A Reuters blog earlier this week observed that Iran had effectively transformed the entire Syrian military, turning it into a militia force that is easy to organize and maintain, and is capable of surviving for another year but not of scoring any serious victories. On Friday a new Reuters article suggested that the Iranian support that had made the regime’s mere survival possible may now be in danger due to economic factors.
Reuters notes that the Syrian currency, which had already lost 70 percent of its value since the beginning of the war in 2011, fell by another 10 percent in the past two weeks. The article adds that a major factor in this veritable economic panic is fear that the 50 percent reduction in global oil prices since June will cause Iran’s financial and logistical support for Assad to dry up.
It is generally estimated that Iran needs oil prices of 100 dollars per barrel or more in order to balance its budget. But prices have lately fallen close to 60 dollars per barrel, driven down in part by an oil boom in the United States and kept down with the help of Saudi Arabia’s refusal to cut supplies. This has understandably raised questions about whether Iran will be able to afford its previous efforts to buttress the Syrian economy, which included loans of more than four billion dollars that were offered last year for the purchase of oil and non-oil products.
Iranian officials have insisted that support for Assad will remain unwavering. But those same officials have a history of making dubious economic claims, suggesting that the Islamic Republic has been virtually unharmed by international sanctions that analysts agree have in fact all but crippled the Iranian economy.
Reuters note that bankers, traders, and businessmen even inside of Syria seem to broadly agree that the drop in oil prices will have “untold consequences” for Iran’s offers of economic support in the region. The news agency also quotes an anonymous member of the Damascus Chamber of Industry as saying that not only will support for Assad weaken as a result of the economic situation, “the 50 percent steep fall in fall in oil prices will break Iran’s back.”
But the International Business Times presents a rather different picture of Iran’s staying power in Syria. The article focuses not on current economic indicators, but rather on the extent to which Iranian influence has become politically entrenched in the nation.
Given this different focus, the two points of view are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the International Business Times embraces the possibility that the Assad regime may fall in the near term, but it emphasizes that this would not be the end of Iranian influence there. Currently, Assad is the primary person in control of the National Defense Force – the volunteer army that Iran has created in place of the collapsed Syrian Army. But the NDF militias are perfectly capable of continuing the fight in his absence, as long as they retain some level of Iranian support.
Furthermore, the International Business Times provides anecdotes to suggest that among some Shiite and Alawite groups in Syria allegiance to the Iranian regime is stronger than their allegiance to Assad’s secular dictatorship.