Has Russia grown tired of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad?

And what is Russia’s role in the clash between the Assad and Makhlouf clans?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad visit an Orthodox Christian church in Damascus, Syria on January 7, 2020 [Sputnik via Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin]

In April, a series of articles were published by a Russian media outlet criticising Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the corruption of his regime. One of them referred to a poll – supposedly conducted by the Foundation for Protection of National Values in Syria – in which only 32 percent of the respondents said they would vote for al-Assad in the 2021 presidential elections. The media outlet, RIA-FAN, and the foundation are both believed to be linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman close to the Kremlin.

Shortly afterwards, Syria’s wealthiest man and cousin of the president, Rami Makhlouf, released a video complaining about an anti-corruption investigation against one of his companies, Syriatel. Over the past two weeks he has continued to post videos with veiled threats and criticisms of the Syrian political elite, of which he is an integral part.

These two developments provoked speculation about a rift between Moscow and Damascus. According to some observers, Russia is losing patience with al-Assad and his economic mismanagement, so it forced him to do a purge of his own cronies. Moscow wants Damascus to pay back $3bn in war loans, some have argued.

But, as always, the reality is a bit more complicated than that. Russian officials are hardly mulling anti-Assad moves or calling the shots in the campaign against Makhlouf. And while it is true that some Russian media criticised al-Assad, the Kremlin did not approve of these criticisms. Moscow does not have an Assad alternative and does not want to see his regime destabilised.

If not Assad, then who?

Although Russia made a risky move by intervening in 2015 in the Syrian war in support of al-Assad, the Kremlin has also demonstrated that it has no qualms about attempting to cut deals behind its ally’s back.

It has held talks with the opposition without representatives of Damascus present and has discussed the prospects of political reconciliation with the Americans in Amman, a move that caused much unease in Iran, Damascus’s other backer. Moscow has also struck a number of deals with Ankara, enabling it to launch military operations on Syrian territory without al-Assad’s consent.

But while Moscow-Damascus relations have always been a bit bumpy, it is unlikely that the Kremlin would be launching an anti-Assad effort just now. And if it really wanted to communicate something to him and his inner circle, Prigozhin’s obscure media outlet would not be the medium of choice.

The Russian government has more reputable and established platforms at its disposal, including state TV channels and high-profile print media. Furthermore, critical opinions about al-Assad expressed by the likes of Alexander Aksenenok, a former Russian diplomat, are also personal and do not necessarily reflect the general mood in the Kremlin.

In fact, the spokesman of the Russian presidency, Dmitry Peskov, denied that there is displeasure with the Syrian president and criticised the spread of “fake news” about Syria.

Unsurprisingly, RIA-FAN deleted the critical articles and instead ran a piece on “fake news” about al-Assad, including on the corruption of his inner circle, which was allegedly propagated by the Turkish intelligence.

The opinion poll was also deleted from the foundation’s website.

This short-lived media storm came amid speculation that Russia will force al-Assad not to run in the 2021 presidential elections. There are also claims that removing al-Assad would help Russia attract Western funds for Syrian reconstruction. But Russian diplomats I have spoken to say they do not count on Western help.

It is also important to point out that Russia does not really have a clear replacement for al-Assad. Since 2011, the Syrian president has managed to sideline or get rid of anyone who could pose any threat to his presidency.

Some have speculated that the Russians are grooming General Suhail al-Hassan, the head of the Tiger Forces part of the Russia-backed Fifth Corp, to replace al-Assad. But there have been recent reports of al-Hassan’s own economic activities being curtailed and an increasing distance between him and the Alawite community because of the Russian support he enjoys. Russia is unlikely to hedge its bets on a figure that would be unable to rally the support base of the regime.

The Syrian 2021 elections are an important political juncture for Moscow. While al-Assad is most likely planning to hold the same sham vote he set up in 2014, when he was re-elected without any semblance of electoral competition, Russia would like to see a different arrangement. This would entail al-Assad creating at least the appearance of real competition at the polls by making electoral procedures more transparent. Damascus could declare some constitutional reforms even if they are largely inconsequential.

This would help Russia better argue the case for regime legitimacy in an international arena that is rather hostile towards al-Assad.

What was all this media campaign about then? There are a few plausible explanations for it. First, it may have been ordered by parts of the Russian political elite critical of Damascus. Second, it could also have been used as a way to distract attention from reports by the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper of Russian mercenaries torturing Syrians. Third, it could be linked to efforts by Russian businessmen to gain greater leverage over the Syrian regime and extract more lucrative contracts.

Given the threat of sanctions, the Russian government is not directly involved in economic matters in Syria. Instead, various oligarchs close to the Kremlin have embarked on searching for business opportunities in the Syrian war economy and deployed private military companies to protect their assets.

In 2017, Stroytransgaz, a company controlled by the Russian businessman Gennady Timchenko, who is known to have close links to the Kremlin, completed the Northern Gas Processing Plant near Raqqa and began works on the phosphate mines in Khunayfis and Al-Sharqiyah.

Another company formerly linked to Timchenko, STG Engineering, owns the harbour facilities in Tartus.

There are lesser-known firms operating in Syria, including Velada and Mercury, that are planning to start their oil and gas exploration works in the country. Both companies are linked to Prigozhin, the alleged owner of the private military company Wagner.

Assad giveth, Assad taketh away

Russia also does not seem to be directly involved in the Makhlouf affair. Speculation that Assad went after his wealthy cousin because Moscow wants its money back does not make sense. Neither do claims that while Syria was struggling to pay its Russian debt, the Makhloufs were spending liberally on luxurious properties in Moscow, which upset the Kremlin and prompted it to demand his money be used for the debt payments.

While Russia has made it clear that it is not willing (or able) to bankroll the Assad regime or pay for reconstruction, this does not mean that it has become really hard-pressed for the $3bn Damascus has to pay back. This was confirmed by Russian diplomats I spoke to who denied Moscow raised the loan repayment issues with the Syrian regime. They also said that it was certainly not in the Kremlin’s interest for information on the Makhloufs’ Moscow properties to be public.

The Russians very much perceive the clash between the Assad and Makhlouf clans as an internal matter, albeit a rather concerning one, given possible instability it can cause.

Tensions between the Assads and the Makhloufs started back in 2018 and have gradually intensified. One of the main reasons is that Rami Makhlouf’s power and wealth grew too much. Before the war, he was estimated to control as much as 60 percent of the Syrian economy. Aside from privatising state assets, Makhlouf also acted as a broker of business deals, earning himself the nickname Mr Five Percent.

The war allowed him to amass even more wealth, as it practically bankrupted the Sunni bourgeoisie, which along with the Alawites, formed the main backbone of al-Assad’s regime before 2011. The shakedown was only a matter of time, given Damascus’s increasingly precarious financial situation, especially after US sanctions cut the flow of funds and oil from Iran.

The attacks on Makhlouf and his assets are part of al-Assad’s effort to consolidate the country’s financial resources under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns. Makhlouf is by far not the only one who has been targeted by anti-corruption efforts, which he began in 2019. Among those who fell victim to this supposed anti-corruption drive were not just the big fish like Makhlouf and Mohammed Hamsho, but also owners of smaller businesses, such as Francois Bonja, a well-known jewellery trader in Aleppo.

While so far al-Assad seems to be winning in his standoff with Makhlouf, there is a danger that attacking the Makhlouf clan could cause a rift among the Alawites whose loyalties are divided along different factions within the Syrian regimeThis, in turn, could destabilise the regime – something Russia would rather avoid.

Thus, while it considers clashes within the Syrian ruling and business elite an internal matter, Moscow would certainly throw its weight around to prevent a major escalation, should the Makhlouf affair take such a dangerous turn.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.