Assad can face a future where he has no card left to play.
At first glance, the rift between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his cousin, notorious tycoon Rami Makhlouf, seems surreal. Estimated to own up to 60 percent of Syria’s economy, the multibillionaire has long been the quintessential symbol of the regime’s corruption. Some attribute recent attempts to confiscate Makhlouf’s funds to Assad’s wife, Asmaa, an apparent sign of elite infighting. But does elite competition explain the full story?
Makhlouf’s arrest, commonly traced to a string of regime crackdowns, was initially reported last September, in which he and other businessmen were targeted and under Assad’s so-called anti-corruption campaign. One popular hypothesis asserts that Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded that Assad appropriate some of the oligarch’s financial assets to subsidize Syria’s reconstruction, which, according to the United Nations, is expected to cost over $400 billion.
However, this comes amidst a chain of curious maneuvers frequently attributed to the Russian President, who is reportedly growing frustrated with Assad. Uncooperative and underhanded, he is increasingly viewed as a liability. Could Putin force him to step down?
For decades, Russia’s presence in the Middle East has been transactional, its only robust ties limited to its relationship with Syria. Its naval port in Tartous, a relic of Cold War, has constituted its sole access point to the Mediterranean. However, since Putin militarily intervened in the Syrian war to prop up Assad’s emaciated regime in 2015, its calculus shifted. Russia has positioned itself to broaden its horizons in the Middle East, a strategy achieved largely by exploiting the complex geopolitical terrain of the region to leverage rivals against one another, market its mediation, and enhance bilateral ties. To this end, Putin has – somewhat successfully – transformed the Syrian quagmire into an opportunity for greater regional penetration. But his strategic ambitions require, first and foremost, a stable base of operations and a reliable client in Damascus.
With Moscow’s help, Assad survived the war. No longer existentially concerned by the armed opposition, his security and intelligence apparatus have looked inward, ushering in a new era of repression. Since the war shifted decisively in Assad’s favor, the root causes of the Syrian uprising – corruption, inequality, authoritarianism, and brutality – have only intensified. Resentment and desperation leave the door to instability open.
In Deraa, a province ‘reconciled’ with the regime, civilians and former rebels have endured massive abuses, including imprisonment, torture, and forced disappearance. By October 2018, the regime’s atrocities sparked a renewed insurgency in the region – just months after it was recaptured due to a Russian-led campaign to retake the South. Armed resistance against pro-Assad forces has since gathered momentum and could spread. In the nearby Druze-dominated al-Suwayda province, periodic anti-regime protests have evolved into armed clashes with the security forces. Islamic State or Daesh militants have resurged in central Syria, and the currency crisis has exacerbated living conditions in an economy already decimated by war. Even ‘loyalist’ communities, like the Alawites, have grown disenchanted over the course of the conflict.
Systemic corruption has been made worse by the emergence of a class of war profiteers. Smugglers and militias act with relative impunity, disregarding borders and state institutions. They manipulate a culture of warlordism, enabled by Assad, to bypass the Syrian state, with which they share a parasitic relationship.
Additionally, Assad’s intransigence has been an irritation for Putin. In March, a retaliatory Turkish drone campaign killed thousands of Assad's soldiers in Idlib, where Turkish forces maintain several observation posts. Putin negotiated a ceasefire with his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyep Erdogan, effectively rescuing Assad’s forces from certain onslaught. Weeks later, Assad, supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, reignited the offensive reportedly in exchange for $3 billion from the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed. For the second time since January, Assad’s provocations in northern Syria risked escalating tensions between Putin and Erdogan, whose partnership is strategically vital to Russia’s regional immersion.
Moscow is also faced with a disruptive ally in Syria: Tehran. Since 2016, observers have discerned an intra-alliance rivalry between Russia and Iran – the two primary backers of the Syrian regime – over the fate of post-war Syria. By 2019, this competition peaked when Putin intensified his campaign to counteract Tehran’s influence within Syria’s state institutions. After years of efforts to restructure the Syrian regime's military and security apparatus, Putin sponsored warlord Suhail al-Hasan's Tiger Forces against Maher al-Assad’s 4th Mechanized Division, a move allegedly inspired by his proximity to Iran. Though unsuccessful, the attempt to dislodge Maher is immensely symbolic for another reason: He is Bashar's younger brother and his main pillar of support in Syria’s military.
Iran-backed militias have also been exploiting Assad’s tenuous authority to operate freely. Russian attempts to rein them in by integrating them into Syria’s military institutions have been partially stalled, both by Iran and by Moscow’s own unwillingness to risk confrontation by challenging their autonomy. However, Russia cannot have a client in Syria unable to meaningfully consolidate authority over its territories. Re-asserting Damascus’ sovereignty, ironically, is key to Russia’s ambition to dominate it.
In all of this, the thought that Moscow may consider ousting Assad is not far fetched. A ‘reformed’ version of the Syrian regime – one without Assad and his circle of cronies – could permit Putin to transform Syria into a client state over which Russia presides as the uncontested patron. In addition, it would enable Putin to secure reconstruction aid from the West, which has made finance contingent on a political transition, a process that Assad has insidiously undermined for years.
In late April, a media outlet close to the Kremlin published and then deleted a three-part series portraying Assad as corrupt, weak, and incompetent. It cited a survey allegedly conducted in Syria that casts serious doubts about the prospects of Assad’s victory in the 2021 elections. On Friday, Russia Today Arabic (Russia’s regional mouthpiece) replicated the same process, airing then deleting an interview with Firas Tlass, a defected Syrian mogul whose family history with the Assad dynasty includes decades of loyal service – and subservience – and whose brother and father, Manaf and Mustafa, occupied high positions within the regime. During the interview, Firas called on Russia to abandon the regime, referring to it as a “sinking ship”.
While their removal could indicate that it was a stunt intended to entice Assad into cooperating with Russian directives, they appear to highlight Russia’s growing dissatisfaction. Increasingly more sources are suggesting that the Kremlin is psychologically preparing the Russian public for Assad’s ouster.
Only time will tell if Russia abandons Assad. Putin’s strategic interests are his red lines – and Assad has spent years flirting with them. If he manages to segregate Assad from the structures and supporters that have been his lifeline throughout the conflict – Iran, pro-regime militias, the army, the intelligence agencies, and significantly, the Alawites – he would cultivate a context in which this option becomes feasible. Should that moment come, Assad, increasingly isolated from his base, may find that he has no card left to play.
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