In the recent weeks there have been several reports in the Russian media critical of the Syrian regime and even of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad himself. Prominent among them were three reports published April 14, 2020 by the Federal News Agency, owned by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, considered to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The reports all dealt with the mounting corruption in Syria: the first dealt with government corruption and claimed that Assad has little control over affairs in his country; the second presented a survey according to which only 32% of Syrians say they will vote for Assad in future presidential elections, due to the corruption in Syria; and the third accused the Syrian regime of impeding the development of Russian businesses in the country. In addition, according to reports, the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a Kremlin-affiliated think tank, published an article that foresaw the possibility of an understanding between Russia, Iran and Turkey to remove Assad from power and establish an interim government in Syria. The Valdai Discussion Club, also affiliated with the Russian authorities, published an article by RIAC vice president Alexander Aksenyonok, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, accused Assad's regime of refusing to comply with UN Resolution 2254 calling for a political solution in Syria, and added that the regime’s commitment to a military solution, including the use of force against the Turkish and American forces, was unrealistic.
Although it is unclear to what extent these articles reflect the position of the Russian leadership, and despite official Russian claims that they do not, the reports sparked a heated debate in Syrian and Arab media, and were perceived as indicating a shift in the Russian position towards the Syrian regime. There were even speculations that Russia meant to remove Assad from power. Some analysts claimed that the reports reflected Russia's distrust of Assad and a Russian understanding that his primary loyalty is to Iran. They speculated further that Russia was displeased with Assad, specifically with his handling of the political discussions on the constitutional assembly, with his actions on the ground, especially in Idlib, and with his lack of commitment to the Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreement. Some claimed that the current circumstances – the economic crisis in Russia, and especially the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that the U.S. Caesar Act will come into force this June – have brought Russia to the conclusion that safeguarding its interests in Syria will require an agreement with the international community, and especially with the U.S., leading to an Iranian withdrawal from that country and to a comprehensive ceasefire. The analysts assessed that, since Assad will not agree to sever his ties with Iran and make political concessions, Russia is likely to support his replacement in the next presidential elections, scheduled for 2021.
The speculations regarding Russian-American understandings on Russia received further support from comments made by James Jeffrey, U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. On May 2, 2020 he told the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that all foreign forces must leave Syria, except for the Russians. This remark that was taken to indicate the existence of understandings between the Russia and the U.S. on Syria. Several days later, Jeffrey said that there was growing Russian frustration with Assad and that Russia may therefore be more willing to talk with the Americans about a non-military solution in Syria. In addition, Syrian oppositionist Kamal Al-Labwani told the Saudi website Elaph that the U.S., Russia and countries in the region had reached understandings about Assad's departure and his replacement by a security figure agreed-upon by the international community, who would officially ask the Iranians to leave Syria. According to Al-Labwani, the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, 'Ali Mamlouk, has been mentioned as a possible candidate.
Pro-regime Syrian media, for their part, claimed that the reports and speculations about disputes between Syria and Russia were false, and stressed the good relations between the two sides. However, Syrian Parliament Secretary Khaled Al-'Aboud took a different line. In an article he posted on his Facebook page on May 7, 2020 he harshly attacked Russia and stressed that President Putin was unable to dictate anything to President Assad. He even hinted that any Russian action jeopardizing Assad's interests would be met with Syrian military action against the Russian forces in Syria and revenge operations that would eradicate Putin’s name from Russian history forever.
Al-'Aboud's article sparked condemnation in Syria. MP Nabil Saleh described it as "non-political nonsense that confuses our public and divides it," and asked Al-'Aboud to remove the article. Kamal Fayyad, a pro-regime security and policy expert, described Al-'Aboud's article as a "crime" that has no place in Syrian politics.
In another article posted several days later, Al-'Aboud refused to apologize for his statements, while clarifying that they represented his personal opinion only and not that of any official Syrian body. However, it is difficult to believe that, in Syria, an MP can post such a harsh article without the agreement of higher echelons.
Assad and Putin in a 2017 meeting in Sochi (source: sana.sy, November 21, 2017)
The following are translated excerpts from Khaled Al-'Aboud's article:
Russia's Intervention In Syria Was A Calculated Move By Assad To Prevent An American Attack
"In the last few days, several publications have appeared that deal with a new Russian role that can undermine the relations between Syria and Russia. [These publications] hint that the Russian leadership has a hand in minimizing, limiting or usurping the role of [President] Assad in Syria and in its future. We listened carefully to these voices, and concluded that they reflect valid political scenarios…
"I therefore hope you will be patient and forgive [me] for being long-winded, for the issue requires calm contemplation.
"President Assad did not need Putin to defend him from the chaos or to defeat the terror that spread throughout in Syria, even if Assad himself did make some brief remarks to that effect. Assad's need for Putin stemmed mainly from [the fact] that he [Assad] understood very well that his certain victory over the apparatuses of chaos could provide the main aggressors, and especially the U.S., a chance to… directly enter the fray.
"But Assad did this [i.e., allowed Putin to intervene in Syria] only after carefully mapping out the presence of his traditional allies, i.e., Hizbullah and Iran, [in Syria] and setting out guidelines for maps that laid down the main groundwork for halting that aggression.
"Putin did not enter an empty arena – on the contrary! He was brought [to Syria] in a well-calculated move by President Assad. Note the long time that passed from the beginning of the conflict and the entry of Hizbullah and Iran [into Syria] until the entry of the Russians [into the country], by means of which Assad meant to prevent the U.S. from building up its aggression [against Syria], which is what actually happened.
"Assad had no choice but to build up this Russian presence [in Syria] by granting Putin natural and economic interests on Syrian soil, that are actually linked to Syria’s [own] interests and which led Putin to defend this [Russian] presence...This kept [the Russians] from withdrawing [from Syria] and at the same time caused Putin to defend these interests from direct American aggression against Syria!!
"Yes, President Assad staunchly defended the walls of Syria against the U.S. and prevented it from building up its aggression against [Syria]. The U.S. accepted this and remained silent, because it urgently needed to negotiate about other [matters] relating to Hizbullah's and Iran's presence in Syria, after President Assad made [a move] that severely threatened the U.S. interests in the region: he filled the area with a network of Hizbullah and Iranian [forces] that played a major role in changing the rules of play vis-à-vis the occupying Zionist entity… This American aquiescense to the Russian presence in Syria, even at the expense of the American presence itself, stems from America's realization that Assad scored an important achievement through the presence of Hizbullah and Iran and by drawing new maps [of the situation] on the ground which, in the future, will play a significant role in changing the power-balance of the conflict with the occupying Zionist entity.
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"Russia realizes very well that President Assad traced the boundaries of its political, economic and military presence in Syria, and it understands even better that Assad relies on a main infrastructure that Putin knows little about, namely the map of military, economic and political ties between Syria and Iran, and especially the map of the military arena, which is developing, step by step…
Putin Cannot Dictate Anything To Assad
"Yes, President Assad limited Russia's presence in Syria by means of a political formula we have already explained, namely: Keep your enemy from getting what he wants, and give your ally what you want [to give]!!...
"Putin is thus no longer able to dictate anything to Assad. Why?
"1. Because Putin is currently in a situation where he needs Assad very much, for Assad gave him what he wanted to give, so that Putin would safeguard the 'Russian' interests in Syria. This constitutes an achievement for Putin inside Russia, which he is careful to preserve.
"2. Because Putin understands that Assad has placed Syria's relations with Iran on a much more solid footing than Syria’s relations with Russia, and has used [his relations with Iran] as a basis for drawing very solid military, political and economic maps that can make Syria's relations with Russia very marginal. If [Putin] thinks to influence President Assad’s positions, it could cost him all the achievements that were granted him by Assad himself.
"3. Because Putin knows full well that it is President Assad who enabled him to become a major player on the regional level, and consequently also on the global level, and therefore, if [Putin] takes this lightly it will not be in his favor…
"4. Because Putin also understands that there is no alternative to Assad in Syria. Nobody else can preserve Putin's own achievement, which was made thanks to the stability and steadfastness of President Assad. Any alternative to this steadfastness would be a great victory for America, and in that case Putin would not be able… to even glimpse the shores of the Mediterranean!
"5. Because Putin understands perfectly well that any dispute with President Assad… will have implications within Russia. It would mean the failure of his policy and his choices, and that is why he is trying to mend this [quarrel].
Assad Could Have Delivered Putin A Blow That Would Have Eradicated His Name From The Annals Of History Forever
"But the most important and meaningful question that nobody has even considered is this: If Assad wanted to do something to Putin, what could he do?!!! What would happen if Assad wanted to defeat Putin, and to pull the rug out from under him in the very corridors of the Kremlin?! What would happen if Assad wanted to embarrass him politically within Russia?! Or to eradicate his glory and his achievements?!... What if Assad grew annoyed with Putin's [actions] in Syria?! What if he felt that Putin wanted to impose a road map on him that did not conform to his interests?! Or if the two sides disagreed in Syria and came to have clashing interests?!!!... If that happened, what could happen to Putin in Syria?!...
"What would happen if Assad embroiled Putin in a prolonged conflagration in the Latakia mountains?!! What would happen if he dragged him into a shadow war he never thought of [entering]?!! What would happen if Syrian intelligence boobytrapped those mountains with thousands of soldiers who would raise the flag of resistance against the Russian occupation or carry out operations against the Russian forces in revenge for Russia’', and especially Putin's, interference in Syria’s internal affairs[?]!! Would Putin then be able to spend even a few more hours in his largest base [of Khmeimim] overlooking the Mediterranean[?]!!!
"What would happen if Assad grew angry with Putin and pushed him into the furnace of Khoran, its plains and its mountains[?] What would happen if Assad's intelligence apparatuses recruited thousands [of fighters] furious with Russia, with its interference and its dictates to the Syrians[?]!!! What would happen if President Assad was mad at Putin and dragged him into the labyrinth of the Syrian desert, to drown him in its heat and its sands, and besieged him from every direction after boobytrapping [everything], aboveground and below it[?]!!! Or dragged Putin to the banks of the Euphrates and left him to face… tribes that regard him as an invader and occupier[?]!!!
"What would happen if Assad addressed the Syrian people and told them Putin was the occupier of our land, leaving the Syrians no choice but to resist this occupier[?]!!! What would happen if Assad told the world that the presence of the Russian forces in Syria, and in particular the role played by Putin, was an occupation unacceptable to the Syrians[?]!!! Or if Syria's representative to the [UN] Security Council stood up and said, ‘we regard the Syrian presence in Russia as occupation and we will oppose it by every means sanctioned by international law'[?]
"These scenarios [may] seem unrealistic to many, but they exist in politics, as long as there are other scenarios in which Putin can pressure President Assad. Such pressure… can help generate scenarios that will entitle Assad to defend himself, namely all the scenarios presented above.
"Believe me, if any of those scenarios had materialized, the world would have changed. Had Assad carried out any of those scenarios, it would have created a completely new world order, on the political, economic and military levels. The U.S. would have been the first to confront Putin in Syria and would have been the first to immediately treat the Russian presence [there] as an occupation that must be uprooted.
"Remember well that Moscow and its leaders were never defeated in the streets of the [Soviet] Union] but were defeated in all the quagmires they entered [abroad], in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and Putin remembers this lesson well. Finally, just to complete the picture, [let me say that], if President Assad wanted to confront Putin in Syria, overtly or covertly, and if his intelligence apparatuses acted to expel Putin from Syria and push him into a war that would leave nothing of his and Russia's achievements on the shores of the Mediterranean – [if that happened] Putin would not only be defeated in Syria. All of Russia’s expansion in the last decade in the region and the world would shrink, and Putin's name would be eradicated from Russia's history for ever and ever."
 The survey was conducted by the Foundation for the Protection of National Values (FZNC), a Russian organization dealing with the Middle East.
 In should be mentioned that the reports were later removed from the news agency's website, and the agency claimed that hackers had planted fake anti-Assad reports on its website (riafan.ru, April 22, 2020).
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 6, 2020.
 Valdaiclub.com, April 17, 2020.
 For example, the Russian embassy in Lebanon posted an announcement that these were false reports meant to deceive people that Russia was making agreements with the U.S. and Turkey to divide influence in Syria among them (Nna-leb.gov.lb, April 27, 2020).
 See e.g., syria.tv, April 19, 2020.
 The Caesar Act, which was passed in December 2019 and will come into force in June 2020, enables the U.S. to impose sanctions and travel restrictions on anyone supporting or trading with the Syrian regime. The act is named after a former photographer in Assad's army who leaked thousands of photos documenting the torture and murder of prisoners in Syrian jails.
 Zamanalwsl.net, April 22, 2020; Nedaa-sy.com, April 24, 2020; enabbaladi.net, April 26, 2020; eqtsad.net, May 2, 2020. It should be noted that talk about Assad's possible departure was sparked even earlier by a tweet posted by Israeli researcher Eddie Cohen, who assessed that Assad will step down in July (jesrpress.com, April 6, 2020).
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 2, 2020.
 State.gov, May 7, 2020.
 Elaph.com, May 7, 2020.
 Al-Ba'th (Syria), April 30, 2020; Al-Watan (Syria), May 8, 2020.
 Facebook.com/nabil.saleh370, May 8, 2020.
 Facebook.com/profile.php?id=100011860800854, May 8, 2020.
 Facebook.com/khaledmosaabboud, May 9, 2020.
 Facebook.com/khaledmosaabboud, May 7, 2020.