The country's economy is disintegrating but if Bashar al Assad wants to fix it, he risks losing his grip over power.
Throughout the nine years of the conflict in Syria, there has often been a tendency for observers to confuse military victories for popular legitimacy. There’s no doubt that Assad-Iran-Russia have achieved a significant military victory.
The opposition were abandoned by their own allies, with the exception of Turkey, and simply could not match the combined forces of Assad-Iran-Russia.
But the question of the legitimacy of Assad within even his own rump state remains an open one – one that intersects with the complexities of the fundamental truth that the ‘Syria’ spoken about in the media today is in reality a rump state propped up almost exclusively by the intervention of Russia and Iran.
Its internal economy is determined by a cabal of kleptocrats whose loyalty to Bashar depends on the scope he gives them to loot the country and accumulate staggering amounts of wealth.
While so many Syrians that live under Assad’s rule, including Assad’s homegrown henchmen, have suffered so much due to the war, this cabal have hugely profited from it.
This is an environment ripe for fissures, especially in an ever-changing world, where the certainties of just a few months ago have been swept away by, in particular, the onset of a global pandemic.
Almost every state on earth is suddenly hyper-aware of its vulnerabilities – Russia and Iran, both of which are being ravaged by Covid-19, are no different.
It’s of no surprise that in the the past month the Baathist rump has faced what has been its most public and high profile fissure since the mass defections of military officers at the beginning of the conflict.
The rift within
Rami Makhlouf, the multi-billionaire first cousin of Assad, has taken the extraordinary measure of publicly criticising his cousin in Facebook videos for the regime’s attempts to seize his assets and clampdown on his business activities.
It ought to be noted that Makhlouf is the kleptocrat-in-chief of Syria, often informally referred to as the regime’s banker.
The full extent of his wealth is not known, but it is widely thought that he controls around half of Syria’s economy, with his special familial status allowing him to monopolise oil, gas and, most significant to his business empire, control of the biggest mobile network in Syria.
Though Makhlouf was a billionaire before the war, as the country has slipped into the unprecedented territory of 80 percent of the population living in poverty, his wealth has grown exponentially due to the war.
Makhlouf, and those he represents, have profited not just from ‘war’, but from war crimes, including the ultimate one – genocide.
As some Syrians, especially those living in formerly liberated areas, have to survive on just one portion of meat a month, the Makhlouf family, based in the bastion of greed that is Dubai, live exceptionally lavish lifestyles, with his sons Mohamed and Ali galivanting around Europe’s super-rich hotspots in private jets and Ferraris.
It was under the precedent of Makhlouf owing back taxes and duties amounting to some $600 million that Assad seized his assets. Though Makhlouf, due to his familial ties to Assad, is the most high profile of Syria’s warlord-kleptocrats, this is part of a more broad attempt by Assad to break up a system of kleptocratic patronage that is undermining the rump state’s already disintegrating economy.
Assad, it seems, had thought that his place in the imperialist machinations of Russia and Iran was of such importance that the status quo of his rump state receiving a never ending amount of economic and military support would never end.
This status quo has led to harmony among him and the kleptocratic loyalists, but friction between the regime, those they rule over, and Russia.
It was back in September 2019 when Russia first moved against Makhlouf, with Putin pushing an unwilling Assad to confront his cousin and force him to give around $3 billion to the economy.
Russia is hardly a bastion of truth, justice and egalitarianism, but it understands that Assad’s position is precarious –allowing kleptocrats to continue to loot at a time when the very people he expects to fight for the sustenance of the state are living in extreme poverty, only exacerbates such precarity.
Given Russia’s own economic woes exacerbated by Covid-19, Russia simply can’t underwrite Assad’s failing economy for much longer. Thus there must be fundamental change.
A house of cards
That change is entirely what lies behind the recent spate of rare criticisms within the Russian media and pro-Putin commentariat of the Assad regime’s unwillingness to tackle what, as the former Russian ambassador to Syria put it, an economy based on ‘corruption and crime’.
It’s unlikely, as some have posited, that such criticisms mean that Russia means to get rid of Assad, but they are certainly the most blatant attempts yet to force Assad into comprehensive action to meaningfully address the status quo.
The culmination of this is Russia intervening in the country in an overt neo-colonial manner, with the Russian ambassador being given special powers by Putin to circumvent the ‘incompetence’ of the regime.
What all this reveals is that despite their bravado, the Assad Axis is nowhere near as secure as it portrays itself. The regime is not on the verge of collapse and an opposition victory is impossible.
But Idlib remains outside of its control, providing a constant model of defiance – as the Turkish-Russian deal proved, Assad can barely conquer an inch of Syrian land without Russia.
Assad is a hollow king. Though it must be stressed that there’s little chance of him being overthrown, he faces only a series of bad options. He must alienate the cabal of kleptocratic warlord-loyalists who shore up his regime, and who are more than capable, as Makhlouf threatened, of causing strife within the economy, or end up alienating his main patron Russia, upon whom his survival depends.
Even the question of on-the-ground loyalty is a contested one, with Makhlouf providing jobs for thousands of the very Alawites, including militiamen, that Assad relies on so much.
It’s as a consequence of this chronic instability that Daraa, the cradle of the revolution now occupied by regime forces, is showing signs of an incipient uprising against Assad.
And this perhaps underlines the point: Assad lost legitimacy when he undertook a ‘counter-insurgency’ that began with mass murder and culminated in genocide. This legitimacy cannot be gained by foreign and sectarian brutality. In fact, these things underscore Assad’s terminal lack of legitimacy.
Assad’s rump state is incapable of being legitimate because it was borne of a genocidal defence of all the injustices that the Syrian people rose up against in 2011.
All that holds it together now is Russian imperialists, Iranian-led sectarians and domestic warlord-kleptocrats.
The historian Arnold J. Toynbee once noted that civilisations tend to die by suicide and not by murder – Assad’s rump state could eventually be eaten alive and destroyed by the collection of thugs, parasites and warlords that comprise it.
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