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From Rome To Damascus, Via Tripoli: The Mediterranean Chessboard

Silvio Berlusconi’s decision for Italy to join the bombing campaign against Gaddafi has roots and reverberations across a region where all is connected, and nothing is certain.

A game of chess near the Roman ruins of Temple of Jupiter in Damascus
A game of chess near the Roman ruins of Temple of Jupiter in Damascus
Marta Dassu’

Italy's announcement that it has decided to take part in NATO's raids against Libya marks a strategic turning point for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Over the past few weeks, Berlusconi has repeatedly dismissed the possibility of using Italian firepower in the NATO airstrikes, given Italy's colonial past in Libya. But it became increasingly difficult to maintain this position as NATO put more and more pressure on the Italians. But it was the Italian government's April 4 recognition of the National Transition Council in Benghazi as Libya's sole legitimate representative that made the position virtually impossible. In foreign politics there is a line between positions that are just incoherent and those that come with too high a price.

Theoretically, when the Libyan crisis began, Italy could have taken a different position. Opting for a cautious position, as Germany did, was still possible. Instead, the Italian government first granted to the international coalition the use of its military bases and pushed to give the command of the operations to NATO. Then it received in Rome, with open arms, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the leader of Libya's provisional rebel government, and sent some military advisors to Libya.

Italy's refusal to send Italian bombers to Libya was entirely inconsistent with its actions in support of the rebels. Italy was already paying the political costs of the war against Gaddafi and was already undertaking the risk that Gaddafi could seek revenge. At the same time, Italy was losing its credibility inside the North Atlantic coalition and was legitimizing the first-line role of France and United Kingdom in the future of Libya.

After much hesitation, the intervention became necessary, at least to give the appearance of having some sort of coherent foreign policy. The decision finally arrived Monday after a phone call with U.S. President Barack Obama. Italy had to avoid being isolated in a crisis in which it has many interests and is exposed to many risks. There was little to gain and much to lose.

This choice could prove useful if Italy will seriously try to influence an international strategy that by now has been confused and ineffective. Too often in the past, our country's foreign policy started and ended with the modest desire to just be on the playing field, while others were actually making the decisions. Today, Italy should press for a real debate on some basic but still unanswered questions. What kind of support will we provide to the recently recognized Libyan rebel forces? What should be done to avoid the partition of Libya ? How can an intesified military effort promote a political solution that brings the removal of Gaddafi?

Coherence has not been the main trait in European and American reactions to the Arab uprisings since January. The United States is dealing with the weight of their debt, the Pentagon" s strategies and realpolitik. They have not decided yet how far they should go in supporting an Arab awakening that by now has triggered the fall of an ally rather than enemy regimes. Europe is divided on the immigration issue, with leaders in France and Italy using it to play electoral politics.

While the US is hesitating and Europe is divided, the Arab spring is facing its winter in Syria. Bashar al-Assad's regime's violent repressions and the West's weak reaction show that Paris can push for a military action in Libya – an oil-producing nation not part of the Middle East balance of powers – but has not been able to save Saad Hariri's standing in Lebanon or to reduce the influence of Syria, which is allied with Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

According to some theories, the Arab awakening did not start in Tunisia, last December, but in Lebanon in 2005, when the murder of the former Sunni prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, led thousands of people to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country. On April 26, 2005, Syria finally withdrew, after a UN resolution pushed by France and US. At the time, Syria's Assad accused foreign powers of contributing to the area's destabilization. It was just the beginning of the current showdown between the Syrian Alawi minority and the Sunni majority.

This theory argues that the longevity of the Arab spring (or winter) will ultimately be determined by what transpires in the core of the Middle East rather than at the periphery in northern Africa. The show of strength in Syria will affect security in Lebanon and Israel, Iraq and its Kurd minority, and Turkey, which in recent years has built stronger relationships with its former foe in Damascus. By this view, in comparison with Syria, what happens in Libya could start to appear marginal. But it is not: the outcome of the use of force against Gaddafi will also weigh heavily on the choices of Bashar al-Assad.

Read the original article in Italian.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

That Man In Mariupol: Is Putin Using A Body Double To Avoid Public Appearances?

Putin really is meeting with Xi in Moscow — we know that. But there are credible experts saying that the person who showed up in Mariupol the day before was someone else — the latest report that the Russian president uses a doppelganger for meetings and appearances.

screen grab of Putin in a dark down jacket

During the visit to Mariupol, the Presidential office only released screen grabs of a video

Russian President Press Office/TASS via ZUMA
Anna Akage

Have no doubt, the Vladimir Putin we’re seeing alongside Xi Jinping this week is the real Vladimir Putin. But it’s a question that is being asked after a range of credible experts have accused the Russian president of sending a body double for a high-profile visit this past weekend in the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

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Reports and conspiracy theories have circulated in the past about the Russian leader using a stand-in because of health or security issues. But the reaction to the Kremlin leader's trip to Mariupol is the first time that multiple credible sources — including those who’ve spent time with him in the past — have cast doubt on the identity of the man who showed up in the southeastern Ukrainian city that Russia took over last spring after a months-long siege.

Russian opposition politician Gennady Gudkov is among those who confidently claim that a Putin look-alike, or rather one of his look-alikes, was in the Ukrainian city.

"Now that there is a war going on, I don't rule out the possibility that someone strongly resembling or disguised as Putin is playing his role," Gudkov said.

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