Massimo D'Alema, don't betray Lebanon

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

By a strange twist of fate, the blast that killed Lebanese parliamentarian Walid Eido, his son, and several others last week almost coincided with the visit to Damascus by Oliviero Diliberto, an Italian parliamentarian and leader of the Italian communists, who are in the ruling coalition. The coincidence of a European dignitary’s visit to Damascus with an assassination in Beirut was not so surprising. Each happens all too frequently these days. It is better for Italy that it happened to Diliberto and not to Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema, who had visited with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a fortnight earlier. Given his rank, the embarrassment would have been more palpable for D’Alema, whereas Diliberto, with his lower position–not to mention his cordial relations with Hizbullah and his admiration for Baathism–must have been undaunted by the occasion. If Syria was behind Eido’s demise, then perhaps the timing of the murder could be put at the door of Syrian sensitivity to protocol. Frequent trips to Damascus by Italian officials raise troubling questions, especially after the Israeli daily Haaretz published a report recently suggesting that D’Alema was after a quid pro quo in Damascus: a Syrian promise to leave Italian UNIFIL troops alone in exchange for Italy’s promise to work against Syrian diplomatic isolation. The director general of the Foreign Ministry, Cesare Ragaglini, had to rush to Parliament to deny a deal. However, the question remains: Can Italy engage Syria and at the same time fulfill its obligations under UN Security Council Resolutions 1559, 1680, and 1701? Can Italy promise Assad to “concretely cooperate on regional security, as Ragaglini told a joint session of the Foreign Affairs and Defense committees of Italy’s lower house, and at the same time uphold Resolution 1757, a Chapter VII resolution establishing the Hariri tribunal? Coincidence is not concurrence, and while accidents happen, doing one thing and its opposite is tougher. If Italy’s foreign policy were truly guided by its UN obligations, Italy would realize that friendship with Damascus and Beirut cannot be reconciled today. Italy must choose. Why this choice has become imperative should be obvious: Syria’s interference in Lebanon and its partnership with Iran in spoiling European and Western interests in the region dictate taking sides. Lebanon in particular has been under sustained Syrian attack for a long time. Anti-Syrian politicians and journalists live in fear, all too mindful of the fate of their colleagues–Samir Kassir, Gebran Tueni, George Hawi, Pierre Gemayel and now Walid Eido. Surrounded by bodyguards, aware of the danger their anti-Syrian views exposes them to, these individuals have put their life on the line for the sake of their country’s independence. Should they not deserve a little more support from the outside? Shouldn’t the international community, in particular Italy, show a little more courage in confronting those who, in all likelihood, were behind the assassinations? Not D’Alema, apparently. Despite the recent intensification of violence in Lebanon, D’Alema not only went to Damascus but also expressed hope that Syria would cooperate against Al-Qaeda in Lebanon. How Al-Qaeda sneaked into Lebanon he failed to ask, though a quick look at Lebanon’s map would show him that the country abuts neither Pakistan’s tribal areas nor the Fergana Valley in Central Asia. Those Al-Qaeda fighters in Fatah al-Islam could only have come through the country that D’Alema was visiting. Fatah al-Islam’s history suggests that Syria has some explaining to do when it comes to the violence in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. D’Alema should know better. The violence aside, Lebanon is on the verge of constitutional breakdown thanks to Syrian interference. The government’s legitimacy is openly challenged and its survival hangs in the balance. Parliament has not been convened for months–and with President Emile Lahoud’s mandate due to expire in the fall, Lebanon could find itself with no government, no president and no Parliament. With six pro-Syrian ministers having resigned, one minister murdered, a minimum of 16 ministers needed for the government to survive, and March 14 parliamentarians not daring to circulate in fear for their lives, it does not take a rocket scientist to understand the logic of political assassinations and what they can achieve politically when it comes to Syrian interests. Does D’Alema at least know how to count? One could of course take a cynical view and say that Italy’s concern is more for its soldiers rather than the success of the UNIFIL mission. What then is one to make of the Katyusha rockets fired at Israel from South Lebanon on Sunday? UNIFIL commander General Claudio Graziano, an Italian, recently denied that any weapons were being smuggled into the South, and Italy’s Foreign Ministry supported his view. That’s why the rocket incident was another huge embarrassment for Italy and its efforts to engage Assad–especially if reports that the incident was ordered by Syria are accurate. The illusion that one can sway a dictatorship through engagement flies in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. Lebanon’s salvation will not come through Damascus. And the West’s interests, or its legal commitments and moral obligations, are diametrically opposed to Syria’s. The time has come to choose sides, both as a matter of principle and political realism, Europe should recognize that only by isolating Damascus can it ever achieve its goals in the Middle East. However, D’Alema, it seems, prefers to sacrifice Lebanon to Damascus’ hegemonic ambitions. Emanuele Ottolenghiis the director of the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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