Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Italian Republic
Chief Executive Officer and President, Markle Foundation; Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations
Paolo Gentiloni, Italy's minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, joins CFR Board Member Zoë Baird to discuss the challenges facing Italy and the Mediterranean region in addressing developments in Libya and Syria. Over the course of the conversation, Gentiloni addresses the ongoing campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State group and the refugee and migrant crisis facing Europe.
BAIRD: I’m Zoë Baird. I’m CEO and president of the Markle Foundation, and I’m also privileged to be a member of the board at the Council.
I’d like to introduce you to a great leader and statesman from Europe that we have the privilege to have with us today: the foreign minister of Italy, Paolo Gentiloni. (Applause.)
GENTILONI: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your kind words.
Well, the subject of our conversation is the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean is a—for us, for Italy, a geopolitical priority, but I think that it is clearly a challenge for Europe and even for the world because the turmoil that is going on in the Mediterranean concern everybody in the world.
We know—at least this is my opinion—that we made mistakes in the Mediterranean and that we are still paying the price of military actions without a strategic plan. Both the 2003 intervention in Iraq and the one in Libya created a void, and we are still working with the consequences of this void.
However, I think that our self-criticism should not give way to disengagement towards the Mediterranean’s present. I often say that what we called Mare Nostrum—we, the Romans, called Mare Nostrum—cannot become a sort of Mare Nullius, Nobody’s Sea. So we are concerned, and we have to act about the crisis in the Mediterranean.
In the light of this lesson learned, I will focus on four main geopolitical challenges in the area. The first is, obviously, defeating Daesh. This will require prolonged efforts. The international coalition has already achieved some positive results, especially in Iraq. And I think that we have to rely on a comprehensive and multidimensional strategy, not only on the military. Military is key, obviously, but we need cultural, financial, and several other aspect of a strategy.
Italy continues to be at the forefront in the fight against Daesh. We have deployed almost 700 units in Iraq—military units in Iraq and Kuwait. And recently, as you probably know, we offered to provide security to the strategic project to rehabilitate the Mosul Dam. And by the way, the contract for this dam between the Iraqi government and an Italian company was signed, after a difficult process, exactly a few hours ago, and this will create the conditions to this operation of rehabilitation.
The second challenge is the war in Syria. And our priority now is to implement the Munich communique, maintaining this cessations of hostilities that these five days is, with violations, still there. This is, for the moment, very, very important, sort of miracle in the situation we were. So we at least succeeded with this International Syria Support Group to open a narrow window of opportunity for a political transition that should lead to Assad’s exit without creating a power void.
On Libya, we need to prove on the ground that Libyan dialogue and international diplomacy can be faster than the growing threat of Daesh. We need, as soon as possible, a full-fledged unity government endorsed by the majority of the House of the Representative of Tobruk, and as soon as possible established in Tripoli.
Italy is ready to provide its support in the forthcoming phase, fulfilling the promise to take on a leading role in the framework of an international stabilization effort. But what we will do will be in response to the security requests of the Libyan government that we have to pave the way to.
The third challenge is the—is migration. Maybe we will have our conversation mainly on migration. This happens normally these days in my public meetings. It is clear that it is a global and long-term challenge for Europe, and failing to manage it would entail a progressive EU disunion. The risk of dismantling Schengen and the freedom of movement principle is concrete. Building new walls cannot be the answer. Migration flows will be on the European agenda for a very long time. The root causes—conflicts, demography, and economic imbalances—will not be removed overnight. There is no quick fix. We should urgently devise a common European approach, and this needs also a commitment to override the role that we have in Europe, the so-called Dublin Regulation.
And fourth challenge is that, five years after the Arab Spring, I think that we experienced the end of the illusions that we all shared. And also, I think that we should avoid feeding further illusions, such as easy possible reshaping of national entities based on religious or ethnic realities. The 100 years—sorry, 100 years after the Sykes-Picot Treaty, the issue of state sovereignty is still key in the region. And as we notice on Syria and Libya, people suffer for the lack of functioning states, even in our global age. Hyper-sovereignty and post-sovereignty seem to coexist while the region is at the center of three rifts—one between the regimes and the civil societies, a second between Shiites and Sunni, and a third between the vast majority of the Sunni community and the minority of jihadi terrorists. The complexity of these three conflicts pose unprecedented pressure to the borders of the Mediterranean countries.
This predicament has been compared to the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. But how far is a Mediterranean Treaty of Westphalia? What are the first steps we can take to move in that direction? I would briefly indicate four possible step(s).
The first is that we must rebuild the minimum of confidence in the region. No order can be restored in the Middle East in the medium term unless major regional players achieve a new, balanced approach in their competing geopolitical interests, forging a sort of Concert of the Mediterranean. We are not naïve; a Concert of the Mediterranean won’t be built in a day, and this was the case in so different circumstances also in Europe with the Helsinki process that took a long time to gain momentum. This Concert of the Mediterranean will be based on a long and difficult path of confidence-building measures. And the first move in this direction would be to make progress in solving the most virulent crisis in the region, starting with Syria, Libya, and Yemen. And in this respect, the Vienna International Syria Support Group and the Rome Conference on Libya could be considered, perhaps, as the embryo of the method for a Concert of the Mediterranean.
The second step would be economic integration. The Mediterranean is, except for the EU, the least-integrated area in the world. While it is crucial to globalize its economy, it is even more urgent to pursue south-south integration. As far as Mediterranean trade is concerned, 90 percent of the volume is among EU member states, 9 percent is between EU and Southern Mediterranean, and only 1 percent is south-south.
The third step is that we should manage the current crisis in the region, preventing any new ones from breaking out. And this also has to do with the state and civil society. This is why we must cooperate to strengthen resilience in countries such as Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt.
Fourth, and final, we should look beyond the current turmoil and work on a positive agenda for the Mediterranean. The region is not only conflicts and threats; it involves also a number of crucial opportunities. It has been estimated that the Middle East and North Africa countries will experience a 4 percent GDP increase in 2016, while their combined population will reach a figure of 650 million people by 2030. We should focus in particular on the following opportunities: the role of energy for stability, as exemplified by the Eni recent discoveries in Egypt and by the sharing of these discoveries with Israel and Cyprus; second, Africa’s economic growth, with an estimated 24 percent GDP growth in 2015-2020; the doubling of the Suez Canal, that will increase the daily traffic of cargo for 49 to 97 per day; the China’s New Silk Road, that will end into the Mediterranean; the economic effects of the Iran nuclear deal; and finally, the Mediterranean common
goods, with 450 ports and terminal, 400 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 236 marine protected areas 30 percent of the global seaborne trade, and one-third of the world tourism by volume.
Ladies and gentlemen, last year I wrote an article for Foreign Affairs on why we should pivot to the Mediterranean—it was a little bit a joke, obviously—a crossroad where Europe, Asia, and Africa meet. I think that this year will be another daunting year for the Mediterranean. In the region we do face global issues that concern all of us and require strong leadership. Italy, Europe, and the U.S. should remain firmly engaged in the area and address its challenges together.
Thank you for your attention. (Applause.)
BAIRD: Thank you very much. I’m going to start by underscoring for this audience how important Italy is to the many things you’ve been thinking about when you’ve been thinking about Syria, Libya, ISIL, migration. How far from an ISIL stronghold in Libya is the closest Italian island?
GENTILONI: Well, Libya is more or less 200 kilometers far from Lampedusa, and the stronghold now—the stronghold of Daesh in Libya—is in the port of Sirte, so more or less this is the distance. I think that we should accurately assess the Daesh growth in Libya because on one side it is clear that the result that the anti-Daesh coalition was able to have in Iraq could transfer some of the Daesh fighters in Libya, and this has, in fact, happened in the last weeks. But the dimension is, for the moment, still a dimension concentrated in this Sirte area. In our assessment, more or less, from 4(,000) to 5,000 fighters in this area, trying to have actions in the surrounding area, especially in the area of oil infrastructures that are not so far from Sirte.
But the—we have not to describe Libya as a country controlled by Daesh. Daesh was, until six months ago, controlling another Libyan city, Derna, and they were defeated. Derna was liberated by Islamic militias, and the reality is that Islamic militias in Libya are now fighting against Daesh. So Daesh is there. There is a serious threat. But I don’t think that it is correct to describe Libya as a country in control of Daesh.
BAIRD: Right. But I wanted people to appreciate how close the geography is in that part of the—
GENTILONI: Oh, no, the geography is there.
BAIRD: —in that part of the Mediterranean. And a great deal of what we’re confronting in fighting ISIL or Daesh in the region we’ve focused on Syria and Iraq. Do you feel we have adequate focus on the whole picture? Or do you feel that—and as part of your approach to try to encourage greater focus on Libya?
GENTILONI: Well, I think we had good results especially in Iraq in the last 12 months. Some of these results are really encouraging, in particular the fact that some of the cities that were liberated—Tikrit in particular—were also, again, populated by the people that were previously escaping Daesh. This is not yet the case for Ramadi, but we will see. Perhaps the same process could become possible. In the next months, the Iraqi capital, Mosul, will be the target of the offensive of the coalition in Iraq. So our assessment is that, more or less, 40 percent of the territory that Daesh was controlling in Iraq was liberated.
The situation in Syria is very well known, and I think that it’s very difficult to have now a solid assessment because it is absolutely crucial that this—that diplomacy call cessation of hostilities because a part of the armed opposition do not want to use the term ceasefire. If this cessation of hostilities will be prolonged for a certain number of days, I think we have the premises to restart at least proximity negotiation in Geneva, and this could open the way, et cetera, et cetera. But the Syrian situation is very, very fragile.
And as Libya is concerned, I think that we should all seriously be focused on our main target, and our main target is to help the creation of a Libyan government. This is what we need strategically to defeat terrorists, to tackle migration, against smugglers. We need to have—the risk, from my point of view, is a sort of great Somalia 20 kilometers from Europe.
BAIRD: What’s your view of the path to a coalition government in Libya, and what’s Italy’s role in that? Italy’s taken a very interesting posture of saying that they need to be invited in to help, but who invites you?
GENTILONI: This is the question. (Laughter.) In this very moment, or maybe one hour ago, the special envoy of the United Nation(s), Ambassador Kobler, briefed the Security Council on the subject, and he described the situation we have. It depends on how you look at it.
If you look at the process as it has been in the last 16 months, yes, we’ve made enormous progress because, to be frank, for the first year the negotiations in Libya were almost useless. Then we had a breakthrough in December—December 2015, so a little bit more than two months ago. This conference in Rome that was organized by U.S. and Italy—or Italy and U.S., but Italy was the host country, but John Kerry was absolutely in a central position in organizing this conference—and the result of the conference was three days after an agreement in Skhirat, in Morocco, and then the process we are seeing. The process is not yet arriving to conclusion.
So at your question, but who will invite you, for the moment we have no answer because we need a Libyan government. But not only for legal or U.N. reasons; also for these reasons, because the U.N. Security Council resolution says that the international community is authorized to help also on the security plan Libyans on request of the Libyan government. And this was the condition for Russia to accept a U.N. Security Council resolution, because Russia was saying in 2011 you asked us to abstain on a resolution and then the situation evolved in a different way from the way you had described us. So we need a Libyan government for U.N. and international legal framework reasons, but the fact is that we need a Libyan government if we want to stabilize Libya.
Libya is an enormous country, six time(s) Italy, with only 6 million habitants. You cannot solve the Libyan crisis with a military occupation of Libya. Who will occupy Libya?
BAIRD: So, understanding—
GENTILONI: You can solve if you support a government.
BAIRD: So, understanding that the Libyan situation is probably not going to be resolved soon, and the situation in Syria and North Africa, Eritrea, let’s turn to the immigration issue, the sad humanitarian crisis in that part of the world. Italy’s been one of the real gateways for immigrants into Europe, and you mentioned in your talk the conflict between the requirements that immigrants be processed in the first place in Europe they arrive with the right of free passage throughout Europe. And there are some tensions between Italy and some of the other European countries because of that. You’ve recently tried to find some new paths for immigrants. And tell the group about the Christian group you worked with, where you just were at Fiumicino Airport and greeted a thousand Syrian refugees, and how Italy’s handling that.
GENTILONI: Yes, this example was—in fact, the so-called humanitarian corridors was an example of the fact that we need a—we need several solutions. There is not a single solution. What is absolutely crazy now in our European debate is that, for domestic and political reasons, we have many governments that are giving the idea that there is “a” solution to the migration crisis. And frequently, this solution is the new borders, new walls. This will not function. It is not in the European tradition, the civilized European tradition, and it will not work.
So what should we do? A lot of things, beginning from cooperation in Africa on the solution on the crisis we were talking about, because last year 48 percent of migrants arriving in Europe were Syrians. So just think of how important the contribution to the migration issue would be if we are able to maintain a ceasefire and begin a transition process in Syria. This will be extraordinary.
But we need also to change our European attitude about migration, not only on the routes, on the wars on poverty in Africa, but in Europe. What is the situation in Europe, in a—in a few words? One is that apparently Europe discovered migration a few months ago. We Italians are dealing with migration since several years. And we suffered for tragedies in the Mediterranean.
We are proud of the contribution that our navy and our guard coast are giving, saving. Because we—what we have to know about migration in Italy is that the migrants coming from Libya are not arriving in Italy. They are—80 percent of them, 85 percent—they are rescued at sea, because now the smugglers are giving them boats that are not arriving in Sicily, not at all. So it is a serious burden for the country because you have to rescue hundred (thousand), 150,000 person(s) per year, rescue at sea and bring them. Now this operation is done also with other European countries, but two-thirds of the operation are still Italian.
So this is a problem also of rules in Europe. I will tell you only one thing, because it’s too complicated issue. But the main rule that we have gradually to change if we want to maintain the freedom of circulation that we have in Europe—and it’s difficult to think to a unique market without a freedom of circulation of the people. It is difficult. So I we want to maintain the freedom of circulation, one of the pillar of the European Union, we should change the rule that now says that the responsibility about migration is in the countries of first arrival.
I’ll just give you the example last year of Greece. Greece received more or less 900,000 migrants last year through the Aegean Sea—900,000. According to the European rule, Greece was supposed to give asylum to those that have the right to asylum, more or less 500,000, and to repatriate those without the right of asylum, more or less 400(,000)-450,000. It is totally ridiculous to imagine that a single country of this dimension can have this kind of burden. And it doesn’t happen. Everybody knows. But we still have these rules. Why? Because the rules were thought 25 years ago for very small numbers of refugees. The idea was the Soviet bloc was falling down and we need rules to give asylum to those hundreds or thousands of persons coming out from this crisis. But now, we don’t have this kind of crisis, we have an enormous flow.
So Europe had a very late wake-up on migration. For many European countries, migration began on August 2015. And some of them believe that it can finish on March 2016. And unfortunately, it is not the case. It was there since many years and it will stay there for a generation. So we have to face the problem with a common initiative. I have to say on the optimistic side that some relevant countries, and especially Italy and Germany, are working together on the subject, and trying to convince everybody to have a common attitude to the problem. And I think it is positive also that from the United States, there is recently an interest towards this migration European crisis, and the intention to cooperate in some way.
BAIRD: So the numbers probably won’t be reduced, but you’re optimistic that Europe—the countries will be able to collaborate better together in addressing the flow of migrants. Move to another challenge—
GENTILONI: But the numbers should be reduced.
BAIRD: You think they will—
GENTILONI: We gave Turkey a facility of 3 billion euros to face the burden that they have with migrants coming from Lebanon and Jordan and staying in Turkey. And the deal was that Europe was supporting a Turkish commitment to reduce the flow. Then we can reduce the flow if we have a stable cease-fire in Syria. But in general, the root causes of migration will not be abolished in a few months. They are there.
BAIRD: Right. I’m going to go to the members in the audience for questions after one more question, so begin to think about what you want to ask. Let me ask you to comment on something else that’s on people’s mind that’s causing tension within the EU, and that’s Brexit. Could you give us your views on what you think will happen?
GENTILONI: Well, I don’t imagine a victory of the out position. I think it would be a very, very serious problem for Europe, and a dramatic problem for U.K. most of the challenge depends, from my point of view, on the strength of the U.K. leadership, beginning from the prime minister, to convince the public opinion of the risk that is not only a risk of a separation from EU, but also of a risk of a separation internal of the United Kingdom, because we all know the consequences that a Brexit would have with Scotland. So my impression is that Prime Minister Cameron can win the referendum, should win the referendum.
And that we, after the referendum, have as Europeans to decide if the British experience will pave the way to other countries asking their own a la carte European relation. And I think this would be very negative for Europe, everybody asking I want to opt out on this, I want to change this. Europe is already very differentiated when we are talking of the euro, the currencies, when we are talking of Schengen. But these are mechanisms that—they are not mechanisms for the 28 member states.
So I think we should avoid the risk after the success that I imagine of Prime Minister Cameron, other countries asking their own way to differentiate from Europe. But maybe that we can stabilize a different relation between one core Europe, core European Union, connected to the currency, to the Euro, and the other members living together but with different levels of integration. So not a Europe a la carte, but a Europe with two different pillars. This, I think, is necessary because the ones, as Italy, that believe in an every-closer union should know that this will be possible with a certain number of member states, but not with all the 28 member states. So differentiation is probably necessary, but we have to organize it. And it cannot be an a la carte mechanism.
BAIRD: Let me turn now to the audience for questions. And I am known to be brutal—if you state your opinion, it’s not a question. So please, just very brief question so that the foreign minister can spend most of the time speaking. There’s a woman in the back there. And state your name, please.
Q: Rula Jebreal.
And my question for Mr. Gentiloni, the overwhelming majority of foreign fighters coming from Europe to fight with ISIS come from areas in France, and Germany, and the U.K. where there’s least integration. For example, the Kouachi brothers were in the 93rd District. And it’s absolutely where the situation—they live on the margin of society. What is Italy and the EU is doing to integrate more third, fourth generations of Algerians, Moroccans, or basically French people who live there, for generations, to forbid them from joining ISIS? Thank you.
BAIRD: Thank you.
GENTILONI: Well, I think you raised a good point, because our narrative is frequently—and I understand perfectly, because there is this dimension that the threat is coming outside because of the foreign fighters, because of Daesh in Syria, and Libya, and so on. And this is obviously the case. And you have to face these threats. But we should also know, as you were saying, that if you look to the terrible last year, many of the terrorist attack were coming from inside, from our cities, from our schools, from our prisons, and from the radicalizations of citizens with our passports.
And this is the reason why creating a little bit of discussion, but I think at the end of the day also being understood. My prime minister said in the last month, as a slogan, that for every euro that we spend on military against terrorism we should spend another euro for culture and integration, because this is absolutely crucial if we look directly to where the threat are coming from—not only from outside, but also from inside.
BAIRD: Thank you. Here in front.
Q: Thank you. My name is Jeff Laurenti.
Minister Gentiloni, I was struck in your excellent overview at the beginning by the omission of any reference to Egypt’s stability and it’s, perhaps, overzealous security services, and of Israel-Palestine, two areas where Rome has had an interest for at least 2,000 years. Let me confine my question to the second of those, and that is to ask what for the Italian government, what for the European Union as a whole is the strategy, if there be one, for trying to push the Israelis and Palestinians to a peace settlement. What’s been the role of the branding of goods made in Israeli settlements in the West Bank as part of a strategy, if there be one? And what do you see in terms of a Security Council resolution setting parameters that the French have been talking about? And Italy is looking to be a candidate again for the Security Council, so you may have to vote on it.
BAIRD: Thank you.
GENTILONI: Yes. This is a very complicated question, to be very simple and sharp. The issue is that the so-called—this is how the diplomatic call it, the Middle East peace process, there is no peace and no process since several years, not since couple of days. So how can we try to restart this? This is the discussion. Last year, from the European side, it was complicated to discuss the issue with the U.S. side because, understandably, the U.S. side was very concentrated on this Iran deal, and worried to mix the two fights. So please wait a minute that we close this Iranian issue, and then we will be back on the Israeli-Palestinian.
Now the situation, fortunately, from my point of view, on the Iran deal has had a good evolution, or the evolution that we, as Europeans, wanted, can we Europeans give a contribution to the restarting of a process between Israel and Palestine? My answer is, I don’t know. But we should try. I don’t know, because you know that the—apparently there is no way of negotiation. The Secretary of State John Kerry tired again a few weeks ago to restart something, and he found a wall. But it is also true that, two things, one is that if we don’t move and if we forget the Israel-Palestinian issue, the risk that this issue will be absorbed by the Daesh narrative is terrible.
If we leave the Palestinian issue to Islamic terrorism, this is a nightmare for all the region. And the second reason to act is that perhaps exactly the Iran deal created conditions in some Arab countries favorable to having a role of reassuring both Israeli and Palestinians in a dynamic of negotiations. So these are two sufficient reasons, from my point of view, to have a European approach trying to restart the process, obviously with the United States. You can’t do anything in the region without involving United States. But with an active role for Europe and for some Arab countries. I don’t know if there are chance of success, but I know that it is correct to try. And we will try.
BAIRD: Way in the back there, and then we’ll come up front here.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Minister. Stefano Vaccara, Editor La Voce di New York.
They are two questions, but related. First question is, what happens if the Libyan government, the future government, doesn’t come along and so there is no invitation. What Italy exactly—what Italy’s plan is at that point? We understand the EU seems to say that the danger of Daesh is not—I mean, it’s a danger, but it’s not so dangerous today, at least how the other countries see it at the moment. And then it’s about Egypt, and the death of an Italian—an Italian researcher, Ph.D. student, that was tortured and killed in Egypt. And my question is related also to Libya, because we know that—you were talking about stabilization—will not happen without the help of Egypt too. What do you see in the future? And eventually, if there is—if Italy will be in Libya, how you see the future of relation after this case between Italy and Egypt?
BAIRD: Thank you. And maybe if you could explain the situation of dispute in Egypt. I don’t think all of the audience is familiar with it.
GENTILONI: Yeah. Well, I’m rather reluctant to connect the two issues, so I will give two separate answer. One is, if Libyans will not agree to support and endorse a new national unity government, what happens? I think if Libyans will not agree on this, this will be—will create a major problem. I think the discussion about plan B is, from my point of view, not so accurate, because containment of terrorism and fighting terrorism is not a plan B. It’s what we have to do in any case. What we are already doing, what we can continue to do. But containment of terrorism is not stabilizing an enormous country with plenty of resources. And this is what we have to do with the Libyan government.
The idea of solving the issue only with a military intervention was already experienced in Libya, not 50 years ago but five years ago. And it was—I understand the reasons why it was decided, but five years after, it’s difficult to say that it was a success. And for sure, the lessons learned says that, yes, we can and we should contain and fight terrorism, but we have no alternative to stabilize Libya to a decision from Libyans to form a government, and then we will support this government economically, on security, institution-building, and so on.
The Egyptian story is a dramatic and very sad story of a young 28-years old Italian researcher, went to Cairo from the University of Cambridge, and having research on independent trade unions in Egypt. This young researcher disappeared in January the 25th, and was found six or seven days after, killed and probably tortured and with many signs of violence. And we feel the duty not only towards his family, but also for the dignity of our country we feel the duty to have the truth and the responsible of this that has occurred.
We asked the Egyptian government to cooperate from this point of view. We have an investigation team there, sent by the judiciary of Rome. And we hope that cooperation that for the moment is very limited will be serious, because we have very strong relation with Egypt, we deem important to the role of Egypt for the stability of the region, we have also excellent economic relations, but all these things are not worth the non-cooperation when an Italian citizen is killed in this kind of conditions.
BAIRD: Thank you. Judy.
Q: Mr. Gentiloni, thank you very much for your presentation. I wanted to ask you a little bit about Russia, and under Putin, and how much cooperation you think you can expect from them on Syria, and how much of it is Russia’s attempt to establish its own goals in Syria. And secondly, the impact on the situation in the Ukraine. Thank you.
GENTILONI: Well, Ukraine is easier—the answer is easier. You know we have—we reacted in Europe and in NATO with sanctions. We will discuss again on May because sanction are decided until the end of June. So maybe May we will re-have a discussion about sanctions. But our vision is that we don’t like sanctions. We suffer from sanctions, especially Italy and Germany. They are the two countries more effected by the consequences of this absence of economical relations.
But we can live with them. So we understand our business community asking for lifting of sanctions, but we are not deciding on this basis. So we are deciding with NATO, with EU, and we will decide on the basis of the assessment, especially from our German and French colleagues that are supervising the so-called Minsk implementation. If the implementation is decent, we could even lift some sanctions. If the situation is still as it is now, we will confirm sanctions.
On Syria, the Russian role is a little bit more complex, but I will not be long, just two things. One is, please avoid—I tell it to my—some of my colleagues that have this feeling in Europe. Avoid to apply the Cold War narrative everywhere. So the Russian—the Syrian crisis is going on since five years. We had 400,000 people dying, million and million of refugees and displaced. And it would be not serious to say that this is a Russian responsibility—period. Then there is the Russian responsibility and the Russian role. Russian intervention, as you know, began in the last month of September. So after four years and a half.
The intervention was both a risk to create further problems to the crisis, and an opportunity to be an actor capable to facilitate a transition towards a new situation. In the past three or four months, I think that we have in practice both the risk and the opportunities. But the mix was more risk than opportunities, to be frank, because Russia intervention was very strong militarily, gave the impression that they wanted in any case to support until the last possible day Bashar al-Assad regime, and even to build a sort of—to create a sort of partition of the country.
But in this very period of three or four months, we had also the opportunity aspect, because what we are doing, the so-called International Syrian Support Group, wouldn’t exist without Russia. I think this should be very clear. This is a group of 18 countries, chaired by two person, John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, with Staffan de Mistura in the middle. This is the group. And if Iran, and Iran has leverage in Syria, is seated at the table, this is also because of the fact that Russia pushed for this.
So it’s a mix of judgement, where in the last—in these four months the bad aspect and the risk were prevailing on the good aspect and the opportunities. But we have to bet on the opportunities. Do we have an alternative? I don’t think we have an alternative. If someone wants to send 200,000 troops to Syria to solve the Syrian problem, he can try. But I don’t think we have an alternative to the negotiation, the transition, and the diplomatic process. And in this process we need a constructive and decent attitude from Russia and Iran. Will we reach this? It’s up to us to try. But some result was also there, and also many, many bad aspects. So it’s a mix of judgement.
BAIRD: Thank you. I think we have time for one more question. In the back—right back here. I haven’t tilted to the left yet, so.
Q: Hi. My name is Jess McHugh. I’m with International Business Times.
So I was curious, I’ve read some reports in local Italian media alleging that the mafia has kind of picked up patrolling Italy’s borders because of a lack of funds. I was wondering how you could respond to these reports, and whether you think that Italy’s ongoing economic difficulties have affected its ability to defend its borders.
BAIRD: Thank you. Usually the challenge is that the mafia is bringing people into the country, not that it’s protecting the borders. (Laughter.) So you can take that question either direction.
GENTILONI: Well, I know exactly what reports you are referring to, but I don’t know, sincerely, if there is a role of mafia. Mafia can have a role everywhere, but what we are now facing is—in Italy, the fight against criminality is in decent shape. We still have organized criminality, especially in some region of the country. But we don’t have so tough a confrontation as we had in previous years, killings of military, of judges, and so on. So we are—I think we have a good experience. It’s interesting that being a foreign minister, there is a lot of countries asking to share our experience against criminality, against mafia, against Camorra, and so on. It’s a know-how, an expertise that we—(laughter)—that we have, and that we can share.
But the criminality that now is worrying me is the real criminalities that these—under these trafficking of human beings. And we have local criminalities organized in Africa, in the Balkan route, and even narco-traffic coming from Latin American to central Africa, and organizing this kind of traffic. So we should give to the fight against human trafficking more attention. But we need—just to refer again to Libya—we know everything about human trafficking in Libya—who is doing that, where they are, what they are organizing.
But to fight this phenomenon, we to have a government to dialogue with. It’s not a blitzkrieg, that we’ll defeat smugglers and human traffickers. It’s not how—the same thing to have an action against a terrorist leader. It’s a very diffused criminal organization. If you cooperate with a government, you can defeat it. We have experience in the Balkans. We had 20—15 to 20 years ago, great flow of migration coming towards Italy through the Adriatic. Cooperating with some governments, we defeated completely this criminal organization. And we do hope that this criminal organization will not retry now to cross the Adriatic, because this is also a risk in this Balkan route in these days. But I don’t know if there is a specific role of mafia. I’m not an expert.
BAIRD: Well, I want to thank you on behalf of the Council for demonstrating, in addition to your capacity to grapple with these very specific issues, the challenge of a great diplomat, as foreign minister, to be both a patient person and a determined person. And I think you’ve demonstrated both of those qualities. So we thank you very much.
GENTILONI: Grazie. Thank you. (Applause.)