Is Assad now a liability? The mysterious Russian media campaign against Syria's dictator

Is Assad now a liability? The mysterious Russian media campaign against Syria's dictator
Unprecedented criticism of Bashar al-Assad in Russian media points to growing competition between different international players for influence over the regime, and anger with the Syrian dictator.
9 min read
01 May, 2020
Russian President Vladimir Putin is discontented with Bashar al-Assad [Getty]
When Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict on Bashar al-Assad's side in September 2015, its involvement was seen as crucial for the survival of Syria's dictatorial president, whose army had been severely weakened by desertions and had suffered a string of defeats by rebel forces.

Since then, Russia has provided unremitting support for Bashar al-Assad, not only on the military, economic, and diplomatic fronts, but also in the media, using an array of traditional media outlets and an army of social media operatives to smear all Assad's opponents, even first responders who rescue his victims, as "Al-Qaeda" and "terrorists".

It came as something of a shock therefore, when this month RIA-FAN, a Russian news agency very close to President Vladimir Putin published a series of several articles criticising Bashar al-Assad in unprecedentedly harsh terms.

One article called the Syrian dictator weak and powerless, saying that he was unable to control corruption in the government of his prime minister, Imad Khamis. It attributed recent closures of gas wells in Syria to this corruption, rubbishing the explanation given by the regime that it was for security reasons.

The report concluded that Russian companies which had "restored Syria's economy" were unable to operate properly in Syria due to unchecked government corruption in the country.

Ever since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, the Assad regime has had to rely on foreign help to stay in power

Another article went a step further and took an interesting turn, saying that an independent survey had been conducted in Syria showing that Assad was viewed negatively by Syrians, who had little hope for the future.

According to RIA-FAN, this "survey" said that only 32 percent of Syrians would be prepared to vote for Bashar al-Assad in the forthcoming 2021 presidential election, while 54 percent wanted to see him gone.

It is not certain at all that a real survey was conducted. RIA-FAN said that a "state agency" had conducted the survey, without being more specific. The situation in Assad regime held areas, however, makes it impossible for Syrians to answer questions about their opinions on the regime honestly.

Read also: Conditions worsen in Syria's forgotten refugee camp

A third article, entitled 'Corruption is worse than terrorism' quoted a political scientist, Ivan Arkatov, as saying, "We are investing big sums of money in the Syrian economy, but we're not seeing any results. It seems that all the investment's Russia is making in Syria are going into someone else's pocket."

The report went on to say that "Syria is not a cohesive society. There are different clans in power and the Assad clan isn't the only one. There is the Makhlouf clan, a rich and very influential family. Its opinion is always taken into account when political and economic decisions are taken in Damascus."

Regime families at war

The Makhlouf family are Bashar al-Assad's relatives on his mother's side. Assad's cousin Rami Makhlouf owned a business empire, which previously included SyriaTel, Syria's largest mobile phone company, and significant stakes in tourism, aviation, oil, banking, and broadcasting sectors. Last August, however, he was arrested by the Assad regime for refusing to help pay mounting Syrian war debts.

All the articles on RIA-FAN were later deleted, with the agency saying that its site was hacked. However, other articles appeared in the Russian press criticising Bashar al-Assad's corruption, most notably one claiming that he had bought his wife Asma a painting by David Hockney for 30 million dollars.

Sources told The New Arab's Arabic-language sister site that the Makhlouf family was behind the publication of this information, and this was revenge against Asma Al-Assad for her role in seizing the Makhlouf family's investments in the Syrian telecommunications industry.

Not long ago, the Makhlouf family made headlines themselves when Instagram promoted a video of a lavish birthday party thrown by Ali Makhlouf, Rami's son.

Revelations of the excessively luxurious and corrupt lifestyle of the Makhlouf and Assad families came at a time when ordinary Syrians were living through the misery of nine years of conflict.

In regime-held areas like Damascus, Suweida, Hama, and Homs, they were enduring increasing food insecurity, with the World Food Programme reporting that food prices had more than doubled in one year, while in the rebel-held area of Idlib, more than a million people have recently been displaced and hundreds more killed in a bloody and indiscriminate regime military assault.

The RIA-FAN news agency is owned by Yevgeny Pregozhin, a Russian oligarch who is a close confidant of Putin. Pregozhin, who is under US sanctions, is involved with the infamous Internet Research Agency troll farm and the Wagner Security Group, which sends mercenaries to conflict zones around the world.

The last thing the Russians want is a wave of economic-based protests in Syria which will further weaken the regime

While his news agency says it was hacked and the articles were posted maliciously - and if this is true, it would not be the first time that a news agency was hacked – recent developments in the relationship between Putin and Assad, the appearance of articles critical of Assad in other sections of the Russian media, and the number of articles published in quick succession (there were reportedly ten), has caused analysts to take this development seriously and treat it as a warning from Putin to Assad.

Assad's subordinate role

Bachar al Halabi, a researcher at the American University of Beirut, points out that the relationship between Putin and Assad was never a partnership of equals nor even an alliance in the strict sense of the term. He said that the current situation in Syria meant that Assad was increasingly becoming a liability for the Russians.

"Today, Assad's regime has hit rock bottom on the economic level and cries of hunger from regime held areas are surfacing. The last thing the Russians want is a wave of economic-based protests in Syria which will further weaken the regime," he told The New Arab

"Russia is looking to the future, the day after, how to make the elections next year happen and how to attract money into the country and every now and then, Assad needs a reminder that he might be dispensable to the Russians if they manage this transitional phase as planned," al Halabi added.

Following the publication of the articles criticising Assad, the Russian embassy in Beirut issued a strongly-worded statement, regarding "the fake news and slanders" circulating in the media.

However, rather than directly addressing the articles about Assad, which RIA-FAN disowned, the statement instead dealt with reports circulating in Arab media about a possible deal between Turkey, Russia, and the United States regarding Syria, saying that "there would be no deals to divide influence in different parts of Syria at the expense of Syria's sovereignty."

The statement made no mention of Assad. Although Russia intervened in Syria to support Bashar al-Assad's regime, and has now helped it to regain control of most of the country, it has always kept a distance from the man himself, saying that it was in Syria to "support the Syrian state".

The cold attitude of Russia to Assad himself has been shown symbolically several times before, most notably during Putin's visits to Syria, where Assad seemed to take a humiliatingly subordinate role to the Russian leader.

Competing foreign players pull Assad in different directions

However, this alone does not explain why Russian media have chosen to attack Assad now and criticize him for "weakness" and "corruption". A member of the Syrian opposition, who preferred to remain anonymous, told The New Arab that the anti-Assad campaign in Russian was due to ongoing competition between Iran and Russia for influence in Syria.

"Both Iran and Russia have ports in Syria, and both of them have established permanent military bases. Syrian businessmen are now aligned either to Russia or to Iran. When the regime undertakes 'anti-corruption' campaigns, some of them hit pro-Iranian businessmen and some hit pro-Russian ones, in an indirect competition between the two sides. In some cases Iran and Russia have got involved directly."

While the Assad regime's military advances may have made it seem more secure recently, the future of Bashar al-Assad himself, and the future character of his regime, is still to be determined

The source said that Russia had directly intervened to make sure that the powerful 4th Division, which is led by Bashar al-Assad's brother Maher and considered pro-Iranian, would lose its customs privileges and ability to trade in smuggled goods.

A notable area of contention between Iran and Russia is the situation in rebel-held Idlib province. Ever since April 2019 the area has been targeted by bloody regime and Russian campaigns, which have reduced the amount of territory held by anti-Assad rebels and displaced millions of people.

The latest assault on Idlib, which began in February 2020, however, brought the regime into direct conflict with Turkey, which feared the consequences of a regime takeover of Idlib that could potentially drive up to two million refugees into Turkish territory.

Russia had to consider its relationship with Turkey and the consequences of Assad's assault on the area. There were indications that, even though its aircraft took part in the brutal attack on Idlib, that the Russian leadership was not happy with the campaign. 

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In February, the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that four high-ranking Russian intelligence officers were killed in the Syrian city of Latakia by "hard-line elements" in the regime intent on capturing the whole of Idlib province from the opposition.

Dr. Ali Bakeer, an Ankara based political scientist, told The New Arab, "Assad is not fully abiding by Russia's deals with Turkey especially the latest ceasefire in Idlib. There have been multiple reports that both the UAE and Iran are not satisfied and are trying to sabotage the deal and push Turkey and Russia into a direct conflict by convincing Assad to violate the ceasefire. This would have prompted Russia to remind Assad who is in charge of Syria and what he should do if he wants to survive, otherwise Moscow may look for an alternative to him."

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif visited Damascus recently and met Bashar al-Assad, reportedly to discuss Idlib, while Iran-backed military reinforcements were sent to the area. Bakeer agreed with the anonymous Syrian opposition source, saying that Iran was in competition with Russia and was angry at attempts to sideline it by Russia and Turkey.

Read more: 'Our fear is doubled': Exhausted by war, Syrians struggle to cope with coronavirus pandemic

As for the UAE, its strongman Mohammed bin Zayed recently held talks with Bashar al-Assad, ostensibly to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, and it is now advocating rehabilitation of the Assad regime in the Arab world.

In Libya, Turkey has recently increased military support to the Government of National Accord, while the UAE has given firm backing to their enemy, Khalifa Haftar, and analysts believe that the UAE hopes to increase pressure on Turkey by backing another Assad assault on Idlib province, something that Russia now appears to oppose because of its concern for its relationship with Turkey.

Ever since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, the Assad regime has had to rely on foreign help to stay in power, but today the multiplicity of actors in the country and their different and competing aims mean that Assad has increasingly become a liability to his most crucial backers, the Russians.

While the Assad regime's military advances may have made it seem more secure recently, the future of Bashar al-Assad himself and the future character of his regime is still to be determined.

Amr Salahi is a journalist at The New Arab.

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