Whether it’s rightwing or leftwing, Western media consistently castigate the Syrian state. Recently, the French daily Libération dedicated its front page to the claim that Bashar Al-Assad offered a painting by David Hockney worth 27 million euros to his wife Asmaa. Yet the source of this claim was the Russian newspaper Gosnovosti, an outlet Western media would usually disregard.
While Western media have long berated Bashar Al-Assad, Kremlin-related think tanks and outlets have also targeted the Syrian regime in recent times. Why is that?
The heavy toll of the war, successive embargoes, U.S. sanctions and the plundering of warlords have wrecked the Syrian economy. On top of that, the Syrian administration is hapless and corrupted. In light of this, Russia has run out of patience.
In exchange for its support, Russia has expected certain things from Syria. Amongst those were an ordering of the army and militia forces, progress with regards to the drafting of a new constitution, attempts to curb corruption and efforts to foster investments. The aim was to end the deadlock in the three fronts of the war, break the international isolation and pave the way for post-war reconstruction.
Several signs have emerged from Russia indicating that the Putin administration is growing weary of Damascus. For instance, Pravda.ru recently published a piece which claimed that al-Assad’s cousin Rami Mahluf controlled 60 percent of the country’s economy. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had to deny that Putin was unhappy with Assad for refusing to compromise with Syria’s opposition in negotiating a political settlement.
In the midst of this, another thorny process has been ongoing in Syria. Al-Assad is criticized for feeding his relatives with state resources. Yet in what resembled what Putin did to his oligarchs years ago, the Syrian dictator summoned his cronies and asked them return what they had stolen from the state. Al-Assad has clamped down on prominent companies with tax, contraband and irregularity checks. The assets of colossal holdings have been subjected to provisional injunctions.
Through this operation, Bashar al-Assad has two objectives. Firstly, he wants to show that he’s fighting corruption. Second, he wants to replenish the country’s battered public finances.
According to Al-Akbar - a Beirut-based daily said to be close to Hezbollah – what Al-Assad is seeking is not to seize or close down companies but to force companies to pay up. Once the companies have reached an agreement with the state, injunctions are usually lifted. As an example, after it paid the bills for its tax violations since 2012, the Ahras family, which is close to the Assads, saw its injunctions removed.
If this operation was to bear fruit, Al-Assad could appease Moscow. In any case, it is highly unlikely that Russia would cease to support the Syrian regime. Neither Putin nor Assad have the luxury to abandon each other.
Al-Assad is the party that holds the pillars of the system as a whole. With the war, the Syrian dictator strengthened his position in the military and in the bureaucracy as well as at a grassroots level. None of Assad’s prospective successors can guarantee stability. Everybody knows this.
Russian media have criticized Al-Assad and his Prime Minister Imad Hamis in the past. “When such comments appear in Russian media, we understand that Putin is annoyed at some things,” a source from Damascus told me. “He exerts pressure on us this way.” Yet why would Putin have to communicate with Assad via such indirect channels? Couldn’t he just send a Minister to Damascus?
In the management of such a complex crisis, parties cannot always be in harmony with each other.
Bashar al-Assad is balancing Russia and Iran to leave himself room for maneuver. He is also digesting tricky moves such as a Turkey’s operations in the field through the road opened by the Russians or a constitutional draft that would include cultural autonomy for the Kurds. Iran’s approach differs from that of Russia, which is a source of concern for Damascus. That also explains why it is using Russia to curb Iran’s hegemony.
It is not like decisions were made in Moscow and Tehran before being imposed upon Damascus. The process goes through cooperation, debates and disagreements. Still, Al-Assad swiftly reacts each time Putin expresses his discontent.