What Are the Italians Doing in Damascus?

Italian officials visited Damascus yesterday in order to limit UNIFIL casualties in Lebanon and come up with a rational for not expanding UNIFIL's commitment in Lebanon.

Here is Faruq al-Shara'a's statement on Lebanon: Syria Comment has referred to Sharaa's statement in the last few days as the Syrian hard line now dominant among Syrian officials: (Quoted from Ya Libnan)

Shara believes that 'a bunch of politicians' in Lebanon cannot bring Syria to cut its relations, close its borders and enter into an armed conflict, even if these politicians had a 'portion of the Lebanese masses'. He added, "In Lebanon we have stronger allies than others, if they wanted to use this power."

Syria says it wants Lebanon to form a government of national unity that includes a larger share for the opposition. In talks with Italian authorities, Syria also raised the issue of the return on the Golan as the key to stability in the region. Here is the story from the Syrian News agency, followed by the Italian version of the same meeting between Shara'a and Lamberto Dini.

A little background first: Italy currently supplies 2,500 soldiers in the UN peacekeeping operations in Lebanon. An Italian general has led the 13,000 multinational force since February this year. Six Spanish speaking UNIFIL troops were killed by a car bomb Monday. The Italian PM Romano Prodi said that the deadly car-bomb attack on United Nations peacekeepers in Lebanon revealed a need for greater coordination in the contingent.

Lebanese government officials have blamed Fatah al-Islam for the Attack on UNIFIL, but they blame Syria for covertly encouraging Fatah al-Islam. UNIFIL commanders have said they do not know who was behind the car bombing and will have to study it further.

Some Lebanese government officials have encouraged the UN to expand their forces in Lebanon in order to patrol the long Syrian-Lebanese border and stop any Syrian attempts to rearm Hizbullah. Syria has said it will view such a move as an inimical act. This is because Hizbullah is Syria's main leverage to regain the Golan Heights, which was occupied by Israel in 1967 and annexed to it in 1981. Attempts to disarm Hizbullah are understood by Damascus as attempts to deny it the Golan.

Lebanese officials have also expressed fears that the Italians will "sell them out" to the Syrians in order to insure the safety of UNIFIL troops, which the Italians command. The Italians have denied such claims by proclaiming that they are prepared to stand firm in Lebanon and accept sacrifices. What the Italians will probably not do is expand the number of their troops to police the Syrian border unless all sides show tangible resolve to find a political solution to the regional conflict. The discussion between Italian and Syrian officials, recorded below, in which Syria brought up the Golan issue as the key to stabilizing the region will allow the Italians to report back to the UN that no further Italian commitment can be made in Lebanon without the Golan being put on the table accompanied by meaningful US-Israeli engagement with Syria.

I think it is safe to say that the Golan will not be put on the table. Italy will not expand its presence in Lebanon. Arms will not be cut off to Hizbullah. Hizbullah will not be disarmed. UNIFIL troops will continue to be vulnerable, and Lebanon will see further violence and instability. The international community will increase support to the Lebanese army and increase international pressure on Syria (mostly through tightening economic restrictions) in order to compel Syria to cut relations with the Lebanese opposition without guarantees of dialogue or a return of the Golan. Syria will dig in its heals and accept lower economic growth and the impoverishment of its people. The Lebanese government will also accept the impoverishment of their people rather than making concessions. The Lebanese economy has been brought to a standstill. If this goes on for a long time, the entire region will resemble Gaza. But that will take a long time. Gaza has a big head start.

Al-Shara renews Syria's Commitment to Stability and Security

Monday, June 25, 2007 – 05:40 PM


DAMASCUS,(SANA)-Vice President Farouk al-Shara on Monday renewed  Syria's commitment to achieve security and stability in the region , hailing "the role that could be played by Italy and Europe to realize this purpose, based on the mutual interaction between the two Mediterranean banks".

Al-Shara, meeting Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee at the Italian Senate Lamberto Dini and an accompanying delegation, discussed the latest developments in the region and bilateral relations between the two friendly countries.

For his part, Mr. Dini indicated to the importance of dialogue and communications with Syria to deal with regional issues, in light of Syria's basic role in realizing satiability.

Here is Italy's take on the story:

Damascus, 25 June (AKI) – A delegation of Italian senators visiting Syria has met with top officials in Damascus to discuss ways of how to relaunch a peace process in the Middle East. The head of the delegation, former Italian prime minister Lamberto Dini, held talks on Monday afternoon with Syria's deputy president, Faruq al-Sharaa. Sharaa said he appreciated Italy's efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflicts in the Middle East.

Dini and members of his delegation, who arrived in Syria over the weekend, earlier met Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the country's parliamentary speaker Mahmud al-Abrash. The discussion focused on bi-lateral relations and development initiatives.

According to Syrian sources, the issue of the return to Syria of the Golan Heights which were occupied by by Israel in 1967 were also discussed.

The Italian senators' visit follows one by Italian foreign minister Massimo D'Alema earlier this month in which he urged Damascus to play a postive role in creating stability in neighbouring Lebanon.

"Strategic Reset: Reclaiming Control of U.S. Security in the Middle East." is a left critique of the Iraq situation with a number of policy proposals by serious analysts. The main thrust is that the US is tied down in a losing battle in Iraq that only benefits al-Qaida and weekens Washington's ability to influence other regions possitively. It calls for enacting the Baker Hamiliton recommendations and engaging all Iraq's neighbors and seeking Arab-Israeli peace. It was written by:

By Brian Katulis, Lawrence J. Korb, Peter Juul
Center for American Progress
June 25, 2007

Comments (1)

Tarek said:

Hi Josh.
I hope you are enjoying your stay in Damascus and it is not too hot for you these days.

Tell me, why don’t you publish the names of all those called “western analysts” that you quote here and there on your blog. I am sure your blog will gain much more credibility that way. I just find it unfair to young and others to be criticized by unknown and probably inexistent individuals.

Also, much more than before, your blog has become to smell very much like a mouth piece of the regime. It seems to me that you intentionally work so hard to find all these articles that one way or another are soft on Syria and you ignore the tons of articles out there that do much more balanced analysis.

The way your run your blog reminds me of MERIP, the site that does propaganda for Israel. It is almost the same style.

Pls. Try to be more balanced and we will continue to read you.


June 27th, 2007, 1:39 am


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