A Russian media outlet accuses the Syrian regime of corruption and inefficiency, while reminding its leader Bashar al Assad that his only source of legitimacy is Moscow.
Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad came under intense criticism from a Russian news outlet last week. Accusing Assad of the inept handling of the country's affairs and deep-rooted culture of corruption in government ranks, the Russian Federal News Agency, which is owned by one of President Vladmir Putin's closest aides, Yevgeny Prigozhin, carried a report which was both shrill in its tone and sharp and unforgiving in its observation of Assad.
Prigozhin, the owner of the news agency, is known as the ‘Kremlin Cooker’, who also finances the private mercenary Wagner Group, which has been fighting in Syria and Libya under the command of Russian military.
Assad has come under criticism from Russian media on several occasions in the past but the rebuke coming from an outlet run by Putin's henchman is unprecedented.
The critical report focused on rampant corruption in the office of Imad Khamis, the regime’s prime minister, saying it has turned into a cesspool of "corruption at the highest political levels" impacting the economic partnership between Russia and the Assad regime.
The report also accused the Khamis government of deliberately lying to the people about oil and gas supplies in order to justify the long hours of power outages, and accused the regime’s prime minister of accumulating money from the exportation of electricity to Lebanon since 2019 while sending the black money to the West.
According to the agency’s second report, the opinion poll showed that Assad’s popularity is in decline because of the corruption which involves the people close to the head of regime, in addition to the economic problems in the country. The second report also pointed out that only 32 percent of Syrians could vote for Assad in next year’s elections, which indicates the regime’s lack of popular legitimacy while stressing his credit for staying power belongs to Russia. The report pointed out that people are waiting for reforms and strong "new" politicians in power who are able to overcome the crisis, considering that "the current leadership has not yet met these aspirations".
The third report focused on the restrictions and obstacles that Russian companies and investments are facing in Syria and stated Assad's lack of will and determination in confronting corruption. After reminding Assad’s words in which he said “If corruption is worse than terrorism...”, the report said: "Russia must defeat corruption in Syria the way it defeated terrorism."
This intense attack was accompanied by the circulation in Russian newspapers of a story that was originally quoted in an Arabic Tweet. It revealed that Assad bought his wife Asmaa a painting by a British artist worth $30 million. In spite of the unreliability of the account, it was reported by the Russian newspapers Gus Novosti and Rosbalt. In addition to these newspapers, other websites and papers focused on the obscene richness the Assad family enjoys while most Syrians are living in poverty.
The timing of attacks on Assad came in light of a global economic crisis left behind by the measures to contain the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic worldwide and very close to the US Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act’s application, which places unprecedented sanctions on the Assad regime and its supporters, especially Russia and Iran.
‘Obstacles caused by corruption’
Regarding the significance of the Russian media campaign on the Assad regime and its timing in economic terms, Syrian political researcher Abdel Wahab Assi stated that Russia is completely dissatisfied with the way the Syrian regime is managing the economic crisis. It appears that Syria does not adhere to Russia’s directives, which may make it unwilling to bear the costs alone.
While talking to TRT Arabi, Assi pointed out the reason for the report is the regime's inability to handle the economic situation.
“The imminent entry of Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act and the absence of signs to ease economic sanctions with fears of a worsening Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on the regime's ability to control the collapsed economy,” Assi said.
In addition, according to the political researcher, Russia may be also concerned about the inability of Assad to maintain social and political safety as the Syrian regime has established the new political and economic class in the Alawite sect over the past decades, which has caused growing and continuing differences within the society.
Because of Assad’s behaviour in dealing with the patronage network, it may reflect on the stability of the political system and push towards widening the security gap in his areas of control.
Nasr al Yousef, who is a Russian journalist and expert, cited two main reasons to explain Russian media’s attack on the regime.
During an interview with TRT Arabi, Al Yousef stated that the first problem is the crisis Russian companies are beginning to face in Syria, while mentioning “problems and obstacles caused by corrupt people” in the regime, which is very common in the entire system.
"Reports indicate that Russian companies are being blackmailed and some Russians have said that the Syrians prefer setting offers, tenders and auctions on Chinese companies,” Al Yousef said.
The Russian expert explains that, stating: "The Chinese know how to pay a bribe, the Russians are no less aware of this, but they think that they should not pay because they saved the regime."
Syrian media justifed the situation by saying that because of the economic situation in Russia after the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia applied complete closure and Syrians were suffering because of it. Therefore, the people started looking for other sources of income.
Russian media messages about the Assad regime coincided with recent press reports quoting Israeli and Western sources about putting Bashar al Assad's fate on the table and activating the constitutional committee and the political process, especially with the approaching date of the Syrian presidential elections scheduled for next year. So, what is really going on behind the scenes, and did the Russian campaign turn against the Syrian regime in this context?
An Istanbul-based researcher, Wael Alwan confirmed the lack of explicit talks about Assad’s fate while adding that the statements and reports confirm that Assad is a part of the problem in Syria, but also concerned about the growing Iranian influence in Syria as well.
Talking to TRT Arabi, Alwan said following the incidents happened in Daraa, Iran increased its influence while Russia failed to honour its pledges.
“Russia is not only concerned with the fate of Assad,” he said.
According to Alwan, talking about Assad’s fate and talking about the structure of military, security to form a new government are two different topics.
"Russia is ready to relinquish Assad to discuss the political process in Syria with the US but in a manner that guarantees Russia’s interests.”
Nasr al Yousef, the Russia expert stated that the “Russian bazaar for the sale of Assad” has been open since September 2015 when Russian military intervention started.
He added: "The Russians originally entered Syria with the intention of distracting the West after they opened a front with Russia in Ukraine while annexing Crimea, and by igniting a very strong separatist tendency in southeast Ukraine."
Al Yousef also believes that Ukrainian issue is much more important in the eyes of the West and Russia than the Syria and Assad regime. Syria’s situation comes after the first issue and has been shaped depending on the nature of the relationship between Russia and Western countries.
In the meantime the Syrian media keeps pointing out that there are a large number of disputes and outstanding issues between Russia and the West.
It seems that, in light of the West’s indifference to the Russian “bazaar” over the fate of the Assad, Russia’s options towards the Syrian regime and the way to invest in Syria politically have become narrower. It means Russia is “more compelled” to enter “seriously” in the political process in Syria, particularly prior to the US Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act which might include rough American intervention against Assad, as Al Yousef believes.
Therefore, Al Yousef believes that the messages on the Russian media reports were to confirm that Russia is set to abandon Assad as a result of "corruption and mismanagement".