US sanctions unlikely to crack Iran’s support for Syria

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Article Summary
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have perfected low-budget warfare; Putin draws his own red line with Israel and Iran; Erdogan’s zero-sum approach to Syrian Kurds.

Soleimani knows how to keep down costs in Syria

“Assuming that the Trump administration and Israel are not inclined to understate Iran’s spending abroad, the $16 billion estimate [of Iran’s support to Syria since 2012] is equivalent to $2.28 billion per annum,” writes Mohammad Ali Shabani. “This would put the cost of Iran’s combined expenditures for operations across the region — whether directly or via proxies — at 0.5% of the GDP. The latter includes an estimated $6 billion in credit lines extended to the Syrian government.”

Shabani assesses Iran’s low-budget regional operations based on US, Israeli and Iranian estimates and data. “Available data suggest that sanctions have had a negative impact on Iran’s military spending,” Shabani explains. “For instance, Iranian academics Sajjad Dizaji and Mohammad Farzanegan point out that military spending dropped by almost one-third between 2006 and 2015 — “one of the highest percentage decreases in military spending globally.” But military expenditures increased by 30% after the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions in 2016, a development that President Donald Trump emphasized when declaring the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May.

“Yet, while there has been a jump in military spending over the past two years, the contraction of such expenditures over the previous decade has meant that the increase has only brought spending back to 2009 levels,” Shabani continues. “Moreover, even after the surge, military expenditures only constitute 3% of the gross domestic product. Here, Dizaji and Farzanegan separate the respective impact of unilateral and multilateral sanctions, and posit that the present US penalties are likely to have a “statistically insignificant” effect on Iran’s military spending “in both the short and long run.”

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“Iran’s Quds Force did not invent inexpensive warfare but has rather perfected it,” adds Shabani. “Indeed, even during the Iran-Iraq War, Iranian military spending peaked at around $10 billion, or 8% of GDP, in 1982. In contrast, the shah spent $17.5 billion, or 12% of the GDP, on his military back in peacetime 1976. Thus, for Iranian commanders such as Qasem Soleimani — whose formative years were during the war with Iraq — propping up the Syrian government at a cost of 2% of what Saudi Arabia is spending in Yemen would simply be an evolution of past experiences.”

Putin plays cop with Israel and Iran over Syria

“Israel considers the joint Iran-Hezbollah precision project (precision-guided missiles) to be a strategic threat that will make Israel more vulnerable in the next conflict than it is today,” writes Ben Caspit. “Precision missiles will allow Hezbollah to interfere with Israeli air force activities, target major infrastructures and population centers, and cause Israel considerable damage. … The Security Cabinet has deemed the precision project a “red line” for Israel and grounds for war. Thwarting the project at almost any cost has been made a top priority. While Israel has launched numerous attacks on this project over the past two years, it limited these attacks to Syrian territory only. According to foreign reports, the Israeli air force attacked a Syrian research center, supply convoys and aerial transports landing at Damascus International Airport, where the cargo was loaded on trucks headed to Beirut.”

“It took the Iranians quite a while to realize that Israel was serious,” Caspit continues. “Right now, it seems like they are changing their tactics. They are no longer flying supplies into Damascus and transporting them over land to Beirut. From now on, their Boeings will land in Beirut on direct flights from Tehran. While this will expose the Lebanese government to international pressure and even sanctions, it will put a sudden stop to Israeli attacks on the transports. Iran does not believe that Israel would dare to down a Boeing jet. Doing so would open the gates of Hell.”

“Israel believes that this change to Iran’s modus operandi, with its transition to direct flights from Teheran, is not simply the result of many hundreds of attacks on convoys by the Israeli air force,” explains Caspit. “It can also be attributed to Russian pressure. Having turned a cold shoulder to Netanyahu recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear to the Iranians as well that he will not tolerate any activity that threatens stability in Syria. He regards both Israel and Iran as two neighborhood punks who are trying to disturb the public order, and he sees himself as the neighborhood cop who will not allow that to happen. That is why Iran made the decision to skip Syria entirely and use direct flights to Lebanon instead. That is why the number of Israeli attacks on Syrian territory has declined significantly recently.”

Akiva Eldar links developments on Israel’s northern border with its Hamas initiative. “On Nov. 20, Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot said during a tour of the Syrian border that Iran had been far less successful than it had hoped in transferring precision weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Eldar writes. “Since the most recent cease-fire was reached with Hamas on Nov. 13, calm appears to have been restored to the Gaza Strip. Hamas is reining in the violent demonstrations along the border with Israel and Eizenkot is reining in the security cabinet ministers. Military affairs commentator for Haaretz Amos Harel reported Nov. 16 that Israeli officials believe the restored calm will also enable progress in contacts on a long-term cease-fire deal with Hamas.”

Erdogan takes zero-sum approach to YPG

“Officials in Ankara are convinced that Washington is stonewalling their efforts to curb and defeat the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD),” writes Semih Idiz. “The prevailing belief is that Washington wants to establish some kind of autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria, similar to one in Iraq, where it hopes to maintain a military foothold for the foreseeable future with a view toward pursuing its agenda in the Middle East.”

Idiz adds, “At a time when Turkey is combating separatist terrorism by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) at home, the thought that the area along its long border with Syria could be administered by YPG/PYD elements is a nightmare scenario for Ankara.” 

He continues, “Ankara appears determined to take a zero-sum approach to the YPG issue and is giving no indication that it is amenable to a negotiated settlement, especially one that legitimizes the YPG in any way. This, however, has prompted Washington to take a series of measures that has only fueled Ankara’s suspicions. …Turkish and US forces in northern Syria recently began joint patrols outside of the city of Manbij, which Ankara also wants to be free of YPG fighters. This was promptly followed by an announcement from Washington that joint US-YPG patrols had started along Syria’s border with Turkey, causing untold irritation on the Turkish side. Ankara rejects any attempt by Washington to establish equivalence between Turkey and the YPG.”

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Found in: iranian foreign policy, russian influence in syria, syrian civil war, vladimir putin, pyd, qasem soleimani, manbij, ypg
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