The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
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Russia and Iran: Bashar al Assad’s Life Support

The Assad regime in Syria is broke. That was the consensus of every expert, and resident, more than one year ago. American officials noted that the regime was struggling to find a way to print currency, and that by July of last year the regime had spent more than half of its sovereign wealth fund. Almost all of that spending was before the regime lost the majority of the eastern half of the country, and it’s financial capital, Aleppo. Since then, Assad’s revenue has dropped significantly, as have exports, GDP, internal trade… by every measure of national wealth, the regime should have been bankrupt many months ago. And if the money ran out, then they would have to stop buying arms and equipment, and stop paying debts, including payroll to its army.

Syria also should have run out of oil, and oil money, a long time ago. Before the conflict began, more than 90% of Syria’s oil exports went to the European Union. But the EU sanctioned Syrian oil, as did nearly every country on the planet. Syria never had enough refineries to process their oil, so the country would re-import refined oil and oil products. With the heavy sanctions, Syria should have had no place to send what oil it was drilling, and it should have run out of refined oil for its tanks a long time ago.

But none of this has happened. Assad’s forces are still hanging on. His army and his officials are still being paid, which has avoided further wholesale desertions and defections. Assad’s tanks, and jets, still have working parts, plenty of ammunition, and sufficient fuel. Financially and logistically, Assad’s regime is perhaps stronger than it was one year ago.

Were the experts wrong?

No. The experts were dead on with their estimates. What their calculations did not include, however, was that Russia and Iran would pump billions of dollars in cash, loans, oil shipments, arms and ammunition into Syria in order to radically tip the balance of power. Financially, the regime has used second-tier Russian banks to hide a web of financial transactions and obtain loans, escaping the tethers of U.S. and EU sanctions. Assad has used these transactions to help buy arms and pay his troops. We also know that Iran has given Assad  $3.6 billion line of credit. Furthermore, leaked documents have established that Iran is selling Assad oil at a significant discount, and Assad is paying for that oil out of the loan money that Tehran already gave him.

It’s not just money and oil that Assad is receiving: it’s also weapons, ammunition, and logistacal and command and control support.

In contrast to Assad’s international support, Assad is still lacking significant public support, and he is lacking enough soldiers as a result of this lack of support, coupled with the defections, and military defeats, that have plagued the regime for a year and a half. Just last week, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting, U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford laid out the obvious reasons why Assad has not run out of money, oil, troops or equipment:

“The conflict in Syria is now a grinding war of attrition. The regime is suffering serious manpower shortages. For this reason it has brought in foreign fighters from Hezbollah, from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and even Iraqi Shia militiamen.”

Ford’s statements went much farther. He said that Russian arms shipments to Assad are  ”…substantial. It has increased from a year ago. There are more deliveries. And in some cases they are, militarily, EXTREMELY significant.” Ford went on to describe how the Russians are delivering refurbished aircraft to Assad — and aircraft, it should be remembered, are the key advantage that the regime has over the rebels.

Iran’s efforts to reinforce Assad may be increasing. Just this past week, a high-ranking Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander was killed in Syria. This is hardly the first time an IRGC commander has been killed. But officers aren’t the ones pulling triggers – they’re running wars. Since the start of the conflict there were rumors that the IRGC was operating inside syria, but it was in December 2012, with the Assad regime on the run, that Major General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds force, began to personally oversee Assad’s war for survival.

Within months of Suleimani’s intensified involvement, momentum was already shifting in Syria’s civil war. And Iran has had help from its allies in Lebanon. In fact, since this spring, Syria has been subjected to effectively a foreign invasions of thousands of Hezbollah fighters who have worked to sure up Assad’s control of the center of the country. This increased control has allowed Assad to refocus on the north, and the area surrounding Damascus — efforts which have allowed Assad to recapture momentum, and stop the rebel advances.

Now, we see new signs of the complex symphony of Russian arms, Hezbollah soldiers, and Iranian command support.  A Hezbollah invasion force is preparing to attack rebel strongholds north of Damascus, strongholds which have largely been ignored by the Assad regime, which has busy fighting in the suburbs. Just this week, Hezbollah flags have been spotted in southern Damascus, flying above tanks and armored vehicles deployed to reassert control in the district of Bouaydah. The suburb is actually under rebel control, situated between several rebel strongholds and one of Assad’s key military compounds – and one of the nerve centers for his command and control of the forces that have struggled to keep Damascus from falling to the rebels. Hezbollah’s presence is both new and curious. A source in the rebel fighters isn’t sure how large a threat this new operation is, but suggests that Assad may be trying to open up a new front, using Hezbollah as one of the main weapons. Just today, the Syrian army announced that it had retaken the nearby suburb of Sbeineh (map), and the speed of the army assault has surprised many. The regime had been making slow (and costly) progress in their attempts to dislodge rebels from the areas around Damascus they have controlled for most of the year. Assad’s commanders may now believe that the rebel positions near Damascus are vulnerable to the north and southwest, and a regime victory there could provide leverage to strike against nearby rebel positions which, thus far, have been highly resilient. Hezbollah’s arrival in the Syrian capital will further split the focus of rebel forces which is already divided. And Assad’s airforce, provided and maintained by Russia, is already reportedly softening up these positions in advance of Hezbollah’s arrival. Once again, Hezbollah’s presence is not just propping up the regime, but is being deployed strategically in order to tip the balance in strategic areas, and the Shia militias movements are part of a complicated new symphony, with Russian-made aircraft playing a significant role.

If the Assad regime were capable of coming up with this strategy, they would have tried it before. And Hezbollah isn’t coming up with these strategies all by themselves and then telling Assad what to do. Instead, it is the elite Iranian commanders who are pulling the strings of the imported puppets.

Now, the Geneva II conference, which promises to end the killing, will not take place in November as planned. Additionally, it is Russia that is now demanding that Iran be part of the Geneva II talks, talks which have now been delayed even further. While the Syrian opposition is already unwilling to negotiate with a regime that has destroyed the country and broken every promise that they’ve ever made. Iran’s inclusion at the negotiating table could kill the already remote chances that Geneva II will even take place.

Despite this, a reluctant Washington continues to insist that a negotiated settlement is the only solution to the Syrian crisis, and Russia continues to ensure that the international community is so gridlocked in the UN that the Geneva II conference is the only option. Ultimately, the strategy of Assad’s allies appears to hinge on the fact that eventually someone calling themselves the “opposition” will indeed sit down to negotiate, without preconditions, with the Assad regime, regardless of whether this “opposition” has support within Syria.

And by then, Russia’s warplanes and loans, Iran’s commanders and oil, and Hezbollah’s fighters and small arms may have successfully crushed the bloodiest chapter of the 2011 Arab uprisings.