Bashar al Assad's Syria appears to be at odds with Russia on several fronts as Moscow’s financial troubles swell.
In the wake of the deadly pandemic, which has walloped the Russian economy along with a slump in oil markets, Moscow’s weariness with the Assad regime has reached new heights as the Syrian dictator shows no sign of leading the country in tandem with other stakeholders.
Throughout the destructive Syrian civil war, Russia invested heavily in the Assad regime to reassert itself across the Middle East, lending its military might in the service of Damascus to defeat the once-powerful opposition forces.
Now, while the regime has taken much of the country back, Bashar al Assad does not seem to be ready to heed Russia’s advice to compromise with his enemies and lay out the country’s future as corruption levels move from bad to worse across the board.
Some experts think that Iran could be the main reason for Assad’s defiance against Russians.
Syria is widely believed to be under the influence of Iran's axis of power, according to Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based Eurasian analyst, which some have dubbed a Shia crescent stretching across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
As a result, he says: “Iran has more influence over the Assad regime.”
Syria has been ruled by the Assad family clan for the last 50 years, which unlike the predominantly Sunni population is affiliated with the Alawite religious sect and is considered to have strong connections with Shiism. The country has been allied with Iran, a Shia-majority country, since Hafez al Assad, Bashar’s father, took over power with a military coup in 1970.
Iran has used Syria and Iraq, another Shia-majority country, to ensure its supply lines reach Lebanon’s Hezbollah, extending its influence from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea.
“Russia has no desire to see its geopolitical control to be diminished in Syria by Iran’s increasing political clout over Assad. While Iran and Russia appear to have a joint front against Turkey in Syria, they also have stark differences,” Yalinkilicli told TRT World.
While Assad is defiant in front of Moscow, he is also well aware of his own troubles as different opposition groups still challenge his authority inside Syria.
In addition to political problems, the country’s finances have continued to suffer in the absence of international aid and planning for a possible reconstruction that the Russians aim to mobilise.
The clash of the titans
Assad’s recent feud with his cousin Rami Makhlouf, the country’s richest man, who owns more than half of Syria’s wealth, might be a sign that he is trying to address some of Russia’s concerns about corruption by taking over the tycoon’s assets.
But the cousin was furious at Assad's move, sharing a Facebook video, in which he appeared to criticise the dictator’s autocratic conduct, which is ironic because it is widely believed that Assad’s autocratic system is what enriched Makhlouf in the first place.
"This has reached disgusting and dangerous levels of unfairness and an attack on private properties, so please all of you who are watching, please forgive me, I cannot give up what isn't mine, this is God testing me," said Makhlouf, whose family is known to live extravagantly.
Until recently, the two cousins have cooperated, but under Russian pressure, Assad seems to be targeting one of his closest relatives, Makhlouf.
"Who would have thought that these Intel agencies would come to Rami Makhlouf's companies and arrest our workers when I was the largest supporter (financier) of these agencies,” a disappointed Mahkhlouf complained in the 15-minute long video.
He also seemed to be delivering a slightly veiled threat to Assad's rule.
"If we continue down this pathway, the situation in the country will become very difficult," he said.
Russian wisdom hits the Assad wall
Russia wants an international coalition to rebuild Syria. But for that it needs a legitimate government recognised by the international community, meaning Assad needs to accept a constitution, which can guarantee the security of life to even his own worst enemies.
Moscow has kept Assad in power on the pretext that the Assad family is better than Daesh and other terrorist groups, and a stable Syria, even under the iron fist of Assad, works more for the international community than a divided Syria.
But the Russian plan appears to have run into Assad’s stubbornness, frustrating Moscow at a time of deep financial strain.
“The Kremlin needs to get rid of the Syrian headache. The problem is with one person -- Assad -- and his entourage,”said Alexander Shumilin, a former Russian diplomat and the director of the Europe-Middle East Center, an influential think-tank funded by Moscow.
“If Assad refuses to accept a new constitution, the Syrian regime will put itself at great risk,” Alexander Aksenyonok, another former Russian diplomat and the vice-president of the Russian International Affairs Council, told Bloomberg.
Russian media has recently not shied away from publishing reports critical of Assad's conduct, possibly as warning shots that Moscow could undermine him if it needs to.
“It was to be expected that sooner or later the economic stagnation that Russia has been facing since the beginning of the EU's sanctions would force Russian leaders to decrease their commitment to Syria,” Sener Akturk, a political science professor at Koc University, told TRT World.
“The dramatic drop in the price of oil may have triggered or hastened this process and Russian economic downtown is likely to increase the tensions between Damascus and Moscow,” Akturk predicted.
Yalinkilicli agrees with Akturk that the pressure the Russian economy is facing is forcing the country to take more drastic decisions.
“The Syrian agenda is shelved at the moment because the Russian political agenda is now just about the pandemic,” Yalinkilicli said as the country’s confirmed cases increased by more than 10,000 in a single day on Sunday.