Latakia is the key as Syria’s war goes haywire
BEIRUT - The primary objective of the air campaign Russia in Syria has been to secure the front lines of the shrinking territory held by the beleaguered regime of Bashar Assad prior to a counteroffensive to take strategic areas bordering the emerging rump state controlled by Assad’s Alawite minority.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to sell his intervention in Syria as a bold and collaborative stand against the depredations of the Islamic State (ISIS), whose self-proclaimed caliphate spans half of Syria and one-third of Iraq.
However, this attempt to secure international legitimacy for the Russian effort and leverage to negotiate with the West or even attract support to end Assad’s international isolation is not working.
It is increasingly clear that the deployment, which began with the Russians establishing an air base near the Mediterranean port of Latakia, is not just to protect the Assad regime, a long-time ally.
It is also what the Washington Institute for Near East Policy calls “coercive diplomacy” aimed at re-establishing Russian influence in the Middle East.
For the Russian bombers that have flown dozens of combat missions out of the expanding al- Hamim base outside Latakia, the main targets have been in neighbouring Idlib province and the central provinces of Hama and Homs. They are crucial because they link the north-west with Damascus, the seat of Assad’s regime.
Since the Russian air base became operational on September 18th, Moscow has built up its air component to 34 Sukhoi combat jets and 15 helicopters, including Mi-24 Hind attack gunships. On October 1st, these were joined by an Ilyushin Il-20 intelligence-gathering aircraft, which suggests that Putin may have a wider-ranging military operation in mind.
Military analysts told The Arab Weekly that Assad’s weakened military and its militia allies can no longer adequately defend the Latakia region, where rebel forces have been pushing hard on several fronts for months.
He has the same problem with Damascus, where he is dependent on Hezbollah and Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, which the Iranians have deployed to bolster regime forces.
It is here that Russian and Iranian imperatives diverge. Moscow sees Latakia as more important than Damascus because it provides Russia with a military base in the eastern Mediterranean. That “fits the Russian practice of grooming micro-states on its periphery to serve as military bases”, observed Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“A Russian-backed Alawistan, should it become viable, would provide many of the advantages of a real state, including complete dependence on Russia, without the same costs,” he said.
The Russians’ main interest is holding Latakia and the coastal strip, where the Russian Navy has a base at Tartus, and is reportedly planning to build a submarine base at Jableh, also near Latakia. The plan seems to be to establish an Alawite statelet, with or without Assad at its head and with or without Damascus as well.
The Russians have maintained several military and intelligence facilities in Syria, part of its long-time investment in the country dating to the Cold War.
These include an electronic surveillance base near Latakia, considered Russia’s biggest eavesdropping base outside its own territory.
An intelligence base run by Russian military intelligence at al-Harra on the Golan Heights in southern Syria, which monitored Israel, was overrun by rebels in October 2014.
Iran and Hezbollah have a different strategic imperative. They want to hold Damascus and a land corridor to Zabadani through which the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps can funnel weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
That is vital to Tehran’s geopolitical objectives, in which Hezbollah’s missile arsenal serves as a direct threat to Israel to neutralise the one Iran perceives emanates from the Jewish state.
Latakia remains the focal point of the Russian intervention and here the Russians — and Assad — have a problem.
Latakia was once an Alawite majority city but now Sunnis, mainly displaced by the war, dominate and constitute a potential fifth column.
Since 2014, rebel forces have been advancing on three sides. They want access to the sea. Jaysh al-Fatah, a loose alliance of groups that includes al-Nusra Front, al- Qaeda’s wing in Syria, has seized most of Idlib province and threatens Assad’s Alawite stronghold.
The Russian Sukhois have repeatedly hit rebel positions in Idlib and in Homs and Hama to weaken the opposition as the regime reportedly prepares offensives.
There is a lot riding on the efficacy of the Russian air campaign. Assad’s survival could well depend on it.