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Damascus and the Tsar’s Shadow

Damascus and the Tsar’s Shadow

Thursday, 28 May, 2020 - 12:15
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria on January 7, 2020. AFP file photo
London - Ibrahim Hamidi

President Vladimir Putin appointed the Russian ambassador in Damascus, Alexander Yefimov, as his special envoy to the Syrian capital, which means that the tsar will have a “permanent shadow” in Syria and that Russia’s intervention has entered a new stage.

Moscow now seeks to build on the military operations that had started in 2015 and transitioning to the stage of political and economic reconstruction, with signals being sent to allies in Damascus and Tehran, “rivals" in Washington and "friends" in Tel Aviv.

Putin's decree is not exactly the same as the decision taken by former US President George Bush to appoint Ambassador Paul Bremer as the “civilian administrator” of Iraq after the 2003 invasion, but this does not contradict the fact that there is a big difference between the Iraqi and Syrian experiences and the American and Russian models.

In Iraq, the regime collapsed and its army and security forces were dismantled, so Bremer arrived as a civilian official tasked with construction, that is, building the new system, by the US, theoretically, the dominant power after 2003. In Syria, the regime’s structure persists, and its army and apparatus maintain a presence in government-run areas and networks in opposition areas.

Those who know Yefimov say that he is "one of the strongest defenders of Damascus", and that he has always adopted "the Syrian position, and always finds justifications for Assad's military and political decisions" in his diplomatic meetings.

Those who know him also claim that he is among the diplomats most interested in economic affairs. This was one of the reasons for his appointment as an ambassador and then his transfer in 2018 to Syria, given that Russia wants to prepare for the Syrian reconstruction phase and develop relations between Damascus and Moscow.

These two points explain his promotion from "an extraordinary ambassador" in Damascus to a "presidential envoy" residing in Damascus.

To start with, Putin's decision is a sign of reassurance to Damascus after the "harsh media campaigns", but it is a disturbing reassurance that it gives Russia more authority, gives the tsar more authority and moves the center of decision-making from Hmeimim air base in Latakia to the Russian embassy in Damascus.

The scope of Hmeimim’s leader will be limited to military and security operations, while the “presidential envoy” will promote Russia’s political decisions.

In diplomatic customs, the presence of a "presidential envoy" residing in Damascus gives him the authority to communicate daily with the highest-ranking officials in government, including Assad.

This is a message to the patronage network and "warlords" in Syria. It is also a message to Iran, which is paying the price of its military intervention with economic investments.

There is no doubt that this Russian arrangement of the Syrian war and the extension of the tsar’s shadow in Damascus are now gaining importance: Before the resumption of the US-Russian dialogue on Syria that was frozen end of last year, the start of the countdown to the Syrian presidential elections in mid-2021 and efforts for constitutional reform to implement resolution 2254, the growing talk about the importance of the reconstruction of Syria and estimates that the cost of the war was $530 billion dollars while many countries suffer from economic crises due to the coronavirus outbreak and the decline in oil prices ... to avoid drowning in the "quagmire of Syria" despite all Russia's attempts to avoid repeating its Afghanistan experience.

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