Russia's Mariinsky Theatre performing at the Syrian ancient site of Palmya. Photo: AFP
Plenty of analysis, commentary and reportage has already been written about Russia’s recent orchestra in the ancient city of Palmyra, a lot of it aiming to understand what messages the Russians sought to send through that event.
On the surface it’s quite clear, holding such a show on an ancient UNESCO world heritage site which was until recently under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS) implies that Russia is in Syria to safeguard that country’s civilization and society from that group and not just its own self-interests.
Many have criticized this as a cynical publicity stunt, even a tasteless one given the civilian casualties caused to date by the Russian bombing campaign across Syria. Such sound criticisms should not be overlooked, nor should the message the Kremlin tried to send through this calculated action.
When ISIS took over Palmyra back in May 2015 a clear historical comparison to the ancient ruins of Persepolis was made. In 1979 after the Iranian Revolution the Ayatollah Khomeini’s right-hand man, and main executioner, Sadegh Khalkhali, denounced these pre-Islamic ruins and sought to bulldoze them but was prevented by the provisional government.
ISIS has destroyed parts of Palmyra but proved unable to destroy the entirety of the site. After the Russians backed a Syrian offensive to recapture it late last March they successfully de-mined it and established a military presence there, which provided security for last week’s show.
While the Khalkhali precedent was an obvious one to make when Palmyra was under ISIS occupation it would also be worthwhile to compare the orchestra to the last Shah of Iran’s extravagant party at Persepolis back in 1971.
Both events have many distinctions. The Shah’s event was consciously more significant and larger and was attended primarily by world leaders as opposed to a few dozen journalists. The striking similarity between the two is the respective images both these countries aimed to forward of themselves and their respective policies and how they have sought to use these ancient heritage sites as political props.
The Shah sought to legitimize his authoritarian regime by connecting himself to Cyrus the Great and trying to convince the world that the Iranian people had no desire for democracy and were fully contented to be ruled over by a benevolent king who always had their best interests at heart as per their age-old traditions.
Russia sought to legitimize its campaign in Syria by using Palmyra as a symbol of its efforts to save Syria’s culture and people from barbarians.
If the Persepolis festivity is to serve as any kind of historical precedent to the Russian show in Palmyra it doesn’t bode well for Moscow, events like these which attempt to forward a particular image or message are prone to backfire.
The Shah’s regime instigated a sweeping crackdown on all dissent ahead of the celebrations in 1971 and in the process embittered many Iranians – especially the clerical establishment which deposed him less than a decade later – who were disgusted that their history and heritage was being celebrated by a foreign elite.
Similarly in Palmyra, as Russian foreign policy expert and columnist Maria Dubovikova pointed out, Vladimir Putin’s appearance on a big video screen in the center stage “inevitably led to perceptions of Russian propaganda over the blood of Syrians, and the privatization of the liberation of Palmyra.”
More generally Russia’s attempt to masquerade as protectors of the Syrian people from Islamists might also backfire given the fact the Sunni-majority country were never likely to welcome being forced into submitting to the rule of an authoritarian minority elite, the Alawites around the Assad family, by relentless bombing perpetrated by an outside power.
The longer the Russians remain deployed in Syria – awaiting a successful political transition negotiated in Geneva – the more susceptible they will become to mission creep. Something which could well compromise the earlier tactical gains and victories it helped its ally in Damascus achieve and lead to a strategic defeat – especially if they decide to completely withdraw or risk becoming embroiled in a country where a large part of the populace is hostile to them.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.