Don't be fooled, Syria's Assad is more beholden to Russia than ever

Don't be fooled, Syria's Assad is more beholden to Russia than ever
5 min read
05 May, 2020
Comment: Russia may be recalibrating its strategy in Syria, but it's unconvincing to think it would consider the risk of replacing Assad a worthwhile one, writes Gareth Browne.
Presidents Putin and Bashar al-Assad hold a meeting in Damascus, 7 January, 2020 [AFP]
Russian media reports suggest that the Kremlin is exasperated with the man in Damascus' presidential palace. 

They indicate he stands in the way of a long-term settlement. That may be true, though for reasons other than those being touted, but it shouldn't be mistaken for Russian weakness in Syria.

Russia has been deeply involved in Syria since 2015, and to a lesser extent since well before that. As the country lurches from civil war to pandemic crisis, you'd be forgiven for thinking Syria might have slipped down the Kremlin's list. That would be a mistake. Right now, the Russians are as confident there as they have ever been.

Bashar al-Assad has always been a known quantity to Moscow. Throughout the war, the presidential palace has remained close to the Russians, and more so than the Iranians. Staff in both the office of the president and first lady have spent time in Russia, some even speak Russian.

It is unconvincing to think that Russia would consider the risk of replacing him a worthwhile one. After all, in regime-held Syria, the Assad family name is more closely tied to the state than it has ever been. Bashar's younger brother, Maher, has trundled down the Iranian path, cultivating close links with Tehran largely through the financial activities of his Fourth Armoured Division in cooperation with Lebanese Hezbollah.

That, in Moscow's eyes, would be more than enough to rule him out. Bashar's stubbornness or frailties have not snuck up on the Russians - they were always there. Moscow is not about to drop its man on account of some sudden realisation that they have backed the wrong man. 

Moscow can afford to lean on the man in the palace

The coronavirus crisis has left no country unaffected, and those that pretend in it is not happening will likely face greater strife in the future. Already suffocated by US sanctions, Iran knows as well as anyone how crippling the virus can be. This, coupled with an American indifference, European disinterest, and Tukey's operations in Idlib means Moscow can afford to lean on the man in the palace.

Russia, of course, has its share of trouble, from the bedside attacks of the insurgent coronavirus, to plunging oil revenues. Yet by being less affected than its major and immediate rival - Iran, it by default, has been gifted the upper hand.

Moscow's recent actions are born of an effort to recalibrate institutions of the Syrian government in a bid to make them more efficient, and to diminish Iranian influence. One of those is the military, though efforts go beyond merely the Syrian Arab Army. They include several of the militias which have filled critical gaps in regime efforts to take back territory from Islamic State and rebel groups, as well as groups created by the Iranians.

Last month, in Deir az-Zour, Russia succeeded in flipping a commander in the Fatimiyoun Brigade - a militia made up of Afghans under the direct control of the IRGC. Whether Abdullah Salahi, whose relationship with the Russians goes back several years, will face recriminations from his Iranian masters remains to be seen. Yet the Russian intent is what is notable here. Moscow is pushing back on the very heart of Tehran's strategy in Syria.

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

Within the military, these efforts can be traced back further - to 2016, with Russia's creation of the Fifth Corps. Itself an effort to professionalise and incorporate disparate military factions in the country, thus balancing against the IRGC militias which had become so dominant in many parts of the country.

By refurbishing targeted government and military institutions, Russia hopes to recreate a Syria resembling the one it remembers fondly before 2011. R
ecent events suggest that this Russian effort is now stretching to other institutions, notably the presidency.

A series of articles released and written by Russian media with close ties to the Kremlin asserted that President Assad was essentially unable to deal with the problems now facing Syria - notably corruption, and that Syrians polled no longer supported him. Implicit in all, was an indication that Russia had run out of patience with the dictator.

Yet, taken in the context of a wider effort by Moscow, these articles are likely just part of a wider campaign to lean on Syria's institutions, in this case, the presidency and get Syria rebuilt the way Russia wants it.

Recent attention focused on two online videos posted by one of Syria's richest men - Rami Makhlouf. Often a secretive figure, the videos showed the telecommunication oligarch, in an unseen light, pleading with his cousin, the president, not to force him to pay an eye-watering tax bill - at least not all at once.

Moscow is pushing back on the very heart of Tehran's strategy in Syria

There were few tears shed for a man whose family has developed a reputation for callously flaunting their wealth throughout the brutal civil war that has killed at least half a million people. In isolation, it might be seen as the latest chapter in a family drama to rival the Sopranos. The Assads certainly have history here - Bashar's uncle, Rifaat was banished to France by Bashar's father Hafez, with a $200 million payoff over concerns he was about to attempt to take power himself.

Yet as one Damascus MP explains "It's the Russians who are leaning on Makhlouf, they know how broke the government is, they don't want to pay the money anymore. They want Syria to stand up for itself."

It has been said over and over that Syria's war was entering its twilight. The defeat of IS, the recapture of Aleppo were repeatedly cast as 'The Final Battle'. IS may be all but gone - for now - and President Donald Trump may have been dithering over withdrawing US troops for many months, and instead, we are offered new rivalries in their place.

Though still formally allies, Russia and Iran are now braced in a tug of war - Syria's president is the rope.

Gareth Browne is a freelance reporter based in Erbil. He has been reporting from the front lines in the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group and recently visited Baghdad to study the legacy of the US-led invasion. 

Follow him on Twitter: @BrowneGareth

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.