"ISIS can be stopped, but rebuilding Iraq is up to its people"
Deputy Foreign Minister Lapo Pistelli is the Italian government’s delegate for the Middle East and in the past was a professor and OSCE representative as well as being a former member of the Italian and European parliaments’ Foreign Affairs Committees. Pistelli’s long summer started when he returned to Italy with the last flight out of Erbil before U.S. air strikes on ISIS jihadists began. There he saw first-hand Iraq’s wounded image in refugee camps, filled with those who had already abandoned everything to flee the men led by “Caliph” al-Baghdadi, and were now preparing to flee once again. Today, he believes, such an international crisis or the decision-making system in place called upon to remedy matters, are no longer issues to be addressed by desk-strategists, because when events are this harsh, a backlash can only be prevented by the United Nations’ centrality and the flexible of politics and diplomacy.
Faced with the crisis in Iraq and the threat posed by ISIS, could massive support provided to the Kurds, which is necessary, perhaps risk causing even greater imbalance in Iraq and lead to even greater problems?
Everyone is aware of Kurdistan’s aspirations for independence, however, paradoxical as it may seem, strengthening Erbil’s capacity to defend itself is now an immediate and necessary condition in order for a united Iraq to continue to exist. Should ISIS win, or should it have won in recent weeks, we would be at a point of no return. Luckily, for the moment that is not the case.
All assistance provided to Kurdistan has, however, been reported and authorised in agreement with Baghdad.
Can al-Abadi support the American and international wager and bring more “inclusive” order as hoped by Obama and by us all?
We are all working to achieve that. After two difficult months during which ISIS increased in strength, also thanks to a “void” in Baghdad, al-Abadi’s appointment, and promises that there will be an inclusive and united government, are the precondition for trying to start over.
You have recently returned from Iraq. How distant is today’s Iraq from the idea of multi-ethnic and multi-religious coexistence that should represent the ideal for a peaceful Iraqi state?
The situation really is extremely difficult. To the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites one must now also add the growing mistrust other minorities have of the Sunnis, considered close to ISIS’ project. Politics, however, should not comment on reality but rather change it. Hence, we must not lose the hope that we can bring the three main communities back to a decent level of cooperation.
Are the Iraqi and Syrian crises not the result of the end of a certain form of international relations? For how long will Europe be able to continue without an active foreign policy and shared EU armed forces?
The European Union is us, and all shared policies require a conferment of sovereignty, legal foundations, instruments and resources from all Member States. Foreign policy and security are still nascent policies, in which national sovereignty prevails over the Community. I do not hesitate in describing myself as a federalist, but I am aware we still have a long way to go. I also know that the world is asking Europe for more than our individual national egoisms are prepared to concede to answer the expectations of non-Europeans.
So we need a new approach to international crises, approaches that do not just advocate “containment”? How can governments ensure its implementation?
That would require a book... Let me just say that first of all there is a need for policy founded on an analysis of the real world and a more long-term vision, not one conditioned on the transitivity of friends and enemies, or theories studied at a desk and not appropriate to the harshness of reality. Then one needs tenacity and flexibility in knowing how to measure traditional diplomacy, cooperation and even hard power in variable percentages depending on circumstances and contexts.
In your opinion, how could a new process for the governance of international emergencies be organised? Should it be more flexible than the current one set only within the United Nations Security Council? Could a polycentric system with changing partnerships work?
It all looks good on paper, but the logic behind the ‘coalition of the willing’ did not take us very far. I am still convinced of the centrality of the United Nations system. However, I believe in the capabilities of the European Union and of other regional organisations to create new forms of legitimising intervention in crisis areas. Both UN and European humanitarian mechanisms have instead been well-tested.
According to the German daily newspaper Die Welt, at least 10% of ISIS’ militants allegedly come from Turkey. The opposition accuses Erdogan of having allowed jihadists access to a series of training camps. Is this also a consequence of European mistakes?
These are two very different issues I would prefer not to mix. Turkey’s path towards Europe and the generosity of the European project have now reached a stalemate, because for many different reasons we have missed the magic moment. We all know, however, to what extent Turkey’s and the EU’s fates are linked. So we are working to ensure they return to hold meetings as soon as possible.
As far as ISIS is concerned I would not dare speculate. The most extreme forms of jihad are always those that attract the highest number of foreign fighters. Each country should pay attention to this and to its own recruitment centres. Europe too, is not without blame.
How far can the détente between the USA and Iran go?
Very far I hope. Starting with an agreement on the nuclear issue, the United States and Europe could recover an important and useful interlocutor in order to cooperate on matters such as Afghanistan and Syria, so as to degrade the intra-Islamic sectarian clash. Rouhani has already been of great assistance in facilitating al-Maliki’s resignation. We should not forget this.
Libya stands at the other end of the Middle Eastern crescent. It is another crossroads of tribal and religious clashes. Your party colleague and president of the Senate’s Defence Committee, Nicola Latorre, has spoken of a military mission to the country, under the aegis of the United Nations and led by Italy. Does the government intend to proceed in this direction?
August is a month that brings ideas. For the moment let us try and help the various militias to speak to one another, to negotiate a truce and allow parliament, and the government, to return to meet in Tripoli. Then we must assist the UN’s new envoy, Bernardino Leon, to coordinate efforts made by the various envoys. Then we shall see. Missions must have a principal, a mandate and assume shared responsibilities. For the moment, Italy helps the United Nations in a decisive manner; we keep the embassy open doing important work in listening and mediating. The rest remains to be seen.
Let us return to where we started, to Iraq. Do you believe that declaring a humanitarian emergency is sufficient for addressing the developments of the crisis, or will the United States be obliged to opt for a strong presence on the ground and not just in the skies?
To start with I am grateful to President Obama for what he has done. No one really knows how many lives were lost before that. No one can imagine how many we have saved with that intervention. I can understand America’s reluctance following the failure of the Neo-on experience. We can prevent ISIS from consolidating. It is in our best interest. We cannot, however, rebuild Iraq, that is up to the Iraqi people.
Translation by Francesca Simmons