Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad at Russia’s Hmeimim airbase in western Syria, December 2017

Amid Russian concern over Bashar al-Assad’s handling of political and economic issues, President Vladimir Putin has elevated Moscow’s ambassador in Damascus as his special representative for Syria.

Alexander Efimov, 62, has been in Syria since 2018. Publicly, he has put out Russia’s line damning the West for Syria’s nine-year conflict, in which the Assad regime has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and displaced millions.

Last month, Efimov told the Russian State outlet Sputnik that UN aid through border crossings not controlled by the regime limited Syria’s “sovereignty”. The statement accompanied a Moscow veto at the Security Council, ensuring the closure of crossings from Iraq and Jordan and allowing only two from Turkey.

See Syria Daily, May 20: Russia Rejects Reopening of Aid Routes

The ambassador dismissed human rights activists, who were calling for the release of political prisoners to shield them from Coronavirus, as “opponents of the legal Syrian authorities…deliberately making use of the situation around the pandemic of the deadly disease to implement their well-known goals”.

But Russian State outlets and Putin’s allies have stepped up pressure on Assad amid Syria’s economic crisis, with Syria Daily: Food Prices Soaringwidespread shortages and a 75% loss of GDP; corruption; and a failure to make any advance towards a Constitutional Committee after almost 2 1/2 years of Russian initiatives.

The outlets, including publications of “Putin’s chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin and the State’s Russian International Affair Council, criticized Assad for making no compromise towards a political resolution including the Constitutional Committee. They challenged the Syria leader’s lack of “a far-sighted and flexible approach”, and pointed to regime corruption. The Federal News Agency claimed a poll showing Assad has just 32% support, listing potential replacements from within the Syrian regime and the opposition.

The Kremlin is concerned at Russian failure to obtain a stake in the Syrian economy, amid the plutocracy around Assad and competition with Iran, another essential backer of the regime. A Western diplomat said Russian companies and the Wagner Group, set up by “Putin’s Chef” Prigozhin, are complaining about the absence of revenues, particularly in shares of the oil and gas sectors.

Moscow is also troubled that the failure to provide essential goods, amid the Coronavirus pandemic, could spark another rising in parts of Syria. The concern has been fed by hundreds of insurgent attacks and assassinations of officials in Daraa Province, where the uprising began in March 2011, in the south of the country.

See Syria Daily, April 20: Assad is Annoying Russia — But What Does Putin Do?