Russian military leases in Syria potential regional game changer
Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law establishing two Russian military bases in Syria possibly until 2066.
The agreement between Moscow and Damascus provides for a Russian airbase in Hmeimim in Latakia province as well as formalises the Russian Navy’s use of Syria’s Tartus Mediterranean port for 49 years.
Hmeimim has been the key military element in Russia’s Syrian operation since Moscow intervened in the conflict in September 2015, the result of which has been helping turn the tide in favour of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, one of Russia’s closest Middle East allies.
Russia and Syria signed the original agreement in Damascus on January 18. The protocol said the agreement will be in force for 49 years and “automatically” be renewed for 25-year periods thereafter. Under its generous terms, the agreement grants Russia free use of the airfield and port.
The agreement formalises Russia’s return as a diplomatic and military power in the Middle East, which many Arab governments see as injecting an element of stability even as European Mediterranean countries and NATO, along with the United States, perceive it as a provocative foreign element adding uncertainty to an extremely volatile situation.
Beyond Syria, other Middle Eastern countries heartened by the development include Egypt and Iran, though for different reasons. Before a terrorist attack in 2015 in the Sinai Peninsula that brought down a Russian passenger jet, Egypt had been a leading vacation destination for Russian tourists. Egypt is a major export market for Russian wheat and armaments.
Russia and Iran also have significant relations; some of these, such as Russia’s construction of Iran’s sole operating nuclear power plant at Bushehr, have unsettled the international community. Both countries have sought to increase bilateral trade, especially considering that both are subjected to international sanctions.
As neighbours across the Caspian, Russia and Iran have had joint maritime exercises; the most recent ended July 15. In that drill, a detachment from Russia’s Caspian Flotilla visited the Iranian port of Anzali, the fifth such visit in the past decade. For Iran, Russian diplomatic, economic and military cooperation presents a significant upgrade of its strength and an added asset in its existential struggle with Saudi Arabia across the Persian Gulf.
Russia’s improvement in its regional relations extends to NATO’s easternmost member, Turkey. Despite various Western sanctions, Russia and Turkey are going ahead with Moscow building a natural gas pipeline under the Black Sea to help alleviate Ankara’s chronic energy shortages.
Of greater interest to NATO is that Turkey and Russia are apparently concluding a contract for Ankara to purchase an S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, a development with the potential to unsettle the alliance, as all NATO military equipment must be inter-operable between the various members.
Energy forms the basis for Russian relations with regional hydrocarbon superpower Saudi Arabia. To shore up sagging global oil prices, the world’s top two oil exporters — Russia and Saudi Arabia — recently agreed to modest production cuts, Russia not being a member of OPEC and a direct Saudi rival in the global oil market.
Putin, interested in political stability, is less a fan of democracy than upholding Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes and protecting them from colour revolutions underwritten by Washington and Europe. Putin has viewed the seemingly endless political chaos and violence roiling the Middle East and concluded that strong-arm regimes there are preferable to the removal of central governments, as their downfall, as evidenced by Iraq and Libya, results in a political environment in which extremism and terrorism flourish, the latter an increasingly international threat.
For Putin, Syria has proven the crucible in which all these tendencies have emerged. This is the rationale behind Putin’s military assistance to Assad. In Syria and neighbouring Iraq, a lawless battlefield has emerged where jihadists from around the world can acquire combat skills that they could utilise upon their return to their home countries, resulting in rising terrorist attacks as evidenced by incidents in Europe.
The Russian government has estimated that more than 5,000 Russian citizens are fighting in Syria and Iraq, mostly for the Islamic State (ISIS), and Putin has drawn the conclusion that it is better to battle them there than to wait for them to return home and produce carnage.
Above and beyond rising Western political concern about Russia deepening its footprint in the Middle East, interest in combating terrorism remains a common thread uniting the Middle East, Russia, Europe and the United States. The only question is whether Europe and the United States can overlook their political differences with Moscow to accomplish this common goal.
As Russian military forces will seemingly be stationed in the Middle East for the next 50 years, this is a question that Europe and the United States should consider sooner rather than later.