The public rebuke of Putin by the regime hardliners sends a stern signal to Moscow that even the thought of removing Assad will prompt fierce resistance from his diehard loyalists.
On May 8, the Syrian regime’s parliamentarian, Khaled Abboud, published an article on Facebook in which he issued a series of threats against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Furious at Putin for allowing Russian media outlets to criticise Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Abboud struck back by claiming that Putin’s rise to prominence in the Middle East was owed personally to Assad. Cautioning him of “Assad’s wrath,” he declared this defiant warning should Putin fail to change course: “We will transform the Syrian coast into tens of thousands of human booby traps.”
The reference to the Syrian coast is loaded with subtext. Its two provinces, Latakia and Tartous, are home to the vast majority of Syria’s Alawites, whose support for the regime throughout the conflict has always given it a pulse. Days later, 300 Syrian politicians and pro-regime ‘intellectuals’ from across the Arab world followed suit, signing a statement that similarly threatened the Russian president. These developments point to another challenge Russia may encounter in Syria: Assad hardliners.
Putin’s Syrian intervention has no doubt been a costly exercise in military adventurism. In its first month in 2015, airstrikes alone came in at $4 million per day. In addition, Russian military casualties have been high – so much so that Moscow resorted to replacing regular forces with mercenaries deployed by Wagner, a security contracting firm with close links to the Kremlin. Moscow has invested time and effort – financial and military resources – on its investment in Damascus. As such, it likely won’t leave without securing a return on its investment. It will cling to the notion that Syria can be stabilised.
Since its intervention, Russia has had to face a dizzying array of challenges. Its main ally, the Syrian army, remains overwhelmingly occupied by incompetent and corrupt forces. In addition, it has dealt with Iran, Hezbollah, and a transnational network of Shia militias whose subversion of Russia’s strategic imperatives have proven a nuisance. Nevertheless, in Syria’s theatre of suspense, it has remained steadfast in its attempt to rewrite the narrative, recast the actors, and above all, change the plotline. But now, Assad hardliners have added another layer of complexity to Russia’s campaign. Their public rebuke of Putin, an initiative almost certainly organised at the behest of high-ranking members of the regime, sends a stern signal to Moscow. They are being cunningly reminded that even the thought of removing Assad will prompt fierce resistance from his diehard loyalists. This group can still pose a threat to Russian forces and assets stationed in Syria, particularly those concentrated along the Mediterranean.
Given the years of manoeuvres in Syria which seem to have increasingly isolated Assad from his key pillars of support, moves that are allegedly Putin’s doing, the idea that Russia could be preparing to abandon the Syrian president is not entirely farfetched. Previously argued on TRT World is that a ‘reformed’ version of the current regime absent of Assad and his entourage could permit Russia to transform Syria into a client state over which it can monopolise influence. But, as this latest development demonstrates, Assad can still bark. This begs the question of how Putin can rectify his objectives with the reality underlining the mechanics of a regime that resists modification and refuses to be obedient.
In an interview on RT Arabic, defected Syrian mogul Firas Tlass referred to corruption as the “nucleus” of the regime. Though the interview was deleted hours later, the description encapsulates the regime extremely well. Corruption – the abuse of power and public office for personal, often financial gain – is the raison d'être of the regime. It permeates every element of its institutional landscape, from the security apparatus down to the post office. In 2019, Transparency International ranked Syria 178 out of 180 in its Corruption Perception Index, making it the third most corrupt country in the world. Any Russian attempts to rehabilitate the regime to a point where it becomes a reliable asset will require a significant purge of its most disruptive elements. This will necessitate an assertive targeting of the Alawite officer corps, the financial elite, and the extended patron-client networks critical to the Assad and Makhlouf clans. At what point, however, do these attempts become self-defeating?
This is perhaps the crux of the strategic crisis Russia faces in Syria. Too much reform, and the regime’s cronies, especially those who see their fate as intertwined with that of Assad’s, will bite back. Not enough reform, and Moscow’s objective of fashioning a cohesive regime in Damascus that functions in its service – and not the other way around – will remain elusive. The supply chain of politicians, officers, businessmen, and smugglers vital to the regime’s ability to concentrate wealth and power, paradoxically, is also the primary factor driving its decay. How can Russia reform a regime that is rotten to the core?
Additionally, Assad’s criminality guarantees that the spectre of unrest is ubiquitous. In the ‘reconciled’ province of Daraa, the regime’s mistreatment of the local population has sparked resistance. After a gruelling nine-year conflict, it has failed to learn that capturing territory is one thing, while ruling over it is another. Last week, protests erupted in Tafas then spread to the towns of Tal Shiahab, Karak, Heet, & Saham al-Golan. Chants were directed against the Syrian regime, Iran, Hezbollah and other militias – but not Russia. Moscow, which has played a role in mediating between former rebels and the regime, can operate alongside these ex-combatants in areas not under Damascus’ control. In some towns, Russian security personnel are viewed as a preferred alternative to Assad, and have even occasionally prevented regime forces from entering.
A flurry of pictures and videos have appeared on social media claiming to depict a mobilisation of regime-aligned forces, including the army’s elite 4th Mechanised Division, in preparation for an assault on Daraa. This threatens to undermine Russia’s interests in the South, where it has spent years attempting to rebrand itself and improve its relations with several communities. “Russia does not want chaos in the south”, Abdullah al-Jabassini, a pioneering researcher at the European University Institute specialised in Daraa’s reconciliation agreements, told TRT World in an interview. “The problem is the presence of spoilers, Iran and Hezbollah, who want the Syrian regime to regain absolute and unlimited access to Daraa’s localities in order to gain a foothold in the region.”
But Assad and his “spoilers”, including his brother Maher, continue to obstinately march on to “liberate every inch of Syria”. This contradicts Russian policy, which has for years resigned itself to permitting certain areas, such as Idlib and the Northeast, to maintain a limited degree of autonomy. The central question now is whether or not these actors can spoil Russia’s long-term objectives. Organising diehard Assad loyalists – puppets whose strings are controlled by the regime’s elite – to challenge Russia is likely a sign of desperation, the final tool at the disposal of a terrified president. But it could still be troublesome. In light of everything, it remains to be seen how Putin plans to modify a regime that seems beyond rehabilitation.
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