Analysis

Russia Wants a Lucrative Diplomatic Victory in Syria. Iran and Assad Are in Its Way

President Assad is squeezing his billionaire cousin to pay for Russia's expenses ■ Kremlin needs Iran out of Syria to reap the rewards of its strategic investment

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad, 2017. Credit: Mikhail Klimentyev,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Rami Makhlouf, Syrian billionaire who happens to be President Bashar Assad's cousin, said in a video he posted on social media this week: "Who would have believed that intelligence agents would come to Rami Makhlouf’s companies and arrest our workers, when I’m the biggest supporter of these intelligence agencies?"

His marveled remark, which stirred controversy in the country, sheds some light on the power struggles shaping post-war Syria, with Russia, Iran and the Assad regime all vying for control.

Not only Makhlouf is Assad's relative, but also a key figure in the financing of his regime. He owns Syriatel, the country’s largest mobile phone network, and by various accounts is said to hold a controlling interest in 60 percent of Syria’s economy.

In 1999, Makhlouf founded a charity called Al Bustan, which in the early stages of the civil war received grants from international aid organizations and even UN institutions. Alongside philanthropy, the charity also recruited and funded fighters for the elite Tiger Force private militia, which along with the Syrian Army, fought the rebels and committed war crimes.

Makhlouf, an ally of Iran, ran a smooth operation until Russia came into the picture in 2015. The Russian strategy at the time relied on a clear and simple principle: Keep Assad in power, wipe out the rebels and expand the regime’s rule to eventually establish a state that will be under Russian patronage or at least under Russian influence.

Moscow expected to achieve these goals within weeks or months, but reality turned out to be far more complicated. Iran was already an active player in the war, ISIS controlled large territories in the country’s northeast, and dozens if not hundreds of militias – both rebel militias and militias loyal to the regime – enjoyed near-autonomous rule in different parts of the country. To make matters worse for Moscow, the number of fighters in the loyalist militias was more than double the number of regular army troops, and that’s without taking into account the Iranian militias.

Russia had to build a new strategy that went beyond using its air power to aid regime forces. It had to ensure that its military investments in the field would bear financial, diplomatic and strategic fruit.

A woman tends to a flock of sheep, as a Russian air force Mil Mi-17 military helicopter flies over a joint Turkish-Russian military patrol in the countryside of the Hasakah Provence, April 22, 2020.
A woman tends to a flock of sheep, as a Russian air force Mil Mi-17 military helicopter flies over a joint Turkish-Russian military patrol in the countryside of the Hasakah Provence, April 22, 2020. Credit: AFP

Military restructuring

Russia began merging militias and integrating them into Assad's army. One example was the Tiger Forces, sponsored by Rami Makhlouf. These forces were comprised of at least 24 units, each bearing the name of its commander. Russia was able to force Assad’s hand in integrating these forces into the army, thereby neutralizing Makhlouf’s control.

In the summer of 2019, Assad changed the name of the unit from the Tiger Forces to the 25th Division of the Special Forces. Its soldiers were carefully selected and trained by Russian officers and instructors. In this way, Russia strengthened the combat units operating under Assad’s command and more importantly, it denied Tehran the ability to use the Tiger Forces, via Makhlouf, in its quest to build a military stronghold parallel to that of the Syrian Army.

Russia compelled Assad to make other changes in the military, like replacing top officers and adopting tactics developed by the Russian Defense Ministry and Russian military. The ultimate goal was to build a strong, skilled, apolitical army that would be subordinate to Assad but guided by Russia. Assad also ordered the arrest of General Ghassan Bilal, bureau chief to his brother Maher, commander of the Fourth Division and an ally of Iran. At the times, Iran had proposed that Bilal become head of military intelligence but Russia opposed the move.

Strategic investment 

As part of its intervention in Syria, Russia began examining ways to find income and take control of the economy. In 2018, Iran scored a series of agreements granting it exclusivity in post-war agreements, but Russia secured the franchises for oil production and infrastructure. Moscow still aims to push Iran out of the rebuilding project in Syria, in order to brand itself as a model of success and reap benefits in other places like Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

Success in Syria became a vital strategic aspiration, an alternative to American influence in the Middle East. But Russia alone cannot obtain the vast amount of capital, an estimated hundreds of billions of dollars, needed for the rebuilding project. A chief obstacle is the presence of Iran and Hezbollah, which due to sanctions pose an obstacle to foreign investment from Europe and the United States.

Russia needs to hasten Iran’s departure from the arena. This is why it permits Israeli attacks on Iranian bases. It does this with coordination, and unsurprisingly, did not respond to the six airstrikes attributed to Israel in the last two weeks. Moscow also kept silent when Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said that Israel is not only working to limit Iranian entrenchment in Syria, but aims to get Iran out of Syria completely.

However, it's not just the Israeli strikes that are causing the current decline in Iranian forces in Syria. Russia kept Iran out of the agreements it signed with Turkey for imposing a ceasefire in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in the country. It is also keeping the Iranians out of the policing activity carried out by the Russian military police.

Boys sit amid the rubble of a house that according to the Syrian authorities was attacked by an Israeli airstrike, in the Damascus suburbs of Hajira, Syria, April 27, 2020.
Boys sit amid the rubble of a house that according to the Syrian authorities was attacked by an Israeli airstrike, in the Damascus suburbs of Hajira, Syria, April 27, 2020. Credit: ,AP

A Mafia tactic

To increase the pressure on Assad to advance the diplomatic plan, Russia is demanding he pay for part of the expenses. As in mafia business, when the target himself doesn’t have the money, the family is expected to come to his aid.

Russia “suggested” that Assad make Makhlouf pay $3 billion, and when the latter refused, saying he didn’t have that kind of money, Russia showed Assad proof: videos posted by Makhlouf’s sons showing off their luxury cars next to their lavish houses in Dubai.

For Assad, it was an opportunity to settle a score with this cousin who amassed his fortune thanks to his family connection. Makhlouf had apparently also begun to tangle with the president’s wife, Asma Assad, who heads a committee tasked with fighting money laundering. Makhlouf was sued for tax evasion, most of his assets were confiscated, his employees were arrested while he evidently managed to flee the country and join his sons.

Bashar Assad and his wife Asma in a Christmas choral presentation at the Lady of Damascus Catholic Church, 18, 2015.
Bashar Assad and his wife Asma in a Christmas choral presentation at the Lady of Damascus Catholic Church, 18, 2015. Credit: AFP

Diplomatic battle

Shortly before the Makhlouf episode blew up, Russian media began publishing pieces denigrating Assad, accusing him of leading a corrupt regime. Alexander Shumilin, a former diplomat and current head of the Europe-Middle East Institute in Moscow, which is funded by the Russian administration, wrote: “The Kremlin must rid itself of the Syrian headache. The problem is with one person – Assad – and his entourage.”

According to quotes published by the British-based Asharq Al-Awsat daily and The Daily Best, “Assad is not only no longer able to lead the country, but that the head of the Syrian regime is dragging Moscow towards a scenario similar to the Afghan war.”

This naturally sparked speculation that Russia is starting to ditch Assad in order to build a new leadership that will implement Russia's proposed constitution and rely on technocrats representing all factions and ethnicities. Such a government could, Russia believes, win international legitimacy and could serve as a catalyst for financing the rebuilding of the country under Russia’s watchful eye (and meddling hand).

But this vision could turn out to be unattainable. Russia knows, perhaps better than any other party in Syria, just how hard it is to build a coalition comprised of militias, movements and factions that are keen to gouge each other’s eyes out.

Russia has yet to solve the problem of Idlib in order to complete the regime’s control of all of Syria, and it will also have to pull off the magic trick of producing a strong and widely accepted leader in place of Assad. It’s also possible that Russia is pressuring Assad in order to make him offer concessions to the opposition – a key move for Russia's diplomatic victory.

A Syrian shepherd herds his flock next to oil pumps at the Rmeilane oil field in Syria's northerneastern Hasakeh province, on April 21, 2020.
A Syrian shepherd herds his flock next to oil pumps at the Rmeilane oil field in the northerneastern Hasakeh province, April 21, 2020.Credit: AFP