Moscow’s message is clear: Russia is in Syria for the long haul
While waiting to see what US President Donald Trump will do, Russia seems to be in a hurry. This explains its agreement with the Syrian regime regarding the expansion of a Russian presence in Tartus.
The deal was signed just 48 hours before Trump’s arrival in the White House. Russia was quick to publicise the articles of the agreement, using its official media outlets. The agreement stipulates a renewable lease period of 49 years.
In the end, Moscow’s message is clear: Russia is in Syria for the long haul, its naval base at Tartus is of paramount importance and any deal in Syria must take Russia’s interests into account.
The US Senate has confirmed Trump’s appointee for secretary of Defense, James Mattis. Unlike Trump, Mattis has a clear vision of what needs to be done in the Middle East. A former US Marine Corps general, Mattis knows the Middle East and the Gulf region very well and is fully aware of Iran’s role there. He says that it is possible to deal with the Russian presence in the region without underestimating its negative impact, but the biggest threat comes from Iran’s destabilising policies.
No one really believes Iran’s anti-terrorism rhetoric; certainly not Mattis. He does not want to throw out the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran. He simply wishes to have Iran respect its borders and limits, behave like a normal state and certainly not use the agreement as cover for unacceptable practices in the region.
Worldwide military bases are useless in the absence of a strong economy. Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin is attached to past practices and is building up Russian presence in the Mediterranean, hence the agreement regarding the base at Tartus.
The deal builds on the 1980 friendship and cooperation accords between Syria and the former Soviet Union. At that time, the Syrian government felt threatened by popular opposition and was engaged in an open confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, a confrontation that culminated in a bloodbath at Hama in February 1982.
Some of the articles of the agreement show the extent to which the Syrian regime has surrendered to Russia. It is equalled only by the regime’s surrender to Iran in Damascus and its environs, especially along the Syrian-Lebanese border.
The Russian side can send tax-free all sorts of weapons, ammunition and equipment needed for the duties and security of the base and ship personnel and their families. The Syrian customs and border police cannot inspect and control all personnel arriving at Tartus naval base on war vessels. Finally, the new agreement grants full civil and administrative immunity to Russian personnel.
Are Russia’s plans in Syria justified? The answer to this question is complex. The Syrian regime knows that it cannot rely on Russia alone to guarantee its survival. This is why it is maintaining the Iranian card. It has recently signed a series of accords with the Iranians, including a third licence for mobile phone networks.
Russia seems adamant about its continued presence in Syria and can effectively impose its own terms. What is important now is to make sure that the Trump administration is still interested in the Syrian card regardless of who is holding it.
Among the objectives in the Middle East that seem to interest the new US president is pleasing Israel. Syria is important to Trump’s administration only from an Israeli angle. This would explain the extremely close relationship between Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Their coordinated efforts will likely go a long way in facilitating the eventual US-Russian deal regarding Syria. In this deal, there will be no room for Syrian President Bashar Assad and his tricks once they have served their purpose.
Turkey seems to have read correctly the situation. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Shimshek recently declared: “We have to be pragmatic, realistic. The facts on the ground have changed dramatically. Turkey can no longer insist on a settlement without Assad. It is not realistic.”
Such talk reveals that Turkey is preparing for the next phase in Syria. It remains to be seen how Iran will react to the forthcoming deal.