By Syndication Washington Post, Bloomberg · Henry Meyer, Ilya Arkhipov · WORLD, MIDDLE-EAST
Consumed at home by the twin shocks of collapsing oil prices and the coronavirus epidemic, and eager to wrap up his Syrian military adventure by declaring victory, Putin is insisting that Assad show more flexibility in talks with the Syrian opposition on a political settlement to end the nearly decade-long conflict, said four people familiar with Kremlin deliberations on the matter.
Assad's refusal to concede any power in return for greater international recognition and potentially billions of dollars in reconstruction aid prompted rare public outbursts against the Syrian president this month in Russian publications with links to Putin.
"The Kremlin needs to get rid of the Syrian headache," said Alexander Shumilin, a former Russian diplomat who runs the state-financed Europe-Middle East Center in Moscow. "The problem is with one person - Assad - and his entourage."
Putin's irritation and Assad's obduracy highlight Russia's dilemma because both sides know there's no alternative to the Syrian leader in reaching a deal. While Putin used his successful 2015 intervention in Syria to restore Russia's Soviet-era influence as a major player in the Middle East, Assad has maneuvered between Moscow and his other main military backer, Iran, to retain his grip on power.
Assad has also leveraged Russia's military and diplomatic strength against Turkey's efforts to expand its presence in remaining rebel-held areas of northern Syria as he seeks to regain control over the whole country with Putin's support.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that Putin is unhappy with Assad for refusing to compromise with Syria's opposition in negotiating a political settlement.
Russia has pressured Assad behind the scenes for several years, without success, to agree to at least some token political concessions to win United Nations endorsement of his expected re-election in 2021. The openly voiced criticism of its ally marked a sharp change of approach.
A media outlet linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, who's known as "Putin's Chef" for his Kremlin catering contracts, published an online article attacking Assad as corrupt. It also cited a poll showing he has just 32% support, while listing a number of potential replacements from within the Syrian regime and the opposition.
The article on the Federal News Agency website quickly disappeared. Days later, the Russian International Affairs Council, a foreign-policy think tank established by the Kremlin, published a commentary criticizing the government in Damascus as lacking "a far-sighted and flexible approach" to ending the conflict.
"If Assad refuses to accept a new constitution, the Syrian regime will put itself at great risk," Alexander Aksenyonok, a former Russian diplomat and a vice-president of the council, who wrote the commentary, said in a phone interview.
Both publications were a strong signal to the Syrian leadership, a person close to the Kremlin said.
Putin views Assad as a stubborn figure who has proved a disappointment for him and used the media outlet linked to Prigozhin to convey this, said another person close to the Russian leader. Still, the Syrian president cannot be abandoned because there's no other viable ally in Syria, this person and a government official said.
There's been no official Syrian reaction and Syria's newspapers, all state-controlled, didn't mention the Russian criticism. Syria's ambassador to Moscow, Riad Haddad, didn't respond to an emailed request for comment.
UN-led talks in Geneva on redrafting the Syrian constitution to introduce some political competition finally started late last year and almost immediately became deadlocked when the government side "deliberately sabotaged" the negotiations, said Aksenyonok, who is also affiliated with the Valdai discussion club backed by Putin.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pederson, told the Security Council on Dec. 20 that the second round failed to get off the ground because Assad opponents wanted to start discussing constitutional matters and Syrian government officials refused.
The warnings from Moscow reflect frustration among Russia's business community at the failure to gain entry into the Syrian economy, said a diplomat who tracks Syria. Russia is also aware of how difficult the situation is in the country, with Assad's failure to provide essential goods because of the coronavirus pandemic and the problem of corrupt networks risking some kind of revolt in certain areas in the future, the diplomat said.
"Assad has always been obstinate in the face of Russian pressure because he knows that Syria is too big to fail for Russia," said Joost Hiltermann, program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. What "appears to be an unprecedented government-sanctioned Russian media campaign against Assad" may reflect frustration in Moscow at a time when Syria is a lesser priority, he said.
Russia, which maintains a naval facility and an air base in Syria and has dispatched military police to patrol former rebel-held areas and key road links, has some leverage but would risk too much if it tried to oust Assad, according to Irina Zvyagelskaya, a Middle East expert at the state-run Institute of World Economy and International Relations.
Complicating Russian efforts to cajole the Syrian leader into compliance is not only Iran, which has backed Assad with money, oil and troops to guarantee Syria remains a corridor for supplies of arms to Tehran's Hezbollah militia ally in Lebanon, but also the United Arab Emirates.
The U.A.E., which is keen to counterbalance Iranian and Turkish influence in Syria, has courted Assad after years of treating him as a pariah along with regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia. It reopened its embassy in Damascus at the end of 2018 and is promoting commercial ties.
"Many Arab countries have come to the conclusion that Assad will stay," said Zvyagelskaya. "They understand they have to deal with him."