With the Syrian conflict remaining at a standstill politically and militarily, Russian President Vladimir Putin has appointed the Russian Ambassador to Damascus Alexander Yefimov as the special representative of the Russian president for the development of relations with the Syrian Arab Republic in an announcement that has raised speculation about the meaning and implications of the appointment.
The decision comes at a time when the Syrian economy is deteriorating, the national currency is collapsing and there are few hopes that Syria can begin reconstruction or recovery any time soon.
It also comes at a time when infighting among the ruling family in Syria has spilled over into the public domain, especially between President Bashar Al-Assad and his wife Asmaa Al-Assad on the one side and the president’s maternal cousin Rami Makhlouf, a businessman who has dominated parts of the Syrian economy for decades, on the other. Rifts have also been beginning to show among supporters of the regime.
The Russian appointment coincides with the implementation of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act by the US Congress, which places sanctions on the Al-Assad regime and its supporters, whether individuals or states. The act will likely put pressure on countries supporting the Syrian regime, especially Russia and Iran.
In a statement, the US State Department said that “under the Caesar Act, the president will be required to impose new sanctions on any person or entity that deals with the Syrian government or provides it with funding, including Syrian intelligence and security agencies and the Central Bank of Syria.”
The law also allows the US to sanction any international company that contributes to Syria’s energy, construction or engineering sectors, or any entity or individual that provides financial aid to the regime.
The sanctions could thus include Russian and Iranian entities that provide the Syrian regime with financial, material and technological support. Many Russian institutions are likely to face US sanctions, including the Russian military, Russian weapons manufacturers and Russian businessmen, military contractors and energy producers.
The Caesar Act may lead Putin to put pressure on the Syrian regime to speed up the work of the Constitutional Committee put together to draft a new Syrian Constitution and move forward the political process. It will also impact the regime by adding more sanctions and further isolating it in the world arena, sending a clear message that the US will not support Syrian reconstruction as long as Al-Assad remains president.
Against this background, commentators say that Russia needed to raise its level of representation inside Syria. Yefimov will be reporting to the Russian president’s office directly and will have access to Putin himself, meaning that political decisions can be taken promptly without the need for bureaucratic red tape.
According to commentators, Russia’s goals in naming Yefimov as the president’s special envoy in Syria are to show its grip on power inside Syria at the presidential level and to weaken Iran’s role and influence in the country. The appointment has also come amid ongoing tensions between Russia and Turkey about the resolution of the crisis in Syria, with these almost erupting into open clashes between Ankara and Moscow.
The raising of the diplomatic level of the Russian representation in Syria will help Russia to extend its influence over Syrian economic decisions, allow for economic expansion in future projects and in those that will be awarded after the political transition phase when reconstruction begins, and help to diminish Iran’s role and influence in Syrian institutions.
One key investment contract between Russia and the Syrian regime was signed in April 2019 and guarantees Russian investments in the Tartous Port for 49 years. There have been other contracts signed by Russian companies in sectors such as oil and gas, airports, military bases, agriculture and other ports.
Syria is a strategic pivot for Moscow in the Middle East, and its continuing role in the country will diminish the role of other international players, especially Iran, in line with demands made by the US, Turkey and the Syrian opposition.
At the same time, the Russian move could increase tensions with Turkey, especially in Syrian territory not under US influence or control. Military operations in Idlib in northwest Syria may take place soon to recover control of the last opposition stronghold supported by Turkey, ushering in political solutions in which Russia will likely play a key role.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly