RD Think Tanks Review: In February, Russia’s top experts discussed war and peace in Syria, the historic meeting between the Pope and Patriarch in Cuba, and new elections in Iran.

A Syrian boy holds a toy gun as he plays soccer with others between destroyed buildings with graffiti that reads "Syria al-Assad," in the old city of Homs, Syria, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. Photo: AP

In February, Russian experts commented on the historic meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis in Cuba. Not lacking for attention was the traditional subject of relations between Russia and the West, this time mainly focusing on cooperation between Washington and Moscow in ending the war in Syria.

Russian-Western cooperation in Syria

At the beginning of February in Geneva, the first large-scale talks on resolving the Syrian conflict ended in failure. These talks were attended by representatives of both the regime of Bashar al-Assad and Syrian opposition groups. However, suddenly, at the end of the third week of February, a new hope for peace in Syria appeared. With the active participation of Russia and the United States, and personal involvement of the two presidents, an agreement on a temporary ceasefire was reached.

Collaboration between Washington and Moscow led Russian experts to speculate about the prospects of this contradictory tandem: Was this was just a passing moment, or did it actually mark the beginning of rapprochement between Russia and the Western powers, led by the United States

Nikolay Kozhanov of Moscow Carnegie Center believes that this alliance between Russia and the United States to resolve the Syria conflict is fleeting, and it is designed to create at least a semblance of carrying out of negotiations and engaging in a peace process, since doing otherwise, the two powers risk losing credibility and influence among other regional players. In addition, neither Russia nor the United States are interested in being involved in a large-scale regional war.

The problem for both countries is the virtual absence of opportunities to influence the parties to this conflict, which are in no way dependent on powers outside of the region, something that frustrates both Washington and Moscow. Not to mention the fact that the parties are not particularly interested in the peace process, betting more on achieving military successes.

Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), is cautiously optimistic about the prospects of this Russian-American tandem. On the one hand, the very wording and the spirit of the agreements concluded on Syria bring the world back to the time when Russia and the United States could find common ground to solve major global problems, because they were both aware of the dangers emanating from them.

“The world needs an example, demonstrating that the two most influential and powerful, in the military-political sense, countries (and once again these are Russia and the U.S.) are capable of, while remaining in a state of antagonism, finding ways out of certain dangerous situations,” emphasizes Lukyanov. 

On the other hand, the analyst notes that the degree of influence that the Russian Federation and the United States have on regional players is rather exaggerated, and the maintenance of peace does not always depend on the wishes of Moscow and Washington. For this reason, we should not expect too much from the current ceasefire agreement – as regional powers are still very far from seeing a need for such a peace process.

Also read: "3 major obstacles facing the new Syrian ceasefire"

Andrey Kortunov, general director of RIAC, is also cautious in his assessment of the new agreements, while at the same time, pointing to the new mood for dialogue that has arisen between Moscow and Washington.

“It seems to me that the parties have gazed into the abyss, recoiled, and come to a conclusion that they still need to work together, even if this means having to make some compromises,” says Kortunov. The expert firmly believes that even the mutual desire of the two countries for peace in Syria, will not lead to the solving of all the accumulated contradictions within the region, and therefore, we cannot hope for an early settlement of this conflict.

Just like his colleagues at CFDP and Carnegie, Kortunov does not believe that the regional players, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Assad’s regime, are directly dependent on Washington or Moscow, which may have a negative impact on the peace process.

“Meeting of the Millennium” 

On Feb. 12 in Cuba, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church held talks with Pope Francis. This was the first meeting between the Pope and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church since the split in the Christian Church back in the year 1054. Russian and foreign media have already dubbed this the “Meeting of the Millennium,” and experts at various think tanks were wondering what would be the implications of this meeting, and whether it would have an influence on Russia’s foreign policy.

Tatiana Zonova, specialist on Vatican foreign policy and expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), explained that plans and preparations for this meeting had commenced a long time ago. Zonova believes that the modern world has presented the Vatican and the Catholic Church with completely new challenges, and to meet these, Rome is now willing to engage in ecumenical dialogue with the largest, by the number of its members and resources, Christian Church – the Russian Orthodox Church.

“In his speeches, the Pope defined the problems, which opened prospects for dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church. These are the opposition to terrorism and to the sowing of hatred and aggression, from which Christian communities are suffering today, especially in the Middle East,” emphasized the expert. 

Daniil Parenkov (MGIMO), highlighted the reasons behind the Russian Orthodox Church's interest in such a high-level meeting. For the Patriarch, this is not just a chance to make history, but also a trump card in his complex game of increasing the prestige of the the Russian Church among other disparate Orthodox churches, and in particular, the creation of a counterweight to Constantinople, led by Bartholomew, who has long been an irritant to Moscow Patriarchs. However, the analyst also noted that, “For Pope Francis, this meeting with Patriarch Kirill was also important – this being a significant breakthrough in the convergence of Catholicism and Orthodoxy – a task that all of his predecessors were unable to realize.”

Recommended: "What you need to know about the meeting of the Pope and the Patriarch"

Alexander Baunov, analyst at the Carnegie Center, talked about the political background of the meeting in Cuba. In terms of its confrontation with the West, Russia needs to confirm that it is not completely rejecting the Christian world, of which it has always been an integral part. In this event, Patriarch Kirill acted not as a representative of the Church’s interests, but as a politician and diplomat for his country and its president – Russian President Vladimir Putin.

From a religious point of view, this meeting for the patriarch was not necessary, and even harmful, because it will put him into conflict with conservative elites within the Russian Orthodox Church. However, politically, this was a grand move on Russia’s part, bolstering its image as a civilized Christian country, ready to work for the protection of Christians all over the world, including in the volatile Middle East.

“One way or another, this meeting in Cuba became an important stage in the development of Christianity in the world, whatever be the motives of the parties,” concludes Baunov.

Elections in Iran: Is change on the horizon? 

On Feb. 26, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, elections were held to the Majlis and the Council of Experts (a religious council, which, along with the parliament, plays a crucial role in shaping the country’s policies). Russian experts assessed the possible new alignment of political forces, and the prospects for the continued progress in Iran’s path out of isolation.

Maryam Khamedi at the Carnegie Moscow Center considers that the balance of power after the elections has significantly changed, with the Iranians clearly and unequivocally having expressed their support for the reforms that President Hassan Rouhani has been carrying out, rejecting the most radical conservative candidates, on which Ayatollah Khamenei relied for support. For the international community, this means that Iran will continue on its path out of isolation, and continued dialogue with the West.

“The balance of power has changed, and at this stage, there is no fear that Iran will become offended and sharply swerve off its current course towards becoming a part of the international community”. However, the expert predicts that it will be extremely difficult to get conservative parliamentarians and members of the Religious Council to work together on common objectives, and in the future, this will become the central task of Rouhani and his supporters.

The Russian International Affairs Council gave the voice to Mahmud Shuri (Center for the Study of Iran and Eurasia). Shuri stressed that the victory of supporters in the parliament is far more important for the country’s foreign policy than victory in the Religious Council. This Council, though it is widely respected, hardly engages in foreign policy issues, whereas the parliament is a whole other matter.

Had the conservative forces won the elections, the process of rapprochement with the West and the country’s coming out of isolation would have become significantly more complicated,” said Shuri. He sees great potential in Russian-Iranian relations, but predicts that in the economic and trade sphere, Russia will have a difficult time in competing with Western companies, while Iran lacks sufficient financial resources for the development of large-scale joint projects with Russia.