“Well-motivated,” “targeted” and “limited” were the three adjectives Paolo Gentiloni used in his speech to Parliament to describe the military response against Assad by the US, France and the UK.
They were carefully chosen adjectives, the first almost identical to the one the prime minister had used in April 2017 about Trump’s first bombing of Syria after the Idlib massacre. The close attention paid to the words illustrates the diplomatic effort by Italy to distance itself from the military option while confirming its fidelity to the NATO alliance. This Gentiloni does with even greater zeal than one would have expected, because he realizes that both the Lega Nord and the 5 Star Movement have slipped into an awkward position, divided between their pro-Russian profile in the electoral campaign and the need these days to offer reassurances to the Atlantic alliance, as the fate of the future government is being decided.
Gentiloni’s plan has been a success both in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate. The debates—the first of the new legislature—were marked by boredom, despite the dramatic nature of the topic, once everyone became certain that neither the Lega nor the 5 Stars will make a major misstep in the relationship with the US and its allies. Indeed, in the end, both the parliamentarians of the Lega and those of the 5 Star Movement could not help but approve the prudent line of the outgoing government, although both were quick to add that this situation shows the urgent need for having a government in office with full powers.
Gentiloni based his speech, arguing for the legitimization of a military strike that he did not, in the end, fully approve of, on underlining the serious nature of the chemical weapons which “according to all the evidence, were used by the regime, and this is not the first time.” The prime minister invoked the videos that have come out of Douma, while endeavoring to prove a negative: “As things stand, there is no evidence supporting the possibility that they have been manipulated.” He added that Moscow’s veto blocking the OPAC inspectors from testing whether chlorine was used in Douma was de facto proof of the fact that chemical weapons were actually used.
While he recognized the fact that it is legitimate to question what strategic utility such an attack against the civilian population could have had for Assad, at a time when he was winning on the battlefield, he in effect threw his hands up by way of explanation: “The ferocity of the Syrian conflict does not leave room for reason.”
The nation’s support for the NATO alliance was made clear, Trump or no Trump: “Italy is not a neutral country — we have consistently, for more than 60 years, been key partners of the North Atlantic Alliance and allies of the United States. That is how we have been with Kennedy and Nixon, Clinton and Reagan, Bush and Obama, and we have done so because it means choosing a side. America has freed us from Nazism and fascism, and has represented the values of democracy, human rights and economic freedom. No sovereignist era will be able to lead to the decline of the West and its values of freedom.”
At this point in his speech to the Senate and the Chamber, he got applause from both the Democratic Party members and those of Forza Italia. The Lega and 5 Star members had to address the point in their responses. “We continue to consider the US our main ally, but at the same time we consider the Russian Federation an important interlocutor for the stabilization of the crisis areas,” said Danilo Toninelli, the head of the M5S Senate caucus. Speaking for the Lega, Deputy Guglielmo Picchi denounced the dangerous return of “Russophobia,” explaining, however, that “this does not mean that if we were called to choose sides, we would not be true to our Atlantic alliance, in which we are active and we wish to remain so.”
“Italy has always been at the forefront of the open door policy toward Russia, and we will not accept the revival of Cold War cliches,” Gentiloni said. He reiterated that the Italian government has conditioned the green light to use US bases in Italy, mainly the base at Aviano, on the guarantee that no direct attack mission against Syria was to be launched from any of them. “And that is how it was,” he said. But nobody, deputy or senator, asked about the activities of the nuclear submarine USS John Warner. Even the 5 Star Movement, whose Luigi Di Maio had announced he would ask about it, kept quiet.
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