Russia distancing itself from a weakening Assad

Most of those withdrawn from Syria worked along Iranian military officers in a Damascus operations center in support of the Syrian military and security agencies.

Informed sources inside Syria also said that Russia has pulled military technical personnel out of Syria, making it impossible for Russia to abide by the maintenance contracts with Syria for the Sukhoi aircraft, the mainstay of the Syria air force. The Syrian regime has failed to persuade Russia to continue to perform maintenance work on the advanced jets, prompting a rare visit to Tehran last month by Syrian defense minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij, who pleaded with Iranian defense officials to intervene with Russia on this matter.

In the last three months Russia has also cut down the number of employees at its embassy in Damascus, leaving only essential staff.

Assad’s deteriorating military, economic situation
It also appears that Russia has stopped providing military supplies to the beleaguered Syria military. The Russians and Iranians have used the Hama airport to fly military transport planes to the Syrian military, but since late February, no Russian transport planes have landed at the airport, only planes from Iran.

In addition to the Russians pulling their military advisers out of the country; stopping military supplies to the regime’s forces; and ending maintenance work on advanced systems, Assad is facing another major difficulty: many of the Syrian army’s brigades are no longer battle-ready. Despite Hezbollah’s considerable aid, and the fact that the regime’s retreat in many regions means that Assad now has to protect a much smaller areas, he is unable to deploy a reasonable number of units to the various fronts on which he is being attacked, leading to more defeats and further demoralization.

Israeli analysts say that the president’s first priority now appears to be maintaining the Alawite enclave in the north, and that control of Damascus comes only second. With his back to the wall, according to Israeli assessments, the Syrian ruler might even give up his capital and focus on defending the Alawite area and some of the crossings into Lebanon.

The series of military defeats Assad forces and Hezbollah militia have suffered since January is not the only reason for the rapidly deteriorating position of the regime. The other reason is the fact that the regimes is running out of money. The Turkish news agency Anatolia reported late last week that after four years of war, the Assad regime controls less than 8 percent of the country’s oil and gas fields, while Islamic State controls more than 80 percent. About 10-12 percent of Syria’s oil and gas resources are in areas under the control of moderate rebel forces. Syria has no other way to earn foreign currency except to export of oil and gas.

The Assad regime is completely dependent on Iranian military and financial aid, and on Russian military supplies given to it on credit. With Russia no longer providing military support, and with Russians technicians who did maintenance work on Russian-made weapon systems having left Syria, the regime’s ability to hold on to power is severely constrained.

Regime disintegration
Ynet reports that in recent days there have been increasing signs that the Assad regime is disintegrating, four years into the civil war that has engulfed Syria. Last Thursday, Russia confirmed that an Ilyushin II-76 aircraft took sixty-six high-level Syrian nationals from Latakia to Moscow airport, as well as a number of citizens from other countries.

Members of Assad’s family have also begun to leave Syria. Assad’s mother, Anisa Makhlouf, has left Syria six weeks ago to join her brother – Assad’s uncle — in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where he oversees the vast fortune the Assads have smuggled out of Syria during the past decade and deposited in Belarussian banks. Before she left Syria, Makhlouf is reported to have smuggled huge sums of money – her share of the Assad family’s fortune — out of the country. A week later Assad’s sister left Damascus, met their mother in Belarus, and both flew to Dubai, where the Assads own a secluded estate.

There have been increasing reports of other Assad relatives, businessmen, and high-ranking members of the Alawite community fleeing Damascus for the coastal city of Latakia, or other countries, after transferring large sums of money to banks in Lebanon, Belarus – a favorite destination of rich Syrians’ money— and the United Arab Emirates.

U.S. and Russia discuss post-Assad Syria
Knowledgeable sources in the Gulf told Asharq Al-Awsat that the shift in Russia’s policies in Syria is not only the result of Assad’s deteriorating military situation, but also of commercial and political opportunities Russia seeks in Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar – countries which are among the most adamant opponents of the Assad regime.

Riyadh Tabara, Lebanon’s former ambassador to the United States, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the apparent shift in Russia’s Syria policy is a result of the situation in Syria becoming “out of control” and the gains made during the past year by extremist groups in the country.

Tabara said Moscow and Washington have recently both been discussing a political solution in Syria without Assad’s involvement.

“Moscow will be willing to concede [to a future without Assad] but only after receiving guarantees that the regime that will replace Assad’s will safeguard its interests in the country,” he said.

There have been growing reports in the Arab media that the discussions between the United States and Russia over an agreement to end the Syrian war have grown more serious and more concrete. The Lebanese newspaper Al-Nahar on Sunday quoted diplomatic sources in Geneva as saying that the United States and Russia are seeking an arrangement which will take into account the interests of regional and international parties, in particular Turkey, Iran, and the Gulf states.

Last Thursday, senior diplomatic sources told the Egyptian paper Al-Hayat that there has been a noticeable change in the Russian position toward Syria, and that Moscow for the first time is willing to discuss with the United States the exact details of a transition period for the country. The paper quotes informed sources to say that the discussions even included the names of individual military and political officials to oversee the transition of Syria to its post-Assad phase.

Haaretz quotes a senior member of the Syrian opposition who said the emerging situation may enable another international summit on Syria, like the one held in Geneva in 2014. “Both the regime and the national opposition could make use of this situation to reach a principled decision to convene an international conference to bring about a transition government and preserve the state institutions,” said the source. “We don’t need to repeat what has happened in Iraq, with the destruction of state institutions including the army, and then have to start everything anew without success.”