Daniel Rakov
An expert in Russian Middle East Strategy

Putin’s not giving up on Assad

Putin, Assad and Russian defense minister Shoigu, during Putin's last visit to Damascus (Jan 7, 2020) (ALEXEI NIKOLSKY / SPUTNIK, KREMLIN POOL PHOTO VIA AP)
Putin, Assad and Russian defense minister Shoigu, during Putin's last visit to Damascus (Jan 7, 2020) (ALEXEI NIKOLSKY / SPUTNIK, KREMLIN POOL PHOTO VIA AP)

Israeli and regional experts on Middle Eastern politics are wondering about a series of articles that appeared in Russian and Arabic media in recent weeks in which Russian experts have been blatantly criticizing the corruption of Assad regime. On April 13, the “Russian Federal News Agency” (RIAFAN) released three articles on corruption within the Assad regime, criticizing his cronies, and theorizing the political implications for Assad’s future. Over the next four days, at least 120 Russian articles (originals and requotes) were published in parallel with publications in Arabic, English and social networks discourse.

RIAFAN is a private Russian news agency belonging to Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s media network. It reports both in Russian and in Arabic. Prigozhin, known as “the Kremlin’s chef” (because of his catering business), is a Saint-Petersburg businessman who provides the Russian government a basket of international influence tools, and in return wins highly profitable government tenders, and backing up for his global business adventures. His most well-known venture (and for which US sanctions have been bestowed upon Prigozhin) is the Internet Research Agency (IRA, also known as “the Troll Factory”), which is accused of disseminating false information on social networks, including during the 2016 US presidential election campaign. His other famous asset is the “Private Military Company” known as “Wagner” – Russian mercenaries active in Syria and elsewhere in the world.

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But getting back to the blatant criticism of Assad, RIAFAN articles (April 13) quoted Russian political sociology expert Alexander Malkevich (also affiliated with Prigozhin). According to Malkevich, two weeks prior to the publication, he had conducted a telephone survey in Syria. The poll showed that only 32 percent of Syrian citizens intend to vote for Assad in the 2021 presidential election. Malkevich claimed that analysis of the findings of the survey showed that Assad’s support rate is deteriorating because of corruption, which has widened among the regime officials, and has intensified the economic problems. The funds intended for the restoration of the economy were stolen by Assad’s cronies. As a result, living standards in Syria are declining, unemployment is expanding, crime proliferates, and food price is rising. The Russian expert stated, “While in the war, people were willing to put up with a difficult economic situation in exchange for security, in the peacetime society’s expectations for better life are increasing.”

Malkevich even went into the analysis of the political figures that may be elected instead of Assad: current Prime Minister Khamis, General Suhil AlHassan and others. To his opinion some of them are quite strong candidates for the presidency. However, Malkevich said, not everything is lost to Assad – if he only took matters into his own hands and instituted economic reforms. That could attract Russian investors, which could also contribute to social stability in Syria.

Malkevich bears the title of president of the “Center for National Values Protection”, which presents itself as a think-tank. It deals with political issues in select countries that, surprisingly (or not), resemble the areas, where Prigozhin is allegedly trying to promote his business. Three other “experts” from the Malkevich’s think-tank briefed on April 13-16 several media outlets with similar messages. They spoke of corruption in Syria in the food, electricity, Internet and cellular sectors, focusing on Assad’s close associates, such as the Makhluf clan, the Katarji brothers and Prime Minister Khamis. President Assad has been described as unable to control his corrupt clients. Most articles mention that one of the solutions that could help Assad is getting Russian companies into Syria. The “experts” claimed, that this is something that “corrupt associates” do not allow.

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The sequence of these publications seemed like a deliberate informational attack: it was delimited in time (four days and disappeared afterwards) and the messages in the various media were almost identical. The narrative that was promoted through this info-attack is ridiculous. It referred to Syria as a democratic and normal state, and not as a dictatorship, whose territory is torn apart by the civil war. In Assad’s Syria, there are no free elections, no public approval rating, and no civil society demanding the economic reform. It is also likely that no phone survey was ever conducted by Malkevich.

While Prigozhin’s media is the source of the reports, most of the other outlets that spread them are small and dubious sites. After the attack the original reports critical about Assad had been removed from RIAFAN site (the broken links to the original articles remain on other sites) or had been censored (in one of the reports, prime minister Khamis is still chastised, but the direct criticism of Assad was removed). In recent days, the Malkevich’s Center has also deleted from its website “the findings of the poll” on the 2021 elections in Syria.
The choice of RIAFAN and Malkevich does not appear to be accidental or trivial. RIAFAN is formally associated with Prigozhin, a well-known and controversial figure, unlike other media outlets that are only “suspicious” of belonging to him. RIAFAN has reporters in Syria who might have been harmed by the regime if it decided to take revenge on the agency. Standing out is the complete absence from this campaign of the prominent media outlets in Russia – both official and private. No Russian government news agency criticized Assad or even reported such allegations.

Since April 17, RIAFAN has resumed positive reporting about Assad regime. Furthermore, in recent days it “denounces” Turkey and others for conducting fake-news campaign against the regime – for example, “baseless allegations” that Syrian President’s wife Asma Al-Assad has bought at auction a painting for over $ 20 million.

The rapid termination of this informational offensive can be explained in several complementary ways:

• It might have been initially intended to be prompt and demonstrate to Assad regime the capability to inflict a damage.

• It has achieved its goals (whatever those where) vis-à-vis Assad regime within a few days.

• The Russian authorities may have asked Prigozhin (on their own initiative or following Assad’s demand) to discontinue these publications and delete any traces of them.

All the explanations support the most significant conclusion: the info-attack was meant to be noticed by Assad regime, and there is no real Russian intent to weaken it. The info-offensive on Assad regime has received considerable attention in the Arabic and some other international media. Most experts correctly identified Prigozhin’s network as its source. Yet, they were too hasty to conclude that Prigozhin’s affiliation with Putin proves that the info-offensive represented weakening in Moscow’s backing for further Assad rule.

Prigozhin has personal business interests both in Syria and elsewhere in the world. He tries to harness the Russian government to support his goals but is not always successful. In February 2017, a combined force of Prigozhin mercenaries and Syrian fighters sought to occupy a gas plant near the city of Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria, held by the Kurds (SDF), supported by the United States. The American military discovered the attackers’ preparations in advance. When the Russian-Syrian offensive began, the Americans contacted the Russian headquarters in Hmeymim in Syria through deconfliction channel. Hmeymim replied that the attackers didn’t belong to Russian Armed Forces. The US aerial counterattack ended with several hundred Russian and Syrian mercenaries dead. Many experts believe that Prigozhin did not coordinate this attack with the Russian army, while the Russian Ministry of Defense had let his people bleed, to teach him a lesson.

The heading of “Proekt” study about Prgozhin’s African political adventures

A year ago Russian opposition investigative project had published a study, claiming that Prigozhin had made clumsy attempts to influence the election processes in about 20 African nations. “Political strategists” on his behalf tried to influence those countries through organization of fake political movements. Therefore, the recent info-attack might also represent Prigozhin’s demonstration of capability to generate public debate in front of the Syrian elections of 2021. Pointing on particular strongmen of the regime as presidential candidates might be viewed as an attempt to raise Assad’s suspicion about their aspirations and discredit them.

The Syrian political process is stuck for years because of Assad’s refusal to go on with constitutional reform and stand for open and free elections. Moscow tries to revive the political process, puts pressure on Assad to cooperate, but doesn’t contemplate a possibility that Assad will step down. Russian political system is based on imitation of democratic elections to legitimize Putin regime. Moscow has already tried the same approach with Syria, when it organized on the Russian soil “the Syrian People’s Congress” (January 2018) meant to kick-start the Geneva Process. It failed to generate support both from the regime and from international partners Moscow needs to normalize the Syrian quagmire.

It may well be, that Prigozhin or Russian authorities are preparing the ground for the elections in Syria. It might be useful as a track to find some compromise with the Syrian opposition factions and their international supporters, in order to reinvigorate a political process. In case there is no compromise the Russians will help to imitate Assad’s re-election as a genuine will of the Syrian people and Prigozhin might have tried to showcase that he could be helpful in such a scenario.

We can conclude that Prigozhin media network carried out a deliberate and extraordinary info-attack on President Assad and his associates. It was initiated either by Prigozhin himself, or by Russian State, enjoying plausible deniability. The exact purpose of the attack is unknown, but it seems that the Covid-19 crisis provided the Russians a convenient context to exert pressure on Assad regime to obtain economic or political concessions or to prepair the ground for new reconciliation effort on the Syrian political process. The absence of Russian official media from the info-attack raises the likelihood that this is only a personal initiative by Prigozhin.

The assessments that the attack proves that Russia is tired of Assad or think of replacing him – are simply wrong. The Russians have no other alternative to Assad. Although the Russians protect Assad from external threats, their influence inside Syria is limited, and without Assad there is no guarantee that the Russian forces will remain in Syria.

What lessons can Israel learn from this episode?

• Russia is not a monolith, and not every message in Russian represents President Putin.

Russia is not omnipotent in Syria – the Russians do not own the country and have to exert multifaceted pressure on Assad to advance their interests.

The struggle between Russia, Iran and Assad’s cronies over the economic assets in the country is boiling.

About the Author
Daniel Rakov is an expert on Russian policy in the Middle East and great-power competition in the region. He's a senior fellow at The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS). He had served in the IDF for more than 20 years, mainly in the Israeli Defense Intelligence (Aman). From 2019 to 2021 he was a research fellow at the Russian Studies Program in the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). In 2021 he co-edited a volume of articles "Thirty Years of Russian-Israeli Relations: Past, Present, and Future", published in Hebrew and in Russian (by INSS and MGIMO University, Moscow).
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