The transformed role of the Hmeimim base
LATAKIA - Within five months, Hmeimim airbase, a neglected airfield in western Syria’s Latakia province, became the strategic centre of Russia’s military and political involvement in the war-torn country.
After serving as the base for Russian Air Force missions against the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, Hmeimim has been transformed into a command post monitoring the ceasefire in Syria, which went into effect February 27th.
It has also developed into a nucleus for mediating “reconciliation” accords between warring parties that agreed to join efforts to cease hostilities.
According to human rights groups, Russian air strikes, which also targeted moderate opposition groups, killed about 2,000 civilians in almost six months of attacks.
Hmeimim, which was completely refurbished by Russia before it launched its military operations in Syria on September 30th, 2015, has seen a stark transition over a few weeks, especially since the Kremlin’s decision to withdraw the bulk of its forces from Syria.
“Russian officers from Hmeimim centre are deployed in various points of engagement where armed groups who had signed the truce agreement are positioned, as part of their mission to monitor the ceasefire and identify violators,” said Syrian General Hussam Youssef, who is in charge of coordination between the Syrian Army and the base.
“It is normal to have Russian liaison officers taking part in negotiations with armed groups to convince them to join the truce and at the same time give them the assurances (they needed) in their position as a third party,” Youssef said.
Hmeimim is rising as a meeting place for the moderate opposition and a coordination centre to reconcile pro- and anti-Syrian regime parties. Russian officers have been travelling to rebel-held territory for direct talks with rebel commanders.
“The Russian decision to withdraw forces from Syria and the assurances given for ceasing hostilities created a certain degree of trust that resulted in allowing Russian officers to enter our areas,” said the commander of an armed group in the Damascus suburb of Harasta who asked to be identified as Abu Jassem al-Harastani.
But confidence in Russian mediators is not total. “We do not allow them into our main headquarters, nor do we accept that they be accompanied by any of the regime forces, because they could be spying on us and might target our positions later,” Harastani added.
Russia’s good offices were not limited to areas close to Hmeimim or near Damascus but expanded into southern Syria, where Russian officers sponsored talks between Quneitra’s governor and the armed militias in the province.
According to a local source who asked for anonymity, the Kremlin’s officers played a central role in brokering settlements in many villages and towns, including Abta’a in Deraa and the region of al-Hamra and Qalaat al-Madiq in rural Hama.
Youssef sought to downplay the Russian reconciliatory role, saying: “The (local) settlements are one aspect of the truce that has been adopted by the Syrian leadership for more than three years, resulting in several successful ceasefire accords in areas of rural Damascus.
“The presence of the Russians in the reconciliation meetings does not mean that they are the sponsors, although their attendance was requested by the armed groups in their capacity as a third party and witness of the agreements.”
However, the Russian presence has largely facilitated the rapprochement, according to Tamer al-Saoud, a dignitary in Abta’a. “Three previous attempts to reconcile have all failed because of the [stringent] conditions that the regime sought to impose on us, until the Russians intervened to guarantee that they (regime) will abide by their obligations under the settlement,” he said.
“The Russian side promised to cease bombardment of the town, have humanitarian aid delivered and ensure the free movement of inhabitants. Accordingly, we agreed to a settlement with the regime.”
Hmeimim also was the site of the March 14th announcement of the formation of the Hmeimim Opposition Group, which includes “moderate” dissidents.
Leaders of the new coalition, including Mahmoud Merhi of the Gathering of Democratic Civil Forces, Meis Kreidi from the For Democratic Syria organisation, and Ilyan Mansad of the National Conference Party, turned up in the corridors of the UN headquarters in Geneva where peace talks to end the Syrian war are taking place.