Haaretz Israeli newspaper published an analysis of Middle East affairs' analyst Zvi Bar'el in which he spoke about the crisis of Bashar and his cousin Rami Makhlouf, and Russia's strategy in Syria that could drag the country towards a new solution after overthrowing Bashar al-Assad.
Rami Makhlouf, the Syrian billionaire who happens to be the President Bashar al-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, as Russia, Iran and al-Assad regime all vying for control.
Not only Makhlouf is al-Assad's relative, but also a key figure in financing 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, Iran's ally, 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; keeping al-Assad in power, wiping out "terrorism" and expanding the regime's rule to eventually establishing 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 the regime army troops.
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.
Russia began merging militias and integrating them into al-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 al-Assad's hand in integrating these forces into the army, thereby neutralizing Makhlouf's control on those militias.
In the summer of 2019, al-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 al-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 al-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 and political army that would be subordinate to al-Assad, but guided by Russia.
Al-Assad also ordered the arrest of General Ghassan Bilal, the bureau chief to his brother Maher, the commander of the Fourth Division and an ally of Iran. At the times, Iran had proposed that Bilal become the head of military intelligence, but Russia opposed the move.
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 exclusive agreements of post-war period, 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 has become 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, and the 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 the Iranian forces in Syria. Russia kept Iran out of the agreements it signed with Turkey for imposing a ceasefire in Idlib, the last stronghold of the rebels in the country. It is also keeping the Iranians out of the policing activity carried out by the Russian military police.
The Mafia tactic
Russia suggested that al-Assad makes Makhlouf pay $ 3 billion, and when the latter refused, saying he didn't have that sum of money, Russia showed al-Assad videos posted by Makhlouf's sons showing off their luxury cars next to their lavish houses in Dubai.
For al-Assad, it was an opportunity to settle a score with his cousin who amassed his fortune thanks to the family connection. Makhlouf had apparently also begun to tangle with the president's wife Asma al-Assad who heads a committee tasked with combating money laundering. Makhlouf was sued for tax evasion, most of his assets were confiscated, and his employees were arrested, while he evidently managed to flee the country and join his sons.
A diplomatic war
Shortly before Makhlouf's episode blew up, Russian media began publishing pieces denigrating al-Assad, accusing him of leading a corrupt regime. Alexander Shumilin, the 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 – al-Assad – and his entourage."
Russia's TASS news agency published an article saying that "al-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 al-Assad in order to build a new leadership that will implement Russia's proposed constitution and rely on technocrats representing all factions and ethnicities. Russia believes that such a government could win international legitimacy and could serve as a catalyst for financing the rebuilding of the country under Russia's watchful eye.
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.