Souvenir mugs featuring Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah are seen among other items for sale in old Damascus, Syria, Febr 8, 2016. (AFP)

By Alireza Taheri

May 21, 2020

The “project to oust the Syrian strongman, Bashar al-Assad” is a “big American-Zionist lie”, says a former senior Iranian diplomat and a current advisor to the speaker of parliament.

In a tweet on Sunday, May 17, Hossein Amirabdollahian insisted that “Bashar al-Assad is the legal President of Syria and the great leader in the combat against takfiri terrorism in the Arab world.”

The tweet is a response to recent widespread speculations that Tehran and Moscow have agreed on replacing Bashar al-Assad.

On April 17, the former Russian ambassador to Moscow and currently vice president of the Russian International Affairs Council, Aleksandr Aksenenok, published a bleak assessment of the situation in Syria, questioning the ability of the country’s leadership to resolve it.

“Damascus is not particularly interested in displaying a far-sighted and flexible approach,” Aksenenok wrote, adding that “a sustainable settlement is impossible unless the fundamental socio-economic causes of the conflict and the mentality that triggered it are eliminated.”

Meanwhile, the publication of an article lambasting the Syrian president for financial corruption in a paper owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a poll indicating that Bashar al-Assad’s popularity in Syria had dropped to 32 percent, stimulated speculation on a coordinated Russian media campaign, publicly signaling Moscow’ dissatisfaction with the Syrian strongman.

The speculation was also fueled by the fact that Syria’s economy is currently devastated under the weight of providing basic, and essential services to its citizens. Having long been isolated from international markets by Western sanctions, war-torn Syria is also under a partial lockdown from a domestic coronavirus outbreak.

The Syrian pound has in the last few months tumbled to a rate 27 times less than its value before the civil war, with no outlook for reconstruction efforts.

“There’s little hope that Russia and Iran — Assad’s top allies, both facing sanctions and now the economic devastation of the coronavirus — can do much to help”, LA Times reported on May 8.

Furthermore, analysts believe that Moscow is deeply dissatisfied with the performance of the allegedly richest Syrian tycoon, Bashar al-Assad’s maternal cousin, Rami Makhlouf.

Fifty-year-old Makhlouf is widely known for advocating trade with the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Arab world, sidelining Russian business interests in Syria.

Based on speculations, Moscow and Tehran had finally reached an agreement to oust Bashar al-Assad and destroy his cousin’s (Makhlouf) financial empire in Syria.

Nevertheless, it appears that, by relenting to Moscow’s demand to rein in Makhlouf’s dominance on the Syrian economy, Assad hopes to remain in power and soon nominate himself for another term of presidency.

Moreover, it seems that Tehran has also decided to bow to Moscow’s demands, including the elimination of Makhlouf’s role in Syria.

“Rumors of an agreement between Iran and Russia for Assad’s resignation are a big lie … and Tehran strongly supports Syria’s sovereignty, national unity, and territorial integrity,” Hossein Amirabdollahian tweeted.

Meanwhile, Rami Makhlouf, Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, and Syria’s economic mogul announced on Sunday that Syrian authorities had set a deadline for his resignation as chairman of the mobile phone company Syriatel, but he would not resign.

According to Reuters, Mr. Makhlouf, one of the main supporters of Bashar al-Assad’s government so far warned in the third video about his dispute with the Syrian authorities that the collapse of Syriatel would lead to an “economic catastrophe” for the country.

Syriatel is the largest mobile phone company in Syria, and Rami Makhlouf now maintains that the country’s security forces have threatened to revoke the company’s license if he does not resign.

Western officials say Rami Makhlouf, through his vast economic empire, played a major role in financing Assad’s regime during the Syrian civil war.

Makhlouf’s economic activities range from cellphones to television and real estate, construction, and oil trade.

He reportedly controls somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of Syria’s economy.

The latest dispute between Makhlouf and al-Assad roots in an investigation by the Syrian state, maintaining that the Syriatel and its main competitor owe more than 200 billion Syrian pounds (approximately $390 million) of overdue taxes to the government. If paid, Makhlouf insists, it will lead to Syriatel’s collapse.

RFE-RL

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.