We are no longer in a unipolar world where one single superpower is able to solve all problems. We now need increased cooperation among key players in the region in order to solve problems and in this, Saudi Arabia has a very significant role to play.
Q: What is the state of Saudi-Italian political, economic and trade relations? What is the current amount of trade between the two countries?
A: The relations are very good in all three areas, i.e. political, economic and trade. They could be even better, building on the fact that Italy has been cooperating with Saudi Arabia for the last 50 years. Since the 1970s, Italy has played a very substantial role in the oil industry through cooperation with Saudi Aramco. We have roughly $10 billion of trade between our two countries. We can do much more. We will be glad to take this figure to $15 billion in the near future. Italy is one of the two or three main European partners of Saudi Arabia. We can take this relationship to new highs.
Q: What about Syria and the role of Italy in alleviating the Syrian people’s suffering? Is your role aligned with the Saudi one?
A: Italy and Saudi Arabia share the basic philosophy that Bashar Assad has to go. The role he has played in the last few years makes it impossible to see him as the future leader of Syria. The question then becomes how to reach the desired solution. Thanks to Saudi Arabia, the Syrian opposition decided to accept negotiations as the way forward, after many meetings of the International Syria Support Group in which Italy took part. The goal is a future without Bashar Assad. In order to reach this goal, we need to have a cease-fire or, to be more accurate, cessation of hostilities, the initiation of a transition process to build a non-sectarian and united Syria, and as this process moves forward, Assad’s departure from power. This is easy to say but very difficult to achieve. We have to make good use of the dynamics between Russia and the United States, the co-chairs of this International Syria Support Group. Unfortunately, my fear is that this road is a very long and difficult one. The humanitarian crisis is terrible. We have more or less 20 besieged areas that are not reachable by humanitarian corridors and convoys. Seventeen of these areas are besieged by the Assad regime. The regime does not allow humanitarian convoys to reach these areas. We appreciate Saudi Arabia’s role in bringing the opposition together. We hope that the negotiation process, led by UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura, who by the way is an Italian diplomat, will be successful. We hope that the Syrian opposition will continue to take the chance of participating in these negotiations. It indeed is a risk.
Q: The perception in the Arab/Muslim world is that the West has abandoned the Syrians in their most difficult hour and that they have been left to the wolves. How do you react to that overwhelming sentiment?
A: (Takes a deep breath.) We have a tragedy in Syria. Europe is also suffering the consequences of this tragedy with the surge in Syrians on the move. The impression we have is that a solution different from the political and diplomatic one is very hard to imagine. Yes, there are forces on the ground — the opposition forces and the Kurds. However, since the Russian intervention, there has been a military balance on the ground…
Q: Balance in favor of the regime?
A: There can’t be a military solution. It would be an illusion to think of a military solution as “the” solution to the Syrian crisis. We tried the military solution. By we, I mean, the Syrian opposition. Several other countries have tried the military solution for three/four years. Did it work? I don’t think so. It is, therefore, more reasonable to use the leverage of the international community, and especially of the US and Russia, to try to put a diplomatic solution in place.
Q: You said that a military solution was tried in the past. Experts believe the opposition forces should have been provided with anti-aircraft guns. So in a sense the military solution was never really tried the way it should have been in order to force the regime to its knees.
A: It would be very difficult to verify this. What is absolutely true is that we have a humanitarian tragedy before us. After last February, when there was a cessation of hostilities on the ground, I think that was an extraordinary achievement for the international community. Now the situation is turning difficult again. This is something we should try to prevent. I don’t think we can accept the idea of going back to a military solution. By the way, all 19 governments, sitting around the table in Vienna accepted the idea of a diplomatic solution and of a transition process. We should try to utilize this option to the fullest. It would be too dangerous to go back to the military solution. From my point of view, a military solution is a sheer illusion.
Q: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders at their summit here in Jeddah two days ago suggested ground intervention as a solution in Syria. Was this subject broached during your conversation with Al-Jubeir?
A: For sure, I understand the position of several countries, including Saudi Arabia, that says we must keep the military option on the table as a sort of threat to the regime if things do not work out the way we intend them to. The reality now is that we are all committed to a negotiated and diplomatic solution.
Q: You spoke about the region being unstable. The Saudi point of view is that Iran is directly responsible for fanning the flames through its proxies and sectarian militias in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. What is your view and what role can Italy play in stopping Iran from causing trouble in the Arab world?
A: As a country which is integral part of this region, I don’t know if we could play a different role. Italy is part of this region. We are a European country but we are in the heart of the Mediterranean. We have good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Our only message is that the differences and tensions that we obviously see between Iran and Saudi Arabia should not escalate. They should be kept under control because mutual respect between different countries in the region, especially important countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, is key to managing the region’s crises. I know perfectly well the underlying reasons for Saudi concerns about Iran, but an escalation between these countries would be very, very negative for Saudi Arabia, for Iran and for the entire region. We, therefore, urge Saudi Arabia and Iran not to let their differences escalate into open confrontation.
Q: What is your understanding of what is happening in Libya? Also, what is your view about Fayez Al-Sarraj, prime minister of the government of national accord in Libya? Are Italy and Saudi Arabia on the same page in Libya?
A: We have always appreciated the cooperation of Saudi Arabia in all the initiatives we organized or took part in for the stabilization of Libya. The goal is clear. We don’t need a failed state. We need a stable and united Libya. This is what Italy and Saudi Arabia both want. Are we there? Not yet. Having said that, let me state that a great deal of progress has been made and now Italy and Saudi Arabia are supporting this government of Prime Minister Al-Sarraj and pushing for a validation of the government by the House of Representatives in Tobruk. We are also pushing to expand at the most grassroots level the bases of support for the government. There are still too many divisions. If we want a united and stable Libya, we have to overcome these divisions and Saudi Arabia’s role can be very important in extending the bases of support for Prime Minister Al-Sarraj. That is our common goal. We decided this at the Rome Conference. We reiterated this in Vienna and also at the recent meeting of the Arab League. This is what we are doing. This will also be critical for the success of the fight against Daesh.
Q: Talking about Daesh, how deep is its presence in Libya?
A: Daesh, for the moment, is a threat, but not an overwhelming one. It is a threat that can still be contained and defeated. By the way, the Libyans fighting Daesh are being successful at this moment. If we are able to strengthen the government and unite all the forces around the government, the fight against Daesh will be much easier. Daesh is not popular in Libya. The Libyan people call the terrorists “foreigners.” Yes, they control the area of Sirte but they are not expanding for the moment. Obviously, if there is a division and if there are fights and clashes among Libyans, Daesh will become stronger.
Q: Italy is known as a tolerant society and we believe that there are nearly one million Muslims in Italy. Can you tell us a little about the Muslim community in Italy?
A: There are more than one million Muslims in Italy. It is the second largest religious community in a country that is predominantly Catholic Christian. We have very good relations with the Muslim community. Liberty for different religions is guaranteed in our constitution. We share the same goal — the goal of fighting against radicalization in some small sections of the Muslim community. Fortunately, Italy is less affected than other European countries but there is the risk of some tiny sections in the minority community accepting radical ideologies. Obviously, we do not confuse these with the Muslim community or with Islam. The government and the Italian Muslim community are united in the fight against radicalization.
Q: You met Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of Saudi Vision 2030. What is the sense that you got from your talks with him? And what opportunities does Vision 2030 offer Italian business?
A: My impression after meeting the deputy crown prince was of strength, dynamism and determination. Obviously, it is not an easy task to translate Vision 2030 into reality. You are talking about changing attitudes that have been prevalent for decades. You need a strong political will to change this mindset of oil dependency. You need to have your own industries, your own financial capabilities apart from those guaranteed by oil exports. My impression is that the Saudi leadership is very determined and committed. For Italy, there are many, many opportunities, from infrastructure to cooperation in the defense sector, from tourism to the entertainment industry, the health sector, the renewable energy sector. There are a number of sectors in which our business community is very strong. Italy is one of the five main industrial manufacturers in the world. This means that we have a potential of cooperation with Saudi Arabia not in one or two sectors but in several. I have to say we have a tradition of sharing and cooperating with foreign countries when it comes to the transfer of technology. We are not the ones who arrive somewhere, sell something and go home. That’s not our philosophy. We want a real partnership. We are staying and we will be very pleased to strengthen our presence in Saudi Arabia.
Q: What is your message to Saudi and Italian businesses?
A: The message is to seize the opportunity. The opportunity is there. Saudi Vision 2030 is not only about economy and business, it is also about the modernization of society. To Italian businesses, I would say: Hurry up.