Has Assad’s Sacking of His Prime Minister Made Him Weaker?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sacked Prime Minister Imad Khamis during a time when protesters are demonstrating against Syria’s economic woes. Syria’s state media did not provide a reason for the decision to fire Khamis, but the Prime Minister’s dismissal will have consequences for Assad’s faltering regime regardless.

Furthermore, the Syrian President could not have picked a worse time to dismiss Khamis. Syria has been damaged by numerous factors including nine years of conflict, years of Western sanctions, government infighting and corruption, the coronavirus and an economic downturn worsened by Lebanon’s financial crisis. Fully 80 percent of Syrians are currently living in poverty.

Assad Sacked Khamis at the Worst Time

The Syrian currency dropped to a record 3,500 pounds to the dollar on the black market- compared to 700 at the start of the year.

Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin and the richest businessman in Syria, had his assets seized by the Syrian Government in May due to his ownership of one of the nation’s largest firms called Syriatel. Makhlouf used to bankroll Syria’s infamous security forces who tortured thousands of people during the height of the country’s civil war in 2011. After the Syrian President lost the support of one of the most prominent members of his family, his regime’s legitimacy was further damaged.

US Sanctions on Syria Set to Ramp Up

To add to Assad’s woes, the toughest US sanctions come into effect next week. Washington claims that these sanctions aim to punish the Syrian President and his allies for crimes committed during the nation’s conflict. They prevent anyone from around the globe doing business with Syrian officials and state institutions. They also target anyone involved in smuggling to Syria, mostly from Iraq and Lebanon.

The new law is called the US Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act.

Khamis’s sacking has only made the Syrian President weaker than ever before, though it is not the only factor that has damaged his government over time. The only saving grace that he has is that neither Russia nor Iran are interested in removing him from office for now.

However, in the longer term Moscow and Tehran may carve up Syria between themselves and Turkey. Iran may use the south of the country as a means to threaten Israel, while Russia and Turkey may use the north to resettle refugees. This solution would also be the best way for the three nations to crush the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, but it also proves that Assad is so vulnerable that his fate depends upon Putin.

Assad’s Fate Depends on Putin

Politico’s Charles Lister anticipates that this extraordinary internal crisis could trigger a change at the top. This scenario could happen due to disillusion with the severe poverty crippling Syria and the increasing numbers of people challenging Assad’s regime, but Moscow would need convincing that the Syrian President needs to go due to the leverage the Russians have over Assad’s fate.

It is dangerous for Russia to have so much influence over Damascus, and to make the situation worse China seems to be taking an interest in Syria’s recovery. A warehouse that belongs to Mohammed Jarah and Ahmad Bustati symbolized Beijing’s emergence as the largest supplier of consumer and industrial goods to Syria. The warehouse was stocked with Chinese laser cutting machines.

The US Must Increase Involvement in Syria

The US must shift its priorities toward Syria and take advantage of the Syrian President’s weakened position. The State Department has been consulting with Moscow behind the scenes on a new diplomatic process, and Washington has an opportunity to make clear to the Russians that they can secure some form of power-sharing and a ceasefire to ease the economic costs that maintaining Assad’s regime has on Moscow. By engaging with the Russian Government, political prisoners may be released in the long-term, and the Syrian regime could reform its constitution.

Assad’s weakened position following the sacking of his Prime Minister is an opportunity for America to work with others to bring stability to Syria, which is what is happening in Libya. It is time for Trump to seize his moment.