Editor, The World Today
There is one thing that everyone seems to agree on about the Syria crisis – that the borders of the Middle east were decided in an Anglo-French carve-up of the Ottoman Empire in 1916 known as the Sykes-Picot agreement. As the power of Britain and France faded after the Second World War, the United States took up the baton shaped by Sykes-Picot. Nowhere is Russia mentioned in this narrative. Hence the note of surprise voiced by many commentators at seeing Vladimir Putin as master of the situation in Syria.

This narrative is all wrong, writes historian Sean McMeekin. The mastermind of the 1916 agreement was neither Sir Mark Sykes nor Francois Georges-Picot, but the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov.  The agreement was signed in Petrograd, the then Russian capital, and the purpose was to accommodate Russian ambitions in what is now Turkey, including seizing its capital, Constantinople.

The agreement became a dead letter after the Bolshevik Revolution removed Russia from the Allied side. But Russia’s interests and ambitions in the territories to its south resumed with a vengeance under Stalin in 1946 and continued until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

So no one should be surprised that a resurgent Russia under Putin is flexing its muscles in Syria, or that Russian opinion supports the intervention or that so far it seems to have achieved some success.    

Russia’s regional influence is not just in the form of Sukhoi bombers. The Russian Orthodox Church aspires to the role of protector of Middle Eastern Christians who are hard pressed in Iraq and Syria. And its ambitions do not stop there. Konstantin von Eggert looks at what Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, hopes to achieve from his historic meeting with Pope Francis in February. The politics of the two men are such that only they could have begun healing the 1000-year rift between the eastern and western churches.