A few days ago, the Federal News Agency (FNA), a Russian news agency owned by a businessman close to President Vladimir Putin, launched unprecedented attacks against Syrian President Bashar Assad, accusing him of being weak in dealing with corruption that plagues his country. This is not the first time Russian media have criticized the Syrian regime and how it is managing territories under its control. But this time, they meant to be more explicit and lambasted members of the regime's inner circle. They also seem to reflect the Kremlin’s current mood, that of being impatient and frustrated with the Syrian regime.
Successive military victories in Syria were to strengthen Moscow's economic grip on the country. These ambitions have been partly achieved but not fast enough to please the Kremlin. “Russian entrepreneurs realize that it is very difficult to work in Syria with all these competitions among the regime’s various branches and the country’s dilapidation. Syria has not yet emerged from nine years of war that destroyed the economy and the social fabric, and the ruling authority, from the very top down, refusing to make any compromises whatseover,” Jihad Yazigi, editor-in-chief of The Syria Report, an economic news website, told L’Orient-Le Jour.
Moreover, the country has plunged into a severe economic crisis, together with an unprecedented depreciation of the Syrian pound and an increase in food prices which led the authorities to establish a rationing system of certain products. Syrians also face supply shortages, including water, fuel and electricity. Moreover, the Russians must deal with the wishes of their Iranian rivals-partners in Syria, who also seek payback for their role in supporting Assad.
The Federal News Agency is led by Yevgeny Prigojine, a Russian businessman whose nickname “Putin’s cook,” alone evokes his privileged relations with the Russian head of state. He achieved numerous successes. Even though he formally denies being involved in Syria, Prigojine is above all suspected of leading Wagner, a Russian mercenary group, which has sent its men to Syria – but not only Syria – to fight alongside Russian troops and Syrian regime forces.
Articles full of Accusations
Last Wednesday, three articles were published in less than three hours on the press agency’s website, all full of unprecedented resentment against the Syrian regime. The articles accuse Syrian officials of using Russian financial aid for personal gain. The posts even accused the Syrian regime of disseminating “false information” and bluntly point to a significant decline in its popularity. At the center of attention are the “government’s corruption schemes”. “Bashar Assad has little control of the situation on the ground, and the authorities in Syria depend entirely on a bureaucratic apparatus,” the Russian agency wrote. It referred to the gap between the elite and most of the population in crude terms and described the living conditions of the Syrians as “catastrophic.”
“Russian criticism seems right in areas such as Ghouta and Daraa, which are under regime control and where Russia made promises to the population and to former armed opposition groups. This has so far proved to be a complete failure,” said Joseph Daher, professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.
But it is above all the impact of the regime’s activities on Moscow’s interests that annoys the agency, which reflects Kremlin's position. “One thing to remember: There is much talk about Russia’s economic interests in Syria, and the fact that they are not being sufficiently taken into account by the Syrian authorities. One reason for this campaign is the interests of Russian oligarchs, who are close to Putin, including the head of the Federal News Agency,” Yazigi said.
Another article said a survey conducted by the Russian Foundation for National Values Protection of a sample of 1,400 people showed that only 32% of Syrians expressed their willingness to support the current president in the next election in 2021. Alexander Malkevich, President of the Moscow-based foundation, attributes this sharp dip in Assad's popularity to the high level of corruption and the population’s terrible living conditions. This is surprising as Moscow has made every effort over the past few years to reburnish the image of the regime by presenting to the world a head of state appreciated by his people.
“The 2021 deadline was repeatedly mentioned, indicating that the Russians want to use the prospects of the presidential election as a card in their negotiations with the regime,” Yazigi said. “Now, you must also know that the Federal News Agency has withdrawn its articles and even published another article saying that its site was hacked. But this doesn’t change the content, especially that other articles have been published on other websites,” he added.
In a final article, the site points to the stormy reationship between the Assad family and that of the president's cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who until lately was considered the country’s richest person. Recently, relations between the Assads and the Makhloufs have boiled down to settling accounts, especially since Asma Assad, the president’s wife, recovered from breast cancer. Asma now seeks to lay hands on large parts of the country’s economy, including Makhlouf’s investments.
“Revenues have fallen, and the regime's different networks are fighting each other. Within the Assad family, Asma Assad, in particular, wants a greater role,” said Daher. “Makhlouf’s money is not affected at all. But it is mainly a question of strengthening power within the Assad family, through Asma and also through the 4th Armored Division of Maher Assad (the president’s brother), whose economic role expanded during the war. They encroached on Makhlouf’s territory,” he added.
Takamol, a company owned by Asma Assad’s cousin, has been extending its activities since 2016. It signed a contract with the Assad’s government, earning 400 Syrian pounds per smartcard produced, according to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed. These electronic cards have been approved for the distribution of fuel, sugar, rice, tea and bread. The company also earned 100 Syrian pounds each time the card was used. This is an extremely lucrative business that prompted the Minister of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection to put an end to it, instructing Mahroukatt, a state-owned company in charge of fuel distribution, to take over. This decision is believed to be the result of an outcry caused by the Syrian president’s purchase of a $30 million-painting for the First Lady. Russian media were the first to disclose the purchase last week.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 23rd of April)