A series of reports across Russian media have indicated the Kremlin’s support of Syrian President Bashar al Assad has eroded. Events that have transpired this year — an oil price glut and coronavirus pandemic — have worn on the Russian economy and called into question the goals of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Furthermore, the alliance of Russia–Syria–Iran may be on the brink, causing Putin to redefine his strategy on Syria.

Putin Changes His Mind

Reports that Russia would consider replacing Assad made their way across state media, as Middle East Monitor reported. The Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) said it anticipates Russia to coordinate with Turkey and Iran to oust Assad in favor of a transitional government with representation from the current regime and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“Russia is suspecting that Assad is not only unable to lead the country anymore, but also that the head of the Syrian regime is dragging Moscow towards the Afghani scenario, which is a very disconcerting possibility for Russia,” Russian state news agency TASS reported in an editorial. 

The RIAC also alleged a Kremlin organisation, the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, has been polling the Syrian public to gauge support for Assad. Although Moscow has been a staunch defender of the Syrian dictator, and quite possibly the only reason he managed to remain in power for so long, Assad has exhibited too much stubbornness.

“There’s obviously growing Russian frustration with Assad because he will not bend. Compare the way the Iranians try to sell themselves with people like Zarif and Rouhani,” said James Jeffrey, special representative for Syria engagement at a US State Department briefing on Russian involvement in Syria. “You find Assad has nothing but thugs around him, and they don’t sell well either in the Arab world or in Europe.”

Friendship with Iran Keeps Assad in Power

US officials agreed that while the Kremlin has resisted calls for negotiating a new government in Syria, it seems to be more open now. Part of the reason is Iran’s influence on Assad. Although Russia kept Assad in power, it did so through its International status and as a member of the UN Security Council. Those honors notwithstanding, the Assad regime has a far better relationship with Tehran and their relationship goes back decades; during the Iran–Iraq War, Syria was Tehran’s only regional partner.

While Moscow desires an end to hostilities and a complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Syria, Iran is benefiting from it by using Assad to gain regional influence. When Moscow orders him to act a certain way and Tehran tells him to do the opposite, Assad generally does the latter. That hasn’t sat well with Putin. 

Furthermore, Tehran took control of the Syrian port of Latakia, which it has used for large-scale illicit drug shipping. Iran has also taken liberties with the militias it controls within Syria, which has resulted in some skirmishes between them and Russian forces.

Tehran is developing the Shalamcha railroad, which will connect Latakia and Damascus within Syria to Lebanon and Iraq. With a completed rail line, Iran will have easier access to move weapons and troops across the region while shutting out Putin.

“Russia has no desire to see its geopolitical control to be diminished in Syria by Iran’s increasing political clout over Assad. While Iran and Russia appear to have a joint front against Turkey in Syria, they also have stark differences,” said Esref Yalinkilicli, a Eurasian analyst in Moscow. 

‘Syrian Headache’

Assad could save himself by simply agreeing to a new constitution, albeit risking a democratic push out the door. However, if he allowed a coalition government to be organised by Russia and UN forces as Putin would like to see, his government would receive international recognition and relief to help rebuild. 

Assad is not that reasonable — a detail that infuriates Moscow — which has grown weary of continued involvement with Syria. In short, Putin is key to wrap up his experiment and the situation improve.

“The Kremlin needs to get rid of the Syrian headache,” said Alexander Shumilin, a former Russian diplomat who runs the state-financed Europe-Middle East Center in Moscow. “The problem is with one person — Assad — and his entourage.”

Few Options Exist to Remove Assad with Iran Standing in the Way

A Syrian government without Assad would undoubtedly come with bloodshed and there is little appetite for that presently. The state has been through conflicts with ISIS and a civil war. Even if the people aren’t happy with Assad, it is preferable for many to quietly accept him for now.

Russia, as much as it would like to see Assad leave, cannot force the issue without a military invasion. It also has fewer cards to play now that the war against ISIS in Syria is predominantly over; the Kremlin can threaten to withdraw support, but Assad would simply argue it no longer needs it anyway.

If Assad were to be removed somehow, a constitution would have to be ironed out, a process that would take a year or longer. SDF representatives and regime officials would attend talks likely mediated by Moscow. These democratic processes don’t have a stellar record in the Middle East. One only has to look to Yemen to see how noble intentions can lead to disastrous results.

Moscow’s only chance to remove Assad is to isolate him from Tehran. Breaking apart the alliance is a near impossibility, but it would remove Assad’s only staunch defender. Short of this, Putin is capable of withdrawing Russian support, which may be a wise idea since it doesn’t seem to buy him the influence it once did.