July 8, 2021


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Has Russia grown uninterested in Syria’s Bashar al-Assad? | Russia

In April, a sequence of articles had been printed by a Russian media outlet criticising Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the corruption of his regime. One in all them referred to a ballot – supposedly performed by the Basis for Safety of Nationwide Values in Syria – wherein solely 32 p.c of the respondents mentioned they’d vote for al-Assad within the 2021 presidential elections. The media outlet, RIA-FAN, and the muse are each believed to be linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman near the Kremlin.

Shortly afterwards, Syria’s wealthiest man and cousin of the president, Rami Makhlouf, launched a video complaining about an anti-corruption investigation towards considered one of his firms, Syriatel. Over the previous two weeks he has continued to publish movies with veiled threats and criticisms of the Syrian political elite, of which he’s an integral half.

These two developments provoked hypothesis a few rift between Moscow and Damascus. In line with some observers, Russia is shedding persistence with al-Assad and his financial mismanagement, so it compelled him to do a purge of his personal cronies. Moscow needs Damascus to pay again $3bn in battle loans, some have argued.

However, as at all times, the fact is a little more difficult than that. Russian officers are hardly mulling anti-Assad strikes or calling the pictures within the marketing campaign towards Makhlouf. And whereas it’s true that some Russian media criticised al-Assad, the Kremlin didn’t approve of those criticisms. Moscow doesn’t have an Assad different and doesn’t need to see his regime destabilised.

If not Assad, then who?

Though Russia made a dangerous transfer by intervening in 2015 within the Syrian battle in help of al-Assad, the Kremlin has additionally demonstrated that it has no qualms about trying to chop offers behind its ally’s again.

It has held talks with the opposition with out representatives of Damascus current and has mentioned the prospects of political reconciliation with the People in Amman, a transfer that precipitated a lot unease in Iran, Damascus’s different backer. Moscow has additionally struck plenty of offers with Ankara, enabling it to launch navy operations on Syrian territory with out al-Assad’s consent.

However whereas Moscow-Damascus relations have at all times been a bit bumpy, it’s unlikely that the Kremlin could be launching an anti-Assad effort simply now. And if it actually wished to speak one thing to him and his internal circle, Prigozhin’s obscure media outlet wouldn’t be the medium of selection.

The Russian authorities has extra respected and established platforms at its disposal, together with state TV channels and high-profile print media. Moreover, vital opinions about al-Assad expressed by the likes of Alexander Aksenenok, a former Russian diplomat, are additionally private and don’t essentially mirror the final temper within the Kremlin.

In truth, the spokesman of the Russian presidency, Dmitry Peskov, denied that there’s displeasure with the Syrian president and criticised the unfold of “fake news” about Syria.

Unsurprisingly, RIA-FAN deleted the vital articles and as a substitute ran a chunk on “fake news” about al-Assad, together with on the corruption of his internal circle, which was allegedly propagated by the Turkish intelligence.

The opinion ballot was additionally deleted from the muse’s web site.

This short-lived media storm got here amid hypothesis that Russia will pressure al-Assad to not run within the 2021 presidential elections. There are additionally claims that eradicating al-Assad would assist Russia entice Western funds for Syrian reconstruction. However Russian diplomats I’ve spoken to say they don’t depend on Western assist.

Additionally it is essential to level out that Russia does probably not have a transparent substitute for al-Assad. Since 2011, the Syrian president has managed to sideline or do away with anybody who may pose any menace to his presidency.

Some have speculated that the Russians are grooming Common Suhail al-Hassan, the top of the Tiger Forces a part of the Russia-backed Fifth Corp, to switch al-Assad. However there have been current studies of al-Hassan’s personal financial actions being curtailed and an growing distance between him and the Alawite group due to the Russian help he enjoys. Russia is unlikely to hedge its bets on a determine that might be unable to rally the help base of the regime.

The Syrian 2021 elections are an essential political juncture for Moscow. Whereas al-Assad is most certainly planning to carry the identical sham vote he arrange in 2014, when he was re-elected with none semblance of electoral competitors, Russia want to see a distinct association. This may entail al-Assad creating at the least the looks of actual competitors on the polls by making electoral procedures extra clear. Damascus may declare some constitutional reforms even when they’re largely inconsequential.

This may assist Russia higher argue the case for regime legitimacy in a world enviornment that’s fairly hostile in direction of al-Assad.

What was all this media marketing campaign about then? There are just a few believable explanations for it. First, it might have been ordered by elements of the Russian political elite vital of Damascus. Second, it may even have been used as a method to distract consideration from studies by the unbiased Novaya Gazeta newspaper of Russian mercenaries torturing Syrians. Third, it might be linked to efforts by Russian businessmen to realize higher leverage over the Syrian regime and extract extra profitable contracts.

Given the specter of sanctions, the Russian authorities will not be straight concerned in financial issues in Syria. As an alternative, varied oligarchs near the Kremlin have launched into trying to find enterprise alternatives within the Syrian battle financial system and deployed non-public navy firms to guard their belongings.

In 2017, Stroytransgaz, an organization managed by the Russian businessman Gennady Timchenko, who is understood to have shut hyperlinks to the Kremlin, accomplished the Northern Gasoline Processing Plant close to Raqqa and started works on the phosphate mines in Khunayfis and Al-Sharqiyah.

One other firm previously linked to Timchenko, STG Engineering, owns the harbour services in Tartus.

There are lesser-known corporations working in Syria, together with Velada and Mercury, which might be planning to start out their oil and gasoline exploration works within the nation. Each firms are linked to Prigozhin, the alleged proprietor of the non-public navy firm Wagner.

Assad giveth, Assad taketh away

Russia additionally doesn’t appear to be straight concerned within the Makhlouf affair. Hypothesis that Assad went after his rich cousin as a result of Moscow needs its a refund doesn’t make sense. Neither do claims that whereas Syria was struggling to pay its Russian debt, the Makhloufs had been spending liberally on luxurious properties in Moscow, which upset the Kremlin and prompted it to demand his cash be used for the debt funds.

Whereas Russia has made it clear that it isn’t keen (or in a position) to bankroll the Assad regime or pay for reconstruction, this doesn’t imply that it has turn into actually hard-pressed for the $3bn Damascus has to pay again. This was confirmed by Russian diplomats I spoke to who denied Moscow raised the mortgage compensation points with the Syrian regime. Additionally they mentioned that it was actually not within the Kremlin’s curiosity for info on the Makhloufs’ Moscow properties to be public.

The Russians very a lot understand the conflict between the Assad and Makhlouf clans as an inside matter, albeit a fairly regarding one, given attainable instability it will probably trigger.

Tensions between the Assads and the Makhloufs began again in 2018 and have step by step intensified. One of many primary causes is that Rami Makhlouf’s energy and wealth grew an excessive amount of. Earlier than the battle, he was estimated to manage as a lot as 60 p.c of the Syrian financial system. Apart from privatising state belongings, Makhlouf additionally acted as a dealer of enterprise offers, incomes himself the nickname Mr 5 P.c.

The battle allowed him to amass much more wealth, because it virtually bankrupted the Sunni bourgeoisie, which together with the Alawites, fashioned the primary spine of al-Assad’s regime earlier than 2011. The shakedown was solely a matter of time, given Damascus’s more and more precarious monetary scenario, particularly after US sanctions reduce the circulate of funds and oil from Iran.

The assaults on Makhlouf and his belongings are a part of al-Assad’s effort to consolidate the nation’s monetary assets below the guise of anti-corruption campaigns. Makhlouf is by far not the one one who has been focused by anti-corruption efforts, which he started in 2019. Amongst those that fell sufferer to this supposed anti-corruption drive weren’t simply the large fish like Makhlouf and Mohammed Hamsho, but in addition house owners of smaller companies, reminiscent of Francois Bonja, a well known jewelry dealer in Aleppo.

Whereas to date al-Assad appears to be profitable in his standoff with Makhlouf, there’s a hazard that attacking the Makhlouf clan may trigger a rift among the many Alawites whose loyalties are divided alongside completely different factions inside the Syrian regimeThis, in flip, may destabilise the regime – one thing Russia would fairly keep away from.

Thus, whereas it considers clashes inside the Syrian ruling and enterprise elite an inside matter, Moscow would definitely throw its weight round to forestall a significant escalation, ought to the Makhlouf affair take such a harmful flip.

The views expressed on this article are the creator’s personal and don’t essentially mirror Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

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