The recent attack by Russian media outlets close to the Kremlin against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has raised questions about whether it was reflecting the inclination of the Russian decision maker. It constitutes an introduction to shifts in his attitude towards the Syrian leadership and reflects, therefore, on developments of the Syrian crisis in light of the crises experienced on the international scene (the COVID-19 epidemic and the fall in oil prices) which threaten serious implications for the global economy that would also extend to the Russian economy.
While it is normal for global policies to be affected by those changes, both contingent and imminent, it is normal to expect changes in the priorities of players involved in crises that have exhausted them for long years, such as the Syrian crisis, or at least a change in the way of managing the files of those crises so that priority would be given to realizing immediate revenues, rationalizing resource spending and accelerating the emergence of results, that is adapting to changes rather than countering them, while the world approaches a different strategic environment.
Grounds of the Russian campaign
A reading of the Russian media campaign indicates that it is a systematic and calculated campaign to achieve specific targets desired by the Russian decision maker, based on the following facts:
The campaign included the following:
Questions raised by the Russian attack
The Russian campaign seeks to reveal the surprise of the decision maker in Russia at the corruption of the Syrian regime and the decline in al-Assad’s popularity among Syrians. This constitutes a clear paradox. Russia has long considered those allegations mere pretexts used by western countries to justify toppling regimes they do not like and to obtain geopolitical gains. Russia has stood against any attempt to condemn al-Assad’s regime in the Security Council. What then has changed and justifies the Russian campaign against al-Assad?
Reports have revealed that certain understandings in the economic sphere existed between Moscow and Damascus and that al-Assad has evaded implementing them. Yet the question is if Russia has assumed control of most Syrian strategic assets (such as phosphate, gas, oil, ports and airports) under extremely concessionary terms, what is still required of al-Assad to hand over to Russia? Besides, the Russian media campaign against al-Assad raises questions about whether there is a Russian-international consensus regarding the Syrian regime. Syrian dissident Kamal al-Labwani had revealed the existence of an “international consensus over the departure of al-Assad and the takeover by a new personality from within the Syrian regime shortly”. He indicated that the name of Ali Mamlouk was circulated as a favourite personality as he “strives to drive Iran out of Syria”. The Syrian dissident indicated that the Russians initially rejected the idea, but then they recognized the seriousness of the issue and entered in negotiations for the departure of al-Assad.
Edy Cohen, the media adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister had blogged, early April, on the social media that al-Assad will leave next July. He mentioned the name of the Syrian dissident Fahad al-Masri as the alternative to rule Syria. On his part, Alexander Malkevich, President of the Russian Foundation for National Values Protection which carried out the opinion poll on al-Assad’s popularity, mentioned six potential alternatives to al-Assad, namely: the regime’s Prime Minister Imad Khamis; Ahmad Jarba, President of the Syria’s Tomorrow Movement; Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan, commander of the 25th Special Mission Forces Division; Abdurrahman Mustafa, Prime Minister of the Syrian Interim Government in opposition areas; Riyad Hijab, the regime’s dissident former Prime Minister; and lastly Mansour Azzam, Minister of Presidential Affairs.
Shift in the Russian position
The recent Russian media campaign against al-Assad is not isolated. Over the last two years, it was preceded by multiple signs of a Russian dissatisfaction with al-Assad, and was expressed in several ways, particularly statements by Kremlin officials that either contradicted al-Assad’s statements or directly criticized them, such as the criticism by the spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova of al-Assad’s statement late October 2019 in which he described President Erdogan as a “thief”. She considered the statement unacceptable.
What distinguishes the recent campaign from previous ones are its size and content. It did not simply criticize an attitude or a phenomenon; it included the regime’s policies, political, economic and social. It also involved a provocative tone by focusing on the regime’s corruption and the “degenerate” lifestyle of al-Assad family while Syrians suffer great difficulties in obtaining the simplest everyday needs, and describing the regime as being irresponsible towards the suffering of its people, half of which have become refugees (as mentioned in Rami al-Shaer’s article in the Russian newspaper Zavtra). What then are the reasons for this major shift in the Russian policy towards al-Assad?
Point of divergence
It seems that the economic disagreement is the tip of the iceberg that hides behind it the real reasons for the disagreement which focus on each party’s vision of the upcoming stage. Russia believes that it has reached the limit of its power in Syria, and that continuing to launch wars and battles may threaten its strategic interests with Turkey and put it on the verge of a potential war with the US east of the Euphrates. It advocates ending the war stage and proceeding to the political process that would ensure establishing its interests in Syria. Russia also seeks to maintain the boundaries of the current zones of influence between regional and international powers on the ground pending agreement on an enforceable political settlement.
On the other hand, al-Assad believes that his stay in power is contingent on the ongoing Syrian war because of his inability to fulfil the requisites of the post-war stage which may open the door for his removal from power. More importantly, the regime’s hotheads insist on not offering political concessions after having turned the tide on the ground, arguing that the regime did not offer concessions at its time of weakness so it should not offer them after the victories it has achieved.
This divergence has driven former Ambassador Aleksandr Aksenenok who currently works as adviser to the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank that offers consultancies to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to say: “Damascus is not particularly interested in displaying a far-sighted and flexible approach continuing to look to a military solution”. He added: “The difficult situation is compelling Damascus to properly assess the current risks and draft a long-term strategy. A new military reality cannot be sustainable without economic reconstruction and the development of a political system that will rest on a truly inclusive approach and international consent”.
The fall in oil prices globally and the coronavirus epidemic constitute two new facts for Russian policy. They have contributed to changing the scene that Putin has been keen to keep stable to uphold his power and political projects at home and his geopolitical projects. Russia fears a contraction of its economy by 15 percent at year end, according to economic studies. According to Russian news agency Tass, 84 percent of Russians have expressed their concerns about economic conditions. According to a report published by Reuters agency, Russian economists expect that the unemployment rate will increase three times compared to its present figure, and the number of unemployed will reach 8 million people. Tatiana Evdokimova, chief economist at Nordea Russia company, said that oil and gas revenues could drop by 165 billion dollars which would force the government to dig deep into its international reserves to fund the state budget, already facing a big shortfall.
It is difficult for the Russian leadership to ignore those facts, and there are no possible alternatives in the upcoming stage. Thus, Russian leaders will have to update their plans in Syria to correspond to those changes and rearrange their preferences, whether with Syrian parties (the regime and the opposition) or external parties involved in the conflict. Russia is expected to force al-Assad to re-activate the political process whose first steps will apparently be the re-activation of the small Constitutional Committee meetings. Russia is also expected to be more cautious against clashing once again with Turkey in Idlib at this stage to maintain economic cooperation between both sides.
Risks of the Russian (game) campaign
If Russia’s actions are merely a manoeuvre to make al-Assad submit and drive him to offer economic and political concessions, then the mind that had designed this manoeuvre lacks a strategic vision as his capability to adjust matters will not be ample in a troubled arena over which the Russians do not claim to have full control.
The danger lies in that the Russian campaign, which was certainly launched at the directive of the circle close to Putin, has made al-Assad’s legitimacy questionable in his regime and within his setting. It has removed the aura through which his supporters used to see him, especially that the accusations made against him of weakness and corruption came from a side that is deeply trusted by al-Assad supporters and that has made enormous efforts to maintain his power.
While the Russian campaign was not simply based on criticism, having also taken a provocative character against al-Assad, it has sent a message to the regime’s institutions and agencies that al-Assad will not be a part of the upcoming stage, regardless of whether the Russians had literally meant that or their aim was merely to put pressure on al-Assad and blackmail him. However, this shift might encourage powers within the regime to think of different orientations, either to meet their ambitions of assuming power or out of a desire to stop Russia from finding alternatives from outside the regime. What is certain is that the Russian campaign will create new dynamics within the regime and the centres of power therein.
The attack may constitute a motivation for the pro-Iran trend within the regime, which is a significant trend in the security services and the army and which believes that Iran is the reliable ally. This would complicate the Russian policy in Syria through driving this trend to continue the war in Idlib, especially that Iran desires such an option.
On the other hand, the Russian campaign could become an incriminating evidence in the hands of al-Assad’s opponents and prevent other parties from contributing to reconstruction and lifting the sanctions in the presence of this elite which was portrayed by the Russian media campaign as a mafia made up of “privileged military units, security services, commercial mediators and related loyal big-time entrepreneurs, both those that are traditionally close to the president’s family and those that have become rich during the war. The war produced centers of influence and shadow organizations that are not interested in a transition to peaceful development . . . (“Syria can no longer be what it was before the war”)”. So, how will Russia be able to re-persuade external players and financiers that their investments and funds in Syria will be safe under a regime of these specifications?
If Russia is not really ready to implement what was put forward by its media, it would put Syria on a road of dangerous earthquakes whose consequence may be the outbreak of several wars within the setting of the regime, the opposition and the regional players themselves, between Turkey and Iran, and between Arab sides and regional players, and may strongly re-open the door for external intervention.
 Ibrahim Hamidi, “Russian winds” over Syria mix the cards of the three “guarantors”, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, 26 April 2020. The article included the names of the quarters which launched the campaign against al-Assad.
 Raed Jaber, “New “Russian messages” to al-Assad on his “weakness” and “loss of popularity”, an opinion poll in Moscow justifies his inability to carry out reform”, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, 19 April 2020.
 A report in the Pravda newspaper entitled: “How the family of the Syrian President became mired in corruption”. Available at: https://www.pravda.ru/world/1488754-Syria_corruption/?fbclid=IwAR2HavikOaIAcTWPPRLK7j5LzHU8CUFGEyJ5Z5lbd-pOMVY4EQMkOo6ZP5w
 “Al-Assad buys his wife a painting for 30 million dollars, Gosnovosti newspaper. Available at: https://versiya.info/politika/149654
 Aleksandr Aksenenok, “War, the Economy and Politics in Syria: Broken Links,” April 17, 2020. Available at: https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/comments/war-the-economy-and-politics-in-syria-broken-links-/
 It was indicated in Raed Jaber’s report in the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper entitled “Corruption is worse than terrorism” that what hinders Russian operations in Syria is that the regime “has not created all the conditions necessary for Russian operations despite continuous Russian support”.
 “A prominent dissident reveals the details of an international deal to remove al-Assad”, Orient.net website, 10 April 2020.
 Samer Elias, “The Russian campaign against al-Assad and his government: messages to the regime and the world”, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 21 April 2020. The article reported the aforementioned names based on a report by the Russian Federal News Agency.
 Raed Jaber, “Russian “messages of discontent” at al-Assad’s “fiery statements”, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, 9 November 2019.
 For the criticism of the lifestyle of al-Assad family under the current difficult conditions, see “How the family of the Syrian President became mired in corruption”, op. cit.
 Rami al-Shaer, “The present situation”, Russian newspaper Zavtra, translated by the Raialyoum newspaper.
 “Numerous scandals have erupted between Rami Makhlouf and Asma al-Assad”, Almodon website, 18 April 2020.
 Ambassador Aleksandr Aksenenok, op. cit. The article also referred to the limits of what is possible. “Despite the tactical successes, achieved mostly with the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the military campaign in Idlib has illustrated the limits of what’s possible”.
 “The “Corona” winds blow counter to what Putin’s ships desire”, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, 24 April 2020.
 “Putin's problems mount as coronavirus hits Russian economy”, Reuters agency, 23 April 2020. Available at: https://ara.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idARAKCN225150
 “Russian winds” over Syria mix the cards of the three “guarantors”, op. cit.
 Ambassador Aleksandr Aksenenok, op. cit. As he also mentions in his article: “In the course of military de-escalation it is becoming increasingly obvious that the regime is reluctant or unable to develop a system of government that can mitigate corruption and crime and go from a military economy to normal trade and economic relations”.
EPC | 20 May 2020
EPC | 19 May 2020
EPC | 18 May 2020