Syria: Former senior Russian diplomat criticises Assad regime

Damascus fixated on military solution to conflict despite shattered Syrian economy

A picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad decorates the al-Buzuriya market in the Old City of the Syrian capital Damascus on February 12, 2020. Syrian regime forces today pushed on with their offensive in the country's northwest, securing areas along a key national highway they seized, as tensions spiralled with Turkey which supports rebel groups. After a series of tit-for-tat attacks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to strike Syrian regime forces "everywhere" if his soldiers are harmed and accused Damascus ally Russia of committing "massacres".
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A former senior Russian diplomat with decades of experience in the Middle East has published a damning assessment of the failings of the Assad regime, giving a rare insight into Moscow’s frustrations with its embattled ally.

Aleksandr Aksienionok, a career diplomat who represented the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation in countries across the region, criticised the Assad regime for lacking long-term strategy.

"In Damascus, they are not particularly inclined to show foresight and flexibility," Mr Aksienionok wrote in Russia's Kommersant newspaper.

Syria has been mired in a complex civil war since 2011. When Russia stepped in militarily to prop up the Assad regime four years later, it was brought close to open confrontation with Turkish and US forces in the country.

A recent regime offensive to retake Idlib province in the north-west of Syria led to a drastic increase in tensions when at least 30 Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike. The Assad regime has yet to fully recapture the territory and, in spite of Russian support, a military victory over Turkey-aligned militias in the province remains elusive.

Mr Aksienionok said that Damascus was still relying on a military solution, which depended on “unconditional financial and economic assistance” from its allies.

He warned, however, that any military victory for Assad’s forces “cannot be sustainable without economic reconstruction” and criticised the regime for the dire financial state of the country. The greatest challenges to Syria in the short term, he argued, “lie in the economy, not in the terrorist threat”.

Mr Aksienionok noted that the country’s GDP fell by nearly two thirds between 2011 and 2018, bringing eight in 10 Syrians into poverty since the beginning of the conflict.

The veteran diplomat, who held posts in Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Yemen before becoming deputy counsellor of the USSR embassy in Syria in 1988 under Hafez Al Assad, also voiced concerns over the regime’s vulnerability to a US sanctions package signed last year by President Donald Trump. The package opens the way for sanctions on foreign individuals, governments and companies if they work with Damascus.

Lebanon’s spiralling financial crisis also poses a threat, with around a quarter of deposits in the country’s banks belonging to Syrian businesses as well as regime interests, as does the possibility of further disruption “to the already illegal oil supply from Iran”, Mr Aksienionok said.

Syria’s economic woes could be worsened by the coronavirus outbreak, which he said threatened to cause social upheaval. “Fears of the worst are associated with the fact that during the war years the health care system was undermined, there is a shortage of doctors, medicines and medical equipment in the country,” he wrote.

The first death from the novel coronavirus in Syria was reported late last month. There are now at least three confirmed deaths and 39 cases of infection, but actual numbers are believed to be much higher.

Mr Aksienionok also criticised the regime for making more difficult the negotiations between Russia and its regional rival Turkey over the confrontation in Syria’s Idlib province.

The Syrian leadership was resistant to reforms tied to the de-escalation of the conflict, he said, condemning the “unwillingness or inability of the authorities in Damascus to establish a system of government that would provide conditions for a transition from a ‘war economy’ to normal trade and economic relations”.

The regime also had a weak grip over areas it supposedly controlled, and corruption was rife in businesses loyal to the government and even in “privileged ranks in the army and security services”.

The task of rebuilding Syria after the war, Mr Aksienionok wrote, “is impossible for the authorities in Damascus”. Despite requests for reform from Syrian society and business circles, nothing has been done in “an atmosphere of universal fear” to lay the groundwork for any reconstruction.

Mr Aksienionok warned that a changing global environment meant that Syria’s allies were less able to provide economic support. He pointed out that the Russian leadership had “repeatedly emphasised the lack of alternative political solutions” to the conflict, and noted that the US, European Union and countries in the Gulf had all stipulated UN-backed free elections as a condition for them to become involved in the reconstruction.