20 years under Putin: a timeline

A survey produced by an obscure pro-Kremlin website recently sparked global debate about the Kremlin’s potentially abandoning Syrian President Bashar Assad, a long-time Russian ally in the Middle East. While Moscow is indeed increasingly unhappy with Assad, there is little indication that Vladimir Putin has changed his game in the region.

 

 Vladimir Putin paid a surprise visit to Syria in early January 2020 amidst the US-Iran showdown. Photo: kremlin.ru

 

In mid-April, the little-known pro-Kremlin Foundation for National Values Protection published a survey of Syrian citizens on its website, fznc.world (the article has since been removed, but the Google cache version can still be found here). According to the survey, Syrians do not see any positive change in their lives, pointing to an array of grave issues, including low wages and standards of living, corruption, energy blackouts, and lack of legitimate local authorities.

All these problems are likely to come into focus in 2021, when Syria’s next presidential election is scheduled to take place. The survey showed that only 32 percent of the Syrian respondents would support the current president, Bashar Assad, while there is a growing demand for “new strong politicians” and for economic reforms.

The story gained traction among Saudi, Qatari, Israeli, and even some US media, who speculated whether the polling could reflect the Kremlin’s intentions to remove Assad from power. And the recent open rift between Assad and his influential cousin Rami Makhlouf, who apparently fell from grace, just added more fuel to the rumors fire, since it seemed unthinkable that in his fight against corruption among business elites Assad would come for his own kin. Some experts have suggested that Makhlouf could now present a threat to Assad, but this is highly speculative, since the disgraced cousin would have to stand alone against Assad and the Syrian army, mostly controlled by Russia.

Still, to answer the question about the Kremlin’s plans for Assed, first, one needs to consider the original source of the survey. The Foundation for National Values Protection and its website are controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin and the owner of the Wagner Group, a private military company operating in Syria, Libya, and other African countries. Second, it is noteworthy that the Russian media outlets that initially covered the survey findings and launched discussions about the potential removal of Assad are also controlled by Prigozhin. 

While there is no doubt that only one man makes all the important decisions in Russia, other people among the leadership and business elite have different and sometimes contradictory views on Syria and Assad. In the past year, many Russian businesspeople have complained of not benefiting from Russia’s dominance in Syria in the form of lucrative contracts from the state, especially in the energy sector. Early this year, Prigozhin signed a series of agreements with the Syrian government, but implementation has been delayed.

Russia’s presence in Syria is not for Assad’s sake, but its own. As long as Assad serves Moscow’s interests, he will remain in power.

The survey could also have resulted from Moscow’s dissatisfaction with Assad’s behavior—a sentiment that has been seething for many years, but amidst the current crisis has reached a boiling point. Yet another explanation that should not be taken off the table is that this development is a form of complex signaling to the West, which has the latter trying to figure what the Kremlin is up to.

Whether this feud is a business dispute between Prigozhin and the Syrian regime, or a Kremlin message to Damascus or elsewhere, one thing is clear: Russia’s presence in Syria is not for Assad’s sake, but its own. As long as Assad serves Moscow’s interests, he will remain in power.

There are at least two arguments to support this thinking. First, while Assad is far from being an ideal partner to Moscow (the Kremlin never held any illusions about him), he is the only politician who officially invited Russia to fight ISIS in Syria, which Russia often reiterates to legitimize its presence in Syria. 

Second, replacing Assad is too risky for Russia. This option was considered and rejected  by the Kremlin long ago. Any decision-maker in the Syrian regime can become irrelevant overnight. Former Vice President Farouk al-Shara serves as an example of Syrian back-stabbing politics. In 2012, soon after his name was suggested by Turkey (and probably by Russia as well) as a possible alternative to Assad, al-Shara was sidelined and allegedly put under house arrest. On the other hand, any regime outsider would not be able to control the security forces, enjoy Iran’s support in providing weapons, oil, and manpower, or fully back the Russian presence in Syria.

The Gulf states and the Syrian opposition clearly prefer to interpret this Russian survey as a beacon of hope signifying future change in Syria. After all, Assad is stalling the process of rehabilitation and humanitarian aid that Syria desperately needs. 

But the West should remain realistic and take both the survey and discussions around it with a grain of salt. Despite the wishful thinking of some observers, Russia does not intend to leave Syria or abandon its air base at Khmeimim, the naval facility in the warm Mediterranean port of Tartus, or its helicopter base in the Kamishli area. Assad is likely to stay in charge of Syria in the coming years, enjoying support from both the Iranians (who like chaos) and the Russians, despite Moscow’s discontent. There are no signs that Putin’s strategy of promoting and consolidating Russia’s foothold in the Middle East has changed, and his man—Bashar Assad—remains the central figure in this game.

 

* An earlier version of this article was published at YNet.

Ksenia Svetlova is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Director of the Israel-Middle East Program at the Meitavim Institute, and former MP.

 

Russia under Putin

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