By Arab News
By Baria Alamuddin*
A contact of mine with senior Moscow connections has spent the past nine years vigorously reminding me that “(Bashar) Assad isn’t going anywhere.” Last week, she phoned me to say: “Guess what? Assad is going.”
My source isn’t the only one predicting that Russia is close to engineering Assad’s departure. Pro-Moscow media outlets have been attacking him personally. And Syrian politicians reacted angrily to semi-official comments, such as former diplomat Alexander Shumilin, head of the Kremlin-funded Europe-Middle East Center, stating: “The Kremlin must rid itself of the Syrian headache. The problem is with one person — Assad — and his entourage.”
Meanwhile, after months of internal tensions, Assad’s cousin and regime financier Rami Makhlouf very publicly went rogue, claiming that the government was ransacking his businesses and “attacking people’s freedoms.” Given the tight, familial nature of the regime, this marks a serious fracturing of Assad’s inner circle, with the Russians gleefully exacerbating these tensions.
There is particular enmity toward the influence wielded by Asma Assad, both from Makhlouf and the Russians, who leaked a damaging (possibly untrue) report about her alleged $30 million purchase of renowned David Hockney painting “The Splash” to decorate her palace.
Much of this anti-Assad kompromat emerged through media outlets controlled by the Kremlin’s master of black arts, Yevgeny Prigozhin (aka Putin’s cook). This includes evidence that, during 2019, the Assad regime lied to citizens about chronic power cuts because it was profiteering by selling electricity to Lebanon. Russian news agencies like TASS simultaneously attacked Iran for having “no interest in achieving stability in the region because it considers it a battlefield with Washington.”
The Russia-Iran-Assad axis was previously mutually beneficial as they sought to reconquer much of Syria. However, Assad’s rampant corruption, brutality and incompetence have become too toxic even for Vladimir Putin, who wants to see a stable Syria enjoying international rehabilitation. Putin resents Damascus’ 2018 deal granting Tehran exclusivity over postwar agreements — particularly because promoting Syria as a Moscow-sponsored reconstruction success story could open doors for lucrative mega-projects in oil-rich Libya and Iraq.
Close allies Benjamin Netanyahu and Putin have watched Iran’s intensifying stranglehold on Damascus in horror. “We have moved from blocking Iran’s entrenchment in Syria to forcing it out of there, and we will not stop,” Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett recently declared. Russia discreetly condones unceasing Israeli air raids against Iran-affiliated targets (such as those that killed 14 Iranian assets last week), which have escalated in parallel with Russia’s campaign against Assad.
Throughout 2019, Moscow cracked down on criminal militias controlled by regime kingpins like Mahir Assad, resulting in deadly clashes (one January 2019 incident left 70 fighters dead). Operating between Latakia on the Mediterranean coast and Abu Kamal on the Iraqi border, these entities have collaborated with Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies to control the foremost narcotics routes into Europe and the Arab world. Some $660 million of amphetamines, shipped from Latakia, was impounded in Greece in a record haul in July 2019.
Moscow fears that Iran’s acquisition of Latakia port and its construction of a railroad straddling Syria and Iraq will cut off its principal base at Hmeimim and facilitate the delivery of arms to Iran-backed militias, inhibiting Russia’s ability to control Syrian affairs.
Putin could perhaps compel Assad to resign. It is less clear whether Russia could sustainably impose a preferred replacement. My source, however, suggested there is active consideration of presidential candidates from outside regime and Alawite circles. But a botched coup attempt could engulf Damascus in new paroxysms of civil conflict. Tehran would rather burn everything to the ground than passively watch Moscow eject its puppet from the presidential palace. Syria’s intelligence services and military operate symbiotically with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps interlocutors, yet much of the regime is frustrated at being shackled to an overbearing Persian agenda. Iranian largess has purchased resentment, not loyalty.
Israeli intelligence reports state that Iran and Hezbollah have been “dramatically reducing” their military presence in Syria (including two-thirds of the Quds Force fighters in the country), while observers have been surprised by Hassan Nasrallah’s recent failures to even mention Syria. Nevertheless, US officials such as Damascus envoy James Jeffrey conclude that Iran has no intention of loosening its clutches on Syria. And the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has warned of increased Iranian proselytization and recruitment of new paramilitary forces throughout southeastern Syria.
US President Donald Trump may perceive a Russian coup in Syria as a two-pronged gift: Removing a blood-drenched anti-US dictator, while kicking thousands of Iranian advisers and Hezbollah hoodlums out of Damascus. For Putin — in the unlikely event that such a transition was pulled off flawlessly — it would be an unforgettable display of Russian regional supremacy.
Hamstrung by US sanctions, Tehran is in dire financial straits and experiencing acute regional paramilitary overstretch. Given that the November presidential election may bring a less anti-Iran administration, Israel and Moscow may never have a better moment to summarily cut Iran down to size. However, Assad has survived nine years against often impossible odds, so this isn’t over until the Assads board a plane for ignominious exile.
A Russia-Israel axis would be devastating for Iran’s regional posture; encircling Hezbollah in Lebanon and projecting influence in Baghdad and beyond. Nevertheless, a Kremlin-sanctioned Damascus regime would likely be as equally autocratic and brutal as the Assads, while enjoying no domestic legitimacy and leaving the Syrian Arab Republic even more of a fiefdom to foreign powers. For the Arab world, a phase of Israeli-Russian hegemony would be just as antithetical as the past decade of hostile Iranian expansionism.
Russia contextualizes its Syrian policy within the 2017 Astana process (with Turkey and Iran), which symbolized the moment when Western and Arab parties were ignobly ousted from the Syrian arena. We would all rejoice at the ejection of the ayatollahs and Assads from Damascus. However, any transition must be the starting point for an internationally brokered democratic process that restores Syria to its place in the Arab fold, with Syrians obtaining the opportunity for justice and the resources to return to their homes and rebuild their lives.
* Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.