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Assad’s debts mount as Putin calls the shots in Syrian ceasefire

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets President of Syria Bashar Al-Assad (L) in Sochi, Russia on 17 May, 2018 [Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency]
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and President Bashar Al-Assad (R) in Sochi, Russia on 17 May, 2018 [Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency]

It is significant to note that Saturday’s ceasefire in Syria was announced by Russia and not by the ruling Assad dynasty, whose corrupt behaviour triggered the brutal civil war back in 2011. Ironically, it is this same family corruption which could bring an end to the horrific conflict which has seen more than half the population displaced and homeless, and hundreds of thousands killed or wounded.

However, the anticipated victory might not necessarily go the way that President Bashar Al-Assad expects, because the real power behind his throne is puppet master par excellence, Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The poker-faced Kremlin leader is neither a kind, benevolent ruler nor even a good friend, as more than a dozen Russian oligarchs who helped sweep him into power could testify if they weren’t in jail or living in exile in fear of their lives.

Put simply, Putin does not give out favours without getting something in return, and he is said to be outraged to discover that it’s not just millions of Syrians who’ve fled the country, but also more than half of Syria’s wealth, which is now said to be out of his grasp. Putin’s concern stems from the claim that he is reported to want $3 billion in loan repayments in return for the services of the Russian military during the war.

Russia entered the conflict in 2014 to send a message to the rest of the world that Moscow would no longer tolerate America’s 21st Century adventurism in the Middle East. Proving that his country is far more than just Assad’s number one arms dealer, Putin worked alongside the Damascus government rather than go for regime change. The horrific human rights abuses and the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs was never going to cause him sleepless nights.

While some military observers were predicting the fall of Idlib this year, signalling the end of the conflict which has not only killed so many Syrian lives but also Russian forces, Iranian militiamen, rebel fighters and other outside parties, in the past few days Russia has put the brakes on the assault. Not many people believe that it has more to do with Moscow’s humanitarian concerns rather than the uncertainties surrounding the Assad family finances.

The corrupt Assad dynasty has spent decades looting Syria of its wealth, which could be why the President and his family seemed more than happy to sit back and let the people burn while Russia and Iranian proxies did much of the regime’s dirty work. It was all going rather well until Putin reminded Assad that it is payback time.

Image of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Russia [Press Service of the President of Russia/Wikipedia]

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Russia [Press Service of the President of Russia/Wikipedia]

According to persistent rumours pushed by both pro- and anti-regime sources, Assad has been rather slow to respond. This has not gone down well in Moscow, not least because Putin’s attention has been drawn to social media boasts by the son of Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, who is said to be Syria’s wealthiest citizen. Before the outbreak of the war, Makhlouf controlled a staggering 65 per cent of Syria’s economy, running many of the country’s largest companies and businesses.

The business and financial activities of him and his children will, therefore, be of great interest to the former veteran of Cold War Russia’s feared KGB. It was inevitable that when 22-year-old son Mohammed Makhlouf posted images on Instagram of his lavish lifestyle, Dubai mansion and collection of supercars, Putin would hear about it. The breaking point came when the boastful young man living in exile in the UAE told the media that he is about to invest $300 million in Syrian property, the source of which is “business”.

Anyone who has studied Putin’s rise from the KGB to the top of the Kremlin knows that next to power the Russian leader takes money matters extremely seriously. According to several media outlets, including the Times in London, he has told Assad that if he cannot repay the $3 billion loan then he should get it from his first cousin, Makhlouf, who obviously has the financial resources to do so. The demand is said to have fuelled a huge row within the family, with 50-year-old Makhlouf refusing to hand over any of his ill-gotten gains.

According to several other media reports, Makhlouf Senior has been placed under house arrest in Damascus along with two of his brothers and his father, who is the brother of Assad’s late mother Anisa, who died in 2016. There are said to be regime concerns that much of the Makhlouf wealth has been salted away overseas, making it difficult for Assad to pay his debt to Putin or invest in the rebuilding of Syria.

Setting aside the humanitarian crisis in Syria; the mass exodus from Idlib and surrounding areas; and the concerns of the international community over the welfare of those left behind in Syria’s last rebel-held territory, this could explain why Russia agreed to Saturday’s ceasefire and insisted on making the announcement to the world. Despite the competing agendas of the Syrian generals, Iran and other regional militias, it is clear that Putin is calling the shots in a conflict where the West has completely failed to intervene positively.

Call me cynical, but I believe that this ceasefire is nothing more than Putin’s warning to Assad that unless debts are paid, Moscow may yet support the West’s desire for regime change. Bashar Al-Assad’s future is in Putin’s hands as is, sadly, that of most of Syria’s civilian population. The fact that boastful Instagram posts may have brought about this short respite for millions of innocent civilians in Idlib speaks volumes about the world in which we live, where power and wealth have priority over peace and justice.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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