Is the special relationship between Russia and Assad’s Syria in tatters? At first glance, a series of scandalous media scoops about Assad’s cousin going on a real estate spending spree in Moscow, which then climaxed with reports in the Russian press about how “weak” Assad is, might suggest so.

The back story to this is simple. Putin and his cronies have not received any payback from Assad, following Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria, which surely saved the Syrian dictator’s neck, as he was days before losing the country to jihadists groups, a good many funded or supported by Israel and the West.

Russian corruption started more or less the moment its army arrived and set up camp along the Syrian coastline in Latakia.

Russian corruption started more or less the moment its army arrived and set up camp along the Syrian coastline in Latakia, the heartland of Assad’s support. Almost within a few days, the Lebanese black market for guns was dominated by new types of Russian arms, which, presumably corrupt generals close to Putin were allowed to trade in.

In particular, was the Viking MP466 special forces pistol which every degenerate in Lebanon had to have. Costing a cool $2,400 USD, it came with a cheap cardboard box and a spare 17 round clip. In early 2016, the country’s arms bazaars were full of the Vikings. Then came sniper rifles and rocket launchers. Who knows what you can buy now? Ground to air missiles?

Wherever the Russian military machine goes, it is followed by phalanx of corrupt military people and businessmen. They came to Syria. They, along with Hezbollah, destroyed much of Nusra and ISIL and restored confidence in Assad. But what did the businessmen get in return?

Rich Pickings for Russian Oligarchs?

If we are to read between the lines of a series of articles in the Russian press by “Putin’s chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin, then it is clear that Putin is patently annoyed with Assad who has not done anything about eclectic corruption in peace time Syria. Putin’s payback was supposed to be market access, to key areas of the economy when the chips were down. And then, of course, to clean up once peace was restored. Anyone can see that he kept his side of the bargain, so why can’t the Syrian despot?

What the reports in the Russian press do is call Assad “weak” and lament about corruption and the illegal sale of energy outside of the country. What the reports stop short of is naming names about who is cleaning up on the sky-high levels of graft.

The reports are not random but timed perfectly and it is not hard to see where the anguish is coming from: chiefly, a couple of weeks earlier,  a scoop which lifted the lid on the excessive billionaire lifestyle of Assad’s cousins, who are reported to have recently spent 40 million dollars on luxury apartments in Moscow. This is seen as an invective example of the Assad regime using friendly relations with Putin to its advantage, to effectively, launder money, while not towing the line of Putin himself.

Assad has bitten the hand that feeds him and is leaning more towards Iran as a long-term partner.

It’s not only the money laundering, most of which is done through a complex labyrinth of offshore loan schemes in Lebanon, which really hurts. It’s the fact that Assad has bitten the hand that feeds him and is leaning more towards Iran as a long-term partner, despite Tehran reporting to pull out some of its troops from Syria recently.

Iran has been a major partner of Syria since 1979 and experts note that while Assad is less inclined to take advice from Putin, he is more servile to Tehran’s guidance. At the heart of the matter is how Putin believes Syria should be rebuilt: with international money with Assad’s re-election anointed by the UN.

Putin’s plan is to get the Assad regime more credibility around the world, to effectively give it a make-over to attract international investment, which the Russians would control. But Assad – and Tehran – are not keen on the audacious idea which would involve ceding some power to opposition groups. And so, as the scandal of the Makhlouf family takes grip, Russia appears to be like the beguiling sponsor of a wild party, which gets the door slammed in his face when he turns up to enjoy the atmosphere.

You just don’t do that to Putin, though.

In recent days, a relatively obscure Turkish news agency has reported that Putin is working closely with Assad to move militia fighters loyal to the Syrian leader to Libya, where the Russian leader is hoping to exploit his strong position on both sides of a bitter conflict. Was this article a hint to Assad that he might move out Russian soldiers as well?

And then there was that curious article sourcing a Russian diplomat who unleashed a scathing attack on Assad whom he accused of being “divorced from reality” and very much part of the problem rather than the solution. The article virtually lists all the weak points in Syria, where, at the flick of a switch, Putin could really cause mayhem if he were to pull the lifeline to Assad’s military.

Putin’s Man Spells Out What’s in Store for Assad

If the article wasn’t clear enough, Putin’s man spells it out in plain English, in the sharpest threat yet from the Russian leader.

“If Assad refuses to accept a new constitution, the Syrian regime will put itself at great risk.”

“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 initial commentary, said in a phone interview with the American business newswire Bloomberg.

Regardless, Assad is waiting too long to take the hint from Moscow though. He finally did crack down on the Makhlouf family, which includes one cousin, Hafez Makhlouf, who is seen as the top henchman Assad had in the security services specializing in torture, while others filled their pockets in the private sector.

This latest purge is possibly due to the banking crisis in Lebanon hurting the Assad’s and the regime. Or perhaps the crackdown is also due to the nudge from Moscow which has lost patience with the Syrian leader, who is being framed by Putin’s media machine as now an obstacle to Moscow’s objectives.

Rami Makhlouf, who is said to have controlled the family’s 60 percent slice of the entire Syrian economy at one point, complains bitterly in a YouTube rant against the actions of the Syrian authorities, which are demanding that he pay approximately $250 million USD to the state in unpaid taxes.

Is this demand designed as a way of paying off Putin’s cronies? Or is it a way of forcing the Makhlouf family to offer Putin’s partners a stake in the telecoms firm, which he claims pays 50 percent of its profits straight to Assad anyway? Some analysts speculate that it is Assad’s wife, Asmae, who wants to take over the firm now, given that the Assad’s themselves are struggling.

And what about the $40 million USD of luxury flats? How does the Makhlouf family even get their hands on such a large amount of money, when most of them are victims of EU sanctions and bank freezes on their accounts in Switzerland? Clearly, Russia has played a role from the very beginning of the Syria war in 2011.

“Russia has from the beginning been helping the Assad regime subvert sanctions.”

“Russia has from the beginning been helping the Assad regime subvert sanctions,” Lina Khatib, Middle East and North Africa program head at Chatham House, told the FT. “It sees itself right now as the guarantor of the Syrian state and therefore [does] everything it can, whether militarily, politically or economically, to keep the Syrian state alive while also keeping it loyal to Moscow.”

But now that loyalty is coming into question. With Iran now trying to slip back into the shadows, presumably to calm the tension of being the real influencer over Assad, and Putin counting his losses in Syria, there are now the ingredients of a real showdown as the recent articles in the Russian press are demonstrating.

Putin has too many aces to play as it is likely that the corruption which has exposed the properties in Moscow is only the tip of the iceberg. And how much longer can Assad stay in power, while taking his tutelage from Tehran, as well as a staggering 50 percent pay off from Syrian businessmen who use their Russian contacts to embezzle cash, which is then laundered into dollars and ends up in Moscow penthouses?

To make an enemy of Turkey, might be considered reckless. But to make one of Putin? That’s suicide. Just how “divorced from reality” is the Syrian leader?

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* The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.

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