Putin’s Syria Illusion: Healing Historical Wounds, Resetting The Course Of History

By: Yigal Carmon* – MEMRI  NO  142  – 29 Nov 2017 – The November 2017 summit of the Russian, Iranian and Turkish presidents in Sochi is a contemporary Yalta Conference, but one in which Washington was relegated to the role of an extra while Moscow enjoyed top billing. That is how the Russian pro-Kremlin researchers and commentators[1] summed up the Sochi summit, in which Putin presided over talks to decide Syria’s future.

Indeed, Russia’s leadership is having a corrective emotional experience, imagining that the defeat of ISIS (which, by the way, has not yet been accomplished) is equivalent to the defeat of the Axis powers, and that the future settlement in Syria will be a replay of the partition of Europe at the 1945 Yalta Conference. This leadership feels that the insult and shame inflicted upon the Soviet body politic – namely the dismemberment of Yugoslavia by American/NATO power and the bombing of Belgrade, a kindred Slavic capital, while Russia looked on helplessly – is now avenged.
The victory over ISIS celebrated by Iran, Syria and Russia is a sham in itself. Russia and its allies in Damascus and Tehran did not bear the brunt of the fight against ISIS. It was American warplanes in the air, and the US-equipped and US-advised Iraqi Security Forces and Syrian Democratic Forces on the ground, that defeated ISIS in Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, Kobani and Raqqa. In the meanwhile, Russia, Syria, Iran and Hizbullah spent much of their time fighting everyone but ISIS.

However, Russia is now claiming victory in Syria in order to flaunt its role as a global power on the world stage. It is even celebrating the eventual humiliating ouster of the Americans from Syria. It matters little that Trump, whether in collusion or not, is more or less volunteering to give Putin the concessions he wants.

Such happy days for Russia! Trump is effectively ensuring Putin’s reelection by making him look like a national hero. The current Russian leadership, which swore it would allow no more Kosovos and color revolutions and calls itself “the axis of order”, can now claim to be implementing this policy in Syria. This is sweet vengeance for a country that suffers from extreme weakness and military and technological inferiority and which, by mental gymnastics (thank god for Trump), can now visualize itself as a massive global power.

Unfortunately for Russia it is nothing of the sort. To cite retired Russian General Staff Colonel Mikhail Khodarenok: “we have 200 warplanes while NATO has 3,800; we have 1, 600 armored vehicles and APCs while NATO has more than 20,000, and the situation is similar in all other domains.”[2] In the naval arena the picture is indeed similar: the US has 19 aircraft carriers, 10 of which are Nimitz-class nuclear powered supercarriers, while Russia has one smoke-belching old carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov.

Once the Russians emerge from their make-believe world, they will be forced to acknowledge the bitter reality: that Russia lacks the staying power to impose any solution in Syria, and that Turkey and Iran are not allies but rivals when it comes to Syria’s future.[3] Moreover, Saudi Arabia has established a new alliance of Sunni states that supports the anti-Assad opposition, and Israel threatens to puncture the entire balloon if Iranian forces approach its borders. The ultimate irony is that Putin, the supreme constitutionalist, is trying to push Assad – he too a fastidious constitutionalist – into accepting a constitutional solution and free elections in Syria, and expects Iran, which paid a steep price in order to export its revolution to Syria, to acquiesce to this. This grotesque parody could morph into a tragedy even greater than what Syria has experienced until now, as states and regular armies take up the roles heretofore played by rag-tag terrorist groups.

Putin’s political theater is always good for surprises. At the peak of his apparent victory – and after the statement issued by the “victors” at Sochi emphasized only the Astana process, brokered by Russia,Turkey and Iran, while making no mention of the UN-sponsored Geneva process – the helmsman Putin has made an about-face and now wants to return to the Geneva process. What does Russia have to gain at Geneva? Why not let Assad remain in power with the explicit acquiescence of the Europeans? Why not allow Syria to be partitioned into Turkish and Iranian influence zones? That way, Russia will have its Mediterranean bases, and that will be the end of the story. Israel and the Saudis will have to accept the new political reality, unless they want to unleash total war for the sake of themselves and the West (a move that a diffident and distracted West will never forgive them for).

That may still occur by default, but Putin is nevertheless trying another approach that he hopes will maximize Russia’s gains. What Russia hopes to gain is a chance to cash in its Syrian chips in exchange for winnings in Europe. Russia seeks to revive its century-long aspiration of redrawing the map of Europe according to the vision of “Eurasia from Lisbon to Vladivostok”, as Putin and his former foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, called it. It is in Europe and Europe only – not in the Middle East swamp – that Russia can and wishes to restore its bygone glory. The Geneva process may serve to restore Russia’s global status, and as a side benefit, may also unlock European reconstruction money for Syria that Russia cannot hope to supply on her own.

The Russian gambit goes even further. In early 2017, in various articles, pro-Kremlin Russian thinkers and analysts gave broad hints that Russia was eager for a grand bargain: giving up its alliance with Iran in return for the removal of what truly pains it: the sanctions and NATO’s eastward expansion.[4] Back then the bargain failed to go through. Nevertheless, in late 2017, from its new perch as the victor in Syria, Russia is again nursing this idea, in the hopes that its empowered status will yield a different result. For example, Kirill Semyonov, head of the Center for Islamic Studies at the Institute for Innovative Development and analyst at the Russian Council for International Affairs, commented that the convergence of Russia’s and Iran’s interests is only “temporary” and “apparent,” and connected to the crisis with the U.S. He stressed that Russia’s rapprochement with Iran is not “irreversible,” since it is merely tactical, and that Moscow’s policy may therefore change.[5] But sadly for Russia, the grand bargain is not likely to go through in 2018 either. Trump simply cannot deliver the goods Russia needs, however much he hankers for a successful deal with Russia. In fact, Putin will be unable to make this deal even with the Europeans, no matter how sorely they are tempted to accept this Faustian bargain.

A disappointed Russia will be forced back to the Middle Eastern swamp, and will be cut down to its true size as a rogue regime aligned with other rogue regimes whose hands are dripping with the blood of their own peoples.


* Y. Carmon is the founder and president of MEMRI.

[1] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.7197, Russian Media Comments Following Tripartite Sochi Summit: A New Yalta That Excludes The Americans, November 27, 2017.

[2] See MEMRI Clip No. 5902, Retired Russian General Staff Colonel: We Should Stop Saber-Rattling, February 14, 2017. November 27, 2017

[3] This is clearly reflected in a November 26, 2017 article in the Iranian daily Kayhan, which stated that anyone who thinks that he can overturn the Sochi decisions at the Geneva talks and remove Assad from power is in for a rude awakening. This, because at the Sochi summit, for the first time since the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Iran, Russia and Turkey delineated the future of western Asia based on the doctrine of the resistance axis, without the involvement of the US and the West.

[4] See for example the following MEMRI reports: Special Dispatch No. 6821, Renowned Russian Intellectual Fyodor Lukyanov: ‘Rapprochement And Interaction With Iran, China, And India Are Not Intrinsically Valuable for Russia But Are A Tool… To Influence The West’, March 9, 2017; Special Dispatch No. 6742, Director General Of Russian Government-Funded Think Tank: Current Russia–Iran Relations Cannot Be Called A Strategic Partnership, A One-Time Enemy Could Easily Become A Future Ally, January 16, 2017; Special Dispatch No. 6808, Columnist For Russian Daily ‘Kommersant’: ‘Moscow [Understands] That In Iran It Has A Really Capricious And Unpredictable Partner. That Opens A Certain Window Of Opportunity For Donald Trump’s Diplomacy’, March 1, 2017; Special Dispatch No. 6779, Pro-Kremlin ‘ Iran Is Becoming A Major Problem, First And Foremost For Russia’s Interests’, February 12, 2017.

[5], November 1, 2017.