Center for Strategic Communication

Syrian oil storage tanks festooned with propaganda near the Iraqi border. Photo: Richard Messenger/Flickr

The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is falling apart. Its prime minister has fled the country, and its military equipment is reportedly breaking down. Its tanks, helicopters and aircraft are thirsty for fuel, and Syria’s diplomats have scrambled to find countries willing to sell Assad enough gasoline to keep his reign going.

Now the regime might survive, at least for a little while. On Friday, Syria secured a crucial oil deal with Russia. Under the deal, Russia will ship refined gasoline to fuel-starved Syria. In exchange, the Syrian regime will ship unrefined crude oil to Russia. According to the Associated Press, the gasoline is “sorely needed” in order for the regime “to keep its economy and military running.”

The reason for Syria’s economic troubles is Assad’s lack of extensive oil refineries. An oil pipeline to one refinery was blown up in January, and his regime has been choked by U.S./European Union sanctions. With as much as an estimated one-third of the regime’s budget coming from crude exports, Assad’s ability to pay his bills — and import refined gasoline to fuel his army — had been pauperized. Assad was forced to rely in part on the occasional Venezuelan tanker ship. “We need oil, oil products,” said Qadri Jamil, Syria’s deputy prime minister for economics. “Shortages of these materials are making the situation in the country difficult.”

And making it harder to fight a war. Helicopters, tanks and mechanized infantry have been the regime’s strike force against the Free Syrian Army. In late July, Assad unleashed his air force on the northern city of Aleppo — Syria’s largest city — in what may have been the biggest air attack of the war. Syria’s military is reliant the heavy weapons, intended to fight a conventional war against Israel but now being used in a messy unconventional war against lightly armed rebel soldiers.

On the other hand, those weapons — and the oil needed to fuel them — may not save Assad in the end. On Monday, it was reported that Syria’s latest prime minister, Riyad Farid Hijab, packed up his family and fled to Jordan. Hijab was only the prime minister since June, and the post is largely bureaucratic and under the thumb of Assad. But Hijab wouldn’t have likely been given the post if he was someone Assad thought he couldn’t trust.

According to a statement from the former prime minister, Hijab said he is defecting “from the regime of killing and terror, and I join the ranks of the revolt.” The last senior regime official to flee from a comparable post was Syria’s deputy oil minister, who abandoned the regime in March.

Syria’s rebels are also beginning to shape up. The rebels have responded to the regime’s air attacks with captured anti-aircraft guns. In June, The New York Times reported that CIA operatives are sneaking around in southern Turkey. The mission: gather intelligence and aid anti-Assad allies Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in smuggling weapons — including anti-tank weapons — into the hands of the rebels. The rebels also captured 48 Iranians accused of belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran claims the men are pilgrims.

The rebels have booby-trapped roads with improvised explosive devices, straining the regime’s supply lines. On Thursday, Times correspondent C.J. Chivers reported that the Syrian military is experiencing increasing problems with its hardware. Chivers wrote that Assad helicopter technicians are “struggling to keep the machines aloft” as parts break down “in the searing heat and sand associated with summer desert war.” Some of Assad’s Mi-25 Hind-D helicopters are being disassembled to free up parts. There’s also been speculation whether the Free Syrian Army is now sporting deadly shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, or MANPADS.

Sanctions have reportedly led to shortages in basic foodstuffs. The regime’s foreign currency reserves may be in trouble. In addition to the oil shortages, Syrian diplomats last week pleaded for Russia to give out financial loans — which Russia has yet to confirm.

According to a report from the Director of National Intelligence Open Source Center, economic stagnation helped turn largely Sunni urban workers in cities like Aleppo and Damascus — formerly staunch Assad supporters — against the regime (.pdf). Rural Sunnis have been slammed by drought and the poor economy, and have been driven into cities looking for employment. Those rural Sunnis now make up the “main body” of the Free Syrian Army.

The return of oil imports could help alleviate some of those economic problems and staunch the flow of dissidents into a growing opposition movement. But maybe not if the oil gets sucked up by a thirsty army.