Rome view: John Kerry in Italy


US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Rome from Moscow, where he convened with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to call for an international conference, possibly by the end of the month, to discuss a political solution for Syria to “end the bloodshed, the killing, and the massacres.” The diplomatic breakthrough aimed to recuperate the Geneva communiqué and to create a transitional government. (The implementation of the agreement, discussed back in June 2012, was blocked, however, because the question of the future of President Bashar al-Assad was left unsolved.)

This is Kerry's second visit to Italy since his appointment as secretary of state. The impression is that he has grasped the value of its historic role as a bridge between East and West, and between North and South. Italy's geographic and cultural proximity to the Mediterranean may now turn into a great diplomatic opportunity. Kerry might also have chosen Rome because Italy is expected to draft its position on whether to uphold the EU arms embargo on Syria, ahead of the next Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union later this month. Britain and France have insisted on lifting the embargo so that they can aid the insurgents, but Italy has maintained that the priority is to end Syria's humanitarian tragedy. A change in the Italian position may influence the choices of Europe.

Two more domestic factors that might have brought Kerry to Rome are the long-term trust between the US ambassador to Italy, David Thorne, and Kerry, and a positive outlook towards the new Italian government. An attempt to ensure “a closer co-operation with Italy on many pressing issues all over the world”, as Kerry said in his congratulations to the newly elcted Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, seems evident. Especially since both Letta and the new Foreign Minister Emma Bonino are considered valuable resources for EU-US diplomacy. Bonino's priorities will be Europe and the Middle East and North Africa region. She is a trusted friend of the people of this region, not only because she lived there (and speaks Arabic) but also and most importantly because she has always taken care of the human rights and female dimension in those countries. The fact that Kerry has chosen Italy for consultations on the crisis in Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations suggests that there is a strategic role that Italy could play. While the EU is struggling to set a clear foreign policy line, Italy should not miss the opportunity to offer its European partners its strong comparative advantage and put itself at the disposal of Europe and the international community. In particular, Italy could host the international conference that Kerry is seeking to organise as soon as possible. We are still far from a solution both in Syria and in Israel and Palestine, but certainly Europe needs to re-engage.

Italy can choose: it can be only one location, interchangeable with any other, or turn into a place of active foreign policy. Kerry's visit is an opportunity for activity on the Middle East that Italy (and Europe) must take, even if this involves upgrading its commitments — not so much military but political and diplomatic.

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