Does Russia still need Assad?


Russia is reportedly changing its policy toward Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Some Russian media recently criticized the Syrian leader over alleged corruption schemes, and former Russian diplomats openly suggested the time has come for Assad to be replaced by another Russia-friendly president.

The Assad family has ruled Syria for the last 50 years. The Assads, unlike the predominantly Sunni population, are affiliated with the Alawite religious sect. President Assad’s recent feud with his cousin Rami Makhlouf – the country’s richest man who owns over half of Syria’s wealth – might be a sign that some Syrian oligarchic groups, as well as Russia, are trying to undermine his authority.

Makhlouf reportedly complained that his cousin was sending secret police to seize his assets and shutter his businesses. According to some authors, Assad had no choice but to demand from his powerful cousin to pay a significant amount of money to the central government, as Moscow apparently requires Damascus to pay Russia $3 billion. In other words, Russia, which has been actively supporting the Syrian Arab Army against the so-called Islamic State and other groups, is now asking its ally for a return on its investments.

Whether this speculation is true or not, the Kremlin has changed its rhetoric toward President Assad. Recently, Russian agency RIA-FAN – which is lined to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman with ties to President Vladimir Putin – has published three articles in which it accused Assad of corruption. In one of the articles, Makhlouf was named as part of a corrupted oligarchy.

“There is the Makhlouf clan, a rich and very influential family. Its opinion is always taken into account when political and economic decisions are taken in Damascus,” RIA-FAN reported.

It is worth noting that all the articles were later deleted, and the agency said its site was hacked.

However, former Russian diplomat Aleksandr Aksienionok openly criticized the Assad government over various issues. For instance, he said Assad heavily depends on “unconditional financial and economic assistance” from its allies and accused Syria’s officials of corruption.

It is very unlikely that such statements are not in line with the new Russian approach regarding the Syrian civil war. There are speculations that Russia is trying to find a way out of the Syrian war, as its participation in the conflict has become too expensive, especially after the COVID-19 crisis hit the Russian economy.

Over the past 20 years, Putin has shut down all of the Russian military bases outside of the former Soviet Union. The only active Russian bases abroad are those in Syria.

Many analysts question the real purpose of the existence of the Khmeimim Air Base in the Latakia area, and the Russian naval facility in Tartus. Since Russia and Syria have no land connection, Russia is forced to ask for permission from NATO member Turkey every time its vessels pass through the Bosporus and Dardanelles on the way to Syria.

Therefore, from a purely military perspective, the only reason for Russian military facilities in Syria is for the sake of the Syrian civil war itself. However, Russian interests in the Middle East are much deeper than that and are heavily linked with energy.

Even if Russia eventually decides to get involved in a “palace coup” in Damascus, it is very unlikely that it will completely withdraw from Syria. It will certainly make sure Assad is replaced by another pro-Russia leader.

However, Russia is not the only backer that President Assad has. Iran also plays a very important role in Syria, which means any political maneuver that aims to topple Assad would have to be coordinated with Tehran. At this point, Iranian officials do not seem interested in such an adventure. Iran wants to strengthen its paramilitary forces in Syria to establish bases that threaten Israel. Russia, on the other hand, aims to keep good relations with both Israel and Iran, which means it will not be easy to find a compromise over the situation on the ground.

In any case, President Assad does not have to fear for his position in the short term. Critics in the Russian media, as well as statements by Russian diplomats, are likely a method of pressure, or a warning to the Syrian president. As an experienced politician, he certainly understands the message and will likely try to keep a balance between Iran and Russia.

Nikola Mikovic is a Serbian freelance journalist. He has written for CGTN, Global Comment, Tsarizm, Weekly Blitz, Geopolitical Monitor, and others. Nikola is also a regular contributor to KJ Reports YouTube geopolitical channel. He mostly covers the foreign policies of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, as well as energy issues.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.  

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany