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Assad Tests the Patience of Its Ally Russia

Reading the tea leaves in the Moscow press and elsewhere, it’s clear that Putin has his limits with the Damascus dictator

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Assad Tests the Patience of Its Ally Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad via a video conference call at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on Nov. 9, 2020 / Alexey Nikolsky / Sputnik /AFP via Getty Images

Twenty percent of the Syrian people support the current regime, whereas the majority, representing 50 percent, want radical change to the present system.

These words did not appear in a Syrian opposition outlet, but the international propaganda arm of the Kremlin, RT. Their author, a Moscow-based political analyst, is a frequent critic of Russia’s ally Bashar al-Assad, although always careful to emphasize the Syrian president’s legitimacy.

This raises the question: Does Rami Shaer’s critical commentary shed light on Russia’s frustrations with Assad? At least one Russian scholar, Vitali Naumkin, has publicly wondered whether Shaer was channeling “a message from the Kremlin” through his work.

Shaer writes for the ultranationalist Russian broadsheet Zavtra. From there his articles are translated into Arabic and posted on RT, giving them the appearance of an official imprimatur. Strengthening this impression, the author’s criticisms of Damascus match those raised by Russian diplomats and media reports, and dovetail with key features of Russia’s Syria strategy. Shaer’s principal target is Assad’s maximalism: the latter’s refusal to entertain peace negotiations requiring minor concessions, his treatment of all opponents as terrorists and his inflammatory rhetoric. Shaer argues that these tendencies run counter to Russian efforts to wrap up the war with a U.N.-facilitated settlement, thereby keeping Syria in a state of miserable limbo. Left unsaid is that Assad’s intransigence prevents Moscow from reaping the full economic and political benefits of its brutal military campaign.

Whenever Shaer takes Assad to task, Arabic outlets from Asharq Al-Awsat to Independent Arabia to Al Modon and beyond hold him up as a bellwether of Russian authorities’ dissatisfaction—even as his job title is shrouded in uncertainty. Most reports claim he is an adviser to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), while others say he is connected to the Ministry of Defense (MoD) or the Kremlin.

During a WhatsApp conversation last December, I pressed Shaer on where, exactly, he works as an adviser—the MoFA, the MoD or the Kremlin. “In the state institutions involved in foreign policy,” he replied, a cryptic statement that could refer to all three government bodies. He had just sent me a photo showing him at a conference table seated next to Putin’s Middle East envoy and Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, and two chairs down from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Was it a hint at his proximity to the Russian diplomatic corps? He did not say.

The Palestinian-Syrian émigré’s personal history makes him an ideal candidate for passing messages from Moscow to the Syrian leadership. Shaer was the horse-riding instructor of Bashar al-Assad’s older siblings, Basel and Bushra, in the 1970s, and knew Bashar as a child.

“Even though he was young, Bashar used to come with us to the horse-riding club” on the desert road near Damascus, Shaer told me over WhatsApp in June 2020. “Bushra was a good rider, brave, and Basel was excellent. I trained him in show jumping. Bushra rode but didn’t do show jumping.”

Shaer said his family left for Russia after his father, a top officer in the Syrian military, fought with army brass over corruption in the Military Facilities unit and for the opportunity to be the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s representative to the U.S.S.R.—a position the younger Shaer later held. He denied claims made in a 2019 investigation by news website Zaman al-Wasl that his family was expelled because young Rami—“a blond, blue-eyed, tall champion in show jumping”—became romantically entangled with Bushra over the course of their equestrian lessons.

Russian scholar Naumkin wrote in a December 2019 article for Asharq Al-Awsat that “it is unlikely for anyone to be able to give a precise answer” as to whether Rami Shaer is acting as a Kremlin messenger. Shaer dodged my question on whether he speaks for the Russian government, replying, “I have friends in all of the institutions specialized in foreign policy affairs.” Nonetheless, Shaer’s background, the way his criticisms parallel Russian policy and his condescending reminders that the regime owes its survival to Russia have all contributed to his reception in the Arabic press as Moscow’s mouthpiece. If Russian authorities wanted to correct the record, surely RT would stop posting his articles?

“Syria Is Pregnant With Alternatives, Not Barren With Heritability,” proclaimed the headline of a November 2019 RT piece, as if to implicitly threaten the dynastic rule of the Assads. In his trademark rambling style, Shaer chides Assad for disparaging the U.N.-led peace process and argues that in order to raise Syria out of its devastation “the president needs to facilitate the adoption of a new constitution.”

This article was published as the second round of U.N.-sponsored constitutional negotiations was faltering in Geneva, in large part because the Syrian regime delegation kept diverting from the topic at hand to bloviate about “national principles” like fighting terrorism. Centering peace talks on writing a constitution may seem odd in the first place, given that 90% of the Syrian population is impoverished, a third is internally displaced, and millions live as refugees scattered across the globe. In fact, Russian diplomacy engineered this dynamic to advance a toothless political transition that leaves the regime intact.

Syria’s international peace process revolves around U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, a 2015 decision that endorses the “clear steps” towards a political transition spelled out by the U.N.’s 2012 Geneva Communique. These include the establishment of a transitional governing body vested with full executive powers, followed by constitutional reform, and then free and fair multiparty elections. At the time UNSCR 2254 was passed, when the war’s outcome was undecided, the concept of “political transition” was widely understood to mean the end of Assad’s dictatorial rule. However, over the next several years Russia and Iran’s military support enabled Assad to retake one opposition stronghold after the next, cementing his regime in place.

Reflecting this reality, in early 2018 Russia proposed the creation of a committee tasked with amending Syria’s constitution. The constitutional committee initiative came under U.N. auspices in mid-2019, and since then has been the basis of U.N.-facilitated talks to end the war. Taking constitutional reform as the launching pad for UNSCR 2254 neuters the security council resolution by skipping over the step of forming a transitional body. This means the Syrian regime would presumably be the one to approve any constitutional changes and then organize elections, beginning a U.N.-sanctioned political transition that leaves Assad in power in some form or another.

“New constitutional bases are like a bridge over which the regime’s current structures move into a new Syria that embraces all Syrians. This absolutely does not mean the end of the role of those in power today, nor does it mean handing the opposition power in Syria—which is what the [participating] parties do not understand,” Shaer wrote on Oct. 20 last year, as a sixth round of constitutional committee talks foundered. They ended without agreement on a future meeting date, let alone any of the core issues.

The fruitlessness of these meetings can be traced largely to one side. On the eve of the first constitutional committee session at Geneva in fall 2019, Assad asserted in an interview that “the Syrian government is not a part of these negotiations” and that his delegation merely represented the government’s “point of view.” Since that time, the regime team has consistently preferred displays of patriotic bluster over any hint of compromise on a constitutional text. This must be frustrating for the Russian diplomats who spearheaded the constitutional committee initiative, then spent four years cajoling Assad into participating in the process and providing political cover for his mockery of it. But more than feelings are at stake: Russia needs a U.N.-sponsored peace deal to translate its military victory into lasting economic and political gains.

Russia’s military operation in Syria has helped revive its standing as a global geopolitical player, strengthened its presence in the Mediterranean and North Africa, and provided twisted advertising material for Russian-made arms. Russian companies have won a major stake in national Syrian industries including phosphates, port administration, and oil and gas. However, the Syrian economy has been decimated by over 10 years of conflict. For Russia to capitalize on its wartime investments, it needs to end the Syrian government’s international isolation, scale back Western sanctions, and attract reconstruction funds and investment.

The only route to do this remains UNSCR 2254, as the United States and European Union peg normalizing relations with the regime and lifting sanctions to progress along the Geneva peace track. And what better way for Russia to bolster its great power status than by shepherding its pariah client, guilty of some of the worst atrocities of the 21st century to date, through the halls of the U.N. and back into the international fold?

Shaer has hammered home the importance of the Geneva peace process, and the constitutional committee specifically, in nearly every article he writes mentioning Syria—and of those there are many. “People close to the leadership in Damascus contact me and say: ‘Brother Rami, do you need to keep emphasizing U.N. decision 2254? Forget that decision; there are lots of U.N. decisions that haven’t been implemented.’ They say openly: ‘This is really upsetting the leadership,’ ” Shaer told me in June 2020.

He is not the only figure in Russia’s foreign policy establishment to criticize Assad for disregarding U.N.-led negotiations. “Putin is insisting that Assad show more flexibility in talks with the Syrian opposition on a political settlement … said four people familiar with Kremlin deliberations on the matter,” Bloomberg reported in April 2020. The Russian president was reportedly frustrated by his Syrian counterpart’s “refusal to concede any power in return for greater international recognition and potentially billions of dollars in reconstruction aid.” This frustration was embodied by two articles in the Russian media, one in an outlet linked to “Putin’s chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin, and another by a former Russian diplomat who criticized the regime’s lack of “a far-sighted and flexible approach.”

Since 2015, Russia has played the role of master conflict mediator in Syria even as it pummeled entire neighborhoods into submission on behalf of the regime—part and parcel of a wider ambition to be a mediator of Middle Eastern conflicts. Russia has supervised lopsided truces between the government and local rebel groups on dozens of occasions. It sponsored a massive “reconciliation” initiative in southern Syria in 2018, juggling the interests of Israel and Jordan alongside those of its sometime ally Iran; in northern Syria, it is encouraging a rapprochement between Ankara, which occupies several territories via local proxy groups, and Damascus. Farther east, Moscow is also supervising talks between Ankara’s nemesis—the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces—and Damascus.

This is a delicate balancing act requiring finesse and flexibility. But however agile and flexible Russia might be, Assad is emphatically neither of those things. He is allergic to compromise, makes a habit of disparaging world leaders and treats the entire opposition as foreign-backed terrorists and traitors. His ham-fisted style has muddled Russian mediation efforts aiming to wind down the war, and pushing back against it is one of the defining features of Shaer’s work.

In October 2019, on the same day Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met Putin to discuss a truce deal in northern Syria, Assad held a televised meeting in which he called Erdoğan a “slave” to America and a “thief who robbed factories, and stole wheat and oil with ISIS’s cooperation.” He doubled down in following weeks by telling an interviewer, “I’m not insulting him [Erdoğan], I’m describing him.” It appeared the Syrian president was trying to tank the Putin-Erdoğan deal, which had enshrined Turkish control over a border strip in northern Syria. The regime rightly considers this a foreign occupation. Shaer’s rebuke came in the form of an article titled “Assad and the Danger of Noisy Statements.”

“Erdoğan is a ‘thief’—what kind of thing is that to say?” Shaer told me. “We’re trying to normalize relations. … Syria cannot escape its crisis or even begin rebuilding without taking advantage of Turkey’s capabilities in every realm, from building materials to construction machinery to expertise.” Russian mediation has since yielded some fruit, including a 2020 meeting between the two country’s intelligence chiefs in Moscow. But Assad’s penchant for invective—in addition to “thief,” “thug” is another favorite moniker for Erdoğan—hardly lends itself to the “atmosphere of mutual respect and cooperation” envisioned by Putin upon completion of the fall 2019 ceasefire. On the contrary, it will inject volatility into any future talks.

Following a series of reconciliation deals sponsored by Russia in 2018, the regime returned to southern Dara’a province in piecemeal fashion, with the exception of certain pockets held by Russian-backed former rebels. As with virtually all truces inked between the government and opposition, the former quickly dispensed with its commitments, and Syrian security forces got to work detaining reconciled rebels, military deserters and civilians with suspected revolutionary ties. From the implementation of the 2018 agreements until Oct. 28 last year, the pro-opposition journalist collective “Free Men of Houran” documented 37 cases in which soldiers from Dara’a who had deserted military service were later tortured to death in government custody.

The proliferation of regime security apparatuses exacerbates this behavior; the root cause is a mindset that eschews clemency in favor of absolute control. “The experience of ‘national reconciliation’ at the local level has created a bad precedent, which throws a shadow on Russia that initiated these agreements,” Aleksander Aksenenok, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s former ambassador-at-large, wrote in an April 2020 article for the Russian International Affairs Council. In addition to tarnishing Russia’s carefully cultivated image as a mediator, as indicated by Aksenenok, the regime’s violation of truces also indefinitely postpones a political solution.

Harassing and detaining residents of formerly rebel-held areas prevents Assad from clearing the low bar set by the U.N.-led peace process, for which releasing arbitrarily detained persons is an important tenet. Voluntary refugee return is likely to be another key component of a peace deal given its importance to European capitals. It could theoretically pave the way for foreign investment and engagement with Syria outside of the deadlocked Geneva process, hence Russia’s enthusiasm for repatriating Syrian refugees. But voluntary return requires a safe environment and ideally reconciliation procedures—the opposite of the vengeful and lawless approach the regime has taken toward recaptured territories such as Dara’a.

The regime needs “to take steps that reflect its responsibility and great interest in promoting a national reconciliation, by releasing political prisoners, forgiving those fighters who handed over their weapons … and halting the assassinations that some security branches are still carrying out against militants who agreed to reconcile,” Shaer wrote as constitutional committee talks began in Geneva in fall 2019.

In general, the most distinctive theme of Shaer’s writing is his insistence that a legitimate national opposition exists and that Assad should stop treating as terrorists everyone who picked up arms. The fact that the MoD manages Moscow’s truce mediation efforts in Syria—from the same base as its ruthless air campaign—indicates that this position is shared by the Russian military. So too does the Russian military police’s habit of protecting communities that have signed truce deals with the government from the most flagrant abuses of regime security forces. In Dara’a and the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, Russian military police have prevented loyalist security services from detaining civilians and former rebels, extorting residents and looting property.

Assad never wavered from the refrain that all his opponents were extremists and traitors and foreign agents when his capital was surrounded by rebels and his fate hung in the balance. Why would he give ground now that he sits secure on his throne, even if it rests on a mountain of ashes?

“Assad and [his cousin Rami] Makhlouf have no problem if there’s no reconstruction or political change, and the country gets poorer and poorer until it ends. They’ll keep going. Everyone else is worn out but they’ll keep going,” Firas Tlass, a former regime insider, said in a May 2020 interview on RT, in which he detailed how the Assads had plundered Syrian national resources since the 1980s. The state-run media outlet deleted Tlass’s segment following an outcry from Syria’s loyalist intelligentsia, but this did not scrub away the impression that Assad’s intransigence was raising hackles in Moscow.

Luckily for Russia, regional tailwinds are pushing Assad toward the shores of international recognition. Jordan is restoring relations with its northern neighbor to boost its flagging economy. The Hashemite Kingdom also wants Iranian-backed militias in Syria far from its borders, a goal shared by Israel, which necessitates collaboration with Russia and the acquiescence of the Syrian regime. Gulf states, notably the UAE, are angling to counterbalance Iranian influence by developing closer ties with Assad. A new initiative to supply Lebanon with Jordanian electricity and Egyptian gas via Syria underscores growing acceptance of one of the world’s most vicious dictators.

The Syrian president will certainly take advantage of this momentum to secure some economic and diplomatic relief. However, he is unlikely to moderate his worst excesses and ride the wave toward an internationally brokered solution. It is hard to believe Assad will enter into a cosmetic power-sharing arrangement with those he has denigrated as terrorists for the past decade. It is equally hard to believe he will stop torturing and killing opponents, real or imagined. What are the chances he will yield to Western and Arab demands to dilute Iran’s military presence, when his strategic relationship with Iran provides sorely-needed leverage over Russia?

The Biden administration’s ill-defined Syria policy seems to revolve around humanitarian aid delivery and operations against the Islamic State group, rather than holding Assad to account. Nevertheless, the United States and European Union are standing firm on sanctions until the regime engages with the U.N.-facilitated political process. This will restrict investment and reconstruction in Syria to a trickle compared with the potential flood that awaits Russian business upon completion of the Geneva peace track. Absent a U.N.-sponsored deal or major changes in Western policy, Russia stands to inherit in Syria a bombed-out pariah state with poor economic prospects.

If the Syrian leadership “listened to what we’re directing at them and took the initiative to implement UNSCR 2254, maybe things would have changed for the better a long time ago and would not have reached this stage—but he [Assad] and his circle do not want to make any concessions,” Shaer told me in June 2020.

Perhaps not much has changed from preceding decades. At the 2018 Beirut Institute Summit, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Richard Murphy recalled a comment his Soviet counterpart Nuritdin Mukhitdinov made upon arrival to Damascus in 1974: “It’s true that Syria accepts from the Soviet Union aid, loans, student exchange, military programs,” Mukhitdinov told Murphy. “When you think of it, it accepts everything from us, except advice.”

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