BEIRUT: Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi said Wednesday his country respected Lebanon’s refusal to establish a buffer zone with Syria, adding that Italy endorses Lebanon’s policy of neutrality toward events in its neighbor.
“We are crystal clear we do not support the smuggling of arms [from Lebanon to Syria] or creating buffer zones without the consent of the Lebanese government,” Terzi told The Daily Star.
Terzi, who held meetings with Lebanon’s three top officials, in addition to Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour, said the purpose of his visit, during what he dubs a “very delicate period,” was aimed at restating Italy’s commitment to calm and stability in the country.
Terzi discussed with Lebanese officials a conference to be held in Milan in October to boost mutual investments and explore other areas of cooperation in the field of economy and trade.
The foreign minister, who served as Italian ambassador to the U.N. in 2008 and 2009, said a resolution of the unrest in Syria would likely defuse tension in neighboring countries including Lebanon.
The frail security situation in Lebanon, which saw heavy sectarian fighting in May in the northern city of Tripoli, has raised fears that the 15-month unrest in Syria has spilled across the border.
“Italy and the European Union are engaged to find a solution to the Syrian crisis,” Terzi said. “I think it is the first political aim that we have in mind.”
He explained that the first way to go was to implement the Kofi Annan peace plan for Syria, which according to Terzi entails an immediate end to the violence, and the launch of true political dialogue among all the components of the Syrian political fabric.
“If this happens of course there is going to be a downgrading of the level of tension in the region which should be beneficial to Lebanon, to Turkey, to Jordan, Iraq and to the entire region,” he added.
But Terzi admitted that in the event the Annan plan fails, the international community, Italy included, will move toward imposing “harsher sanctions” on the Syrian regime.
Terzi said he sensed during talks with Lebanese officials a strong commitment to avoid a spillover of the unrest in Syria to Lebanon, highlighting that the international community was also expected to work in that direction.
“There is a strong will by Lebanon not to interfere [in what’s happening in Syria], and [to avoid] the spillover of certain aspects of the crisis,” he said.
“By the way,” he added, “[This logic] has to be appreciated by the international community, which should be aware that there is a risk if this policy is not respected as it will have bad consequences on everyone.”
Asked about Lebanon’s so-called policy of dissociation and the extent to which it overlapped with European policies toward the situation in Syria, Terzi said Lebanon should not be involved in the Syrian crisis.
“It’s a question of definition when it comes to neutrality policy,” he said.
“From what I understand as the neutrality policy in Lebanon is the fact that there should not be outside forces which are using Lebanon for their own purposes,” he added. “I think the Europeans should endorse the fact that there shouldn’t be any interference by Lebanon in events in Syria.”
Terzi also dismissed news of Italy’s intention to further downsize its peacekeeping force in south Lebanon due to budget deficits.
The minister traveled to south Lebanon Tuesday afternoon to check on his country’s contingent, which serves as part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.
In 2011, Italy reduced its contribution to UNIFIL to 1,100 soldiers from 1,800 after six of its peacekeepers were wounded in May of that year. At the time, Italian diplomats said the decision to cut its contingent had been taken before the attack.
According to Terzi, UNIFIL has an “excellent record” of contributing to the safety of the local population in south Lebanon and to preserving stability in its zone of operations as mandated by Security Council Resolution 1701, which put an end to Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006.
Terzi said that the presence of UNIFIL in south Lebanon was a guarantor of stability, adding that local and regional players have an interest in safeguarding the mission of the peacekeeping force.
“Every force existing in this region should have a clear objective of keeping UNIFIL in its area of operations.”