RD Interview: Prominent Middle East expert Georgi Mirsky explains how Russia’s involvement in Syria complicated the situation in the region, why ISIS is so hard to defeat and why political settlement of the conflict is impossible. 

A Syrian child who lives in Lebanon holds a poster with photos of Syrian President Bashar Assad, second left, Russian President Vladimir Putin, second right, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, right, and Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, left, with Arabic that reads "Lions of the time," during a rally in October, 2015. Photo: AP

Amidst growing tensions in the Middle East, Russia Direct sat down with Georgi Mirsky, a Valdai Club member and professor and chief researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) at the Russian Academy of Sciences, to understand the impact of Russia’s involvement in Syria.

In the interview below, Mirsky discusses how Russia has shifted the balance of power in the region, why the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) is almost impossible to defeat and the odds of political settlement of the Syrian conflict.   

Russia Direct: What factors make Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict so dangerous and unpredictable?

Georgi Mirsky: Why unpredictable? Everything is possible to predict to a certain extent. However, we made a mistake when we thought that our airstrikes would allow the Syrian army to carry out a serious attack [on the opposition and ISIS]. Putin said that Russia’s air bombing would go on as long as the Syrian army needs to  take the offensive.

Georgi Mirsky, a Valdai Club member and professor and chief researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO). Photo: Anna Amelina / Russian International Affairs Council

But the Syrian army has been failing to advance seriously since Russia started its campaign on Sept. 30. And here is a very strange situation. How long should bombings go on? There is nothing to bomb in Syria anymore: Everything is destroyed. But the Syrian army [even with Russian military support and its airstrikes against the opposition] cannot change the situation. So what? Does it mean that we should stop bombing?

And here is another inconvenient question that comes about: For what reason has Russia launched this campaign, given that it was followed by the terrible catastrophe with our passenger plane in Egypt and Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet. So, how can the Kremlin stop its airstrikes in Syria now after all these incidents happened? Thus, Russia turns out to have failed to calculate the consequences of its Syria campaign. Does it mean it is necessary to go on? But how to do it given recent events?

It is easy to carry out bombings from the sky, but what about putting boots on the ground? Nobody does this. Several times the Russian leadership said that it would not deploy its troops in Syria. So, the Syrian army is failing and nobody cares: not Saudi Arabia, not Jordan, nobody.

Also read: "Lessons from Russia's moves in the Middle East in 2015"

ISIS is possible to defeat by military means. And if Obama sent 200,000 soldiers to Iraq and if Putin sent 200,000 soldiers to Syria, they would have finished with ISIS. After all, there are not invincible armies. But nobody will send them. So, this is the dead end.    

RD: Some are inclined to believe that the Vienna 2 talks are the start of the political settlement of Syria. How do you assess the odds of diplomacy in resolving the conflict?

G.M.: There are no chances. It is clear that creating conditions for political settlement requires compromise between “the first force” (the Assad army) and “the third force” (the opposition and the Free Syrian Army). It is necessary that they reconcile and unite to defeat “the second force” (ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra). In this case, they might defeat ISIS troops, with the support of Russian military aviation. But never ever will they unite. That’s why there is no reason to believe in political settlement of the conflict.     

Russia has already said that it will not turn its back on Assad. Even if we succeeded in persuading France (which is not difficult because French President Francois Hollande is in such a situation that he is ready to yield) and the U.S. to come up with a compromise, nobody will be able to persuade Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to accept such trade-offs.

Even though you try to imagine such absolutely unbelievable scenarios and they finally agree, how in this case to deal with those who have been fighting and shedding their blood for four years, who are burying their friends and loved ones. Never ever will they be able to unite under the leadership of Assad. Never.        

RD: According to some opinions, Russia’s direct intervention in Syria didn’t have a significant impact on the situation in general, because it had been severely unstable long before. Do you agree?

G.M.: The situation has become even more complicated, because long before there were expectations that sooner or later the Syrian army would lose, even if fighting on its last legs. Obviously, it won’t happen because it is a matter of principle and honor for Putin to defend Damascus and the Syrian people.

There was another scenario: opponents were expected to unite and defeat ISIS together. It is clear today that this won’t happen. So, the balance of power is so bad, such that it is difficult to imagine a worse one.  

Look at ISIS. Everybody hates it and is afraid, but nobody fights with it in reality – they only pretend, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and others. Assad does pretend that he fights with ISIS, but, in fact, he fights with “the third force” — the Free Syrian Army. Iraq does pretend that it fights with ISIS, but, in fact, the Iraqis defend themselves and Baghdad. Likewise, the Kurds defend their territory.

The West and, particularly, the Americans do pretend that they fight with ISIS, but, in fact, they are bombing selectively to avoid big casualties and safeguard President Barack Obama from accusations that he is responsible for the deaths of the Syrian people.

You see, all pretend, because all have double or triple agendas and their own interests.            

RD: There is an opinion that we are exaggerating the potential of ISIS as a state. Some argue that it is just a project, an attempt to create a state without clear long-term vision.

G.M.: It is a real state with all necessary ministries, all necessary agencies, bodies of administration and propaganda. It has armed forces, even though it lacks air power and tanks. But, in general, it has almost everything that a state should have.  

RD: To what extent is it correct to compare the anti-ISIS coalition with the anti-Hitler one?

G.M.: Well, Hitler posed a real threat to the entire world and everybody understood this. All understood that only united forces would be able to cope with him; otherwise it could lead to a nightmare: the end of civilization. Regarding ISIS, it is clear that it won’t be able to conquer Europe, the U.S. or China: Its reach is relatively short. So, I don’t see why we should compare anti-Hitler and anti-ISIS coalitions.    

RD: So, you see such comparisons as populist rhetoric? 

G.M.: No, why? The matter is that it is natural for human to compare something and seek different analogies. Otherwise, he or she understands nothing. But if he or she finds analogies, everything is clear.  

RD: And we keep looking for analogies: when Russia started its bombing in Syria, comparison with the 1979 Soviet campaign in Afghanistan abounded in the media.

G.M.: I am not a big fan of analogies, because amateurs try to find them and over-simplify instead of looking for deep understanding and knowledge about history, sociology and religion. They believe they can explain with these analogies everything.   

RD: Do you believe that the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris and the crash of the Russian charter airplane in Egypt can bring together Russia and the West?

G.M.: No way. The West clearly understands that Putin came to Syria not to fight terrorism, but to save Assad. But their goal is to overthrow Assad. So, it is out of the question to talk about an alliance in such a situation.

RD: So, what solutions and recommendations would you propose to diplomats and politicians? 

G.M.: No solutions, no recommendations. It totally doesn’t make sense to talk about it, because you can give recommendations only to those people, who have common sense and see beyond the end of their nose, who put universal human values and interests above the interests of their own states, their party, their Congress, their tenure, their audience. Only such people can listen to your recommendations. But there are no such people in the world of [politics], so it makes no sense to recommend something [to politicians].         

Also read: "If Russia, the West refuse to cooperate in Syria now, it will be insanity"

Everybody thinks, first and foremost, about his approval ratings and popularity. Everybody thinks what the opposition would say, what people would say, what allies would say, what partners would say. This, after all, preoccupies the decision-makers, not peace. Everybody thinks how to portray oneself. It’s a matter of perception. Perception trumps reality, not vice versa.