The transformed role of the Hmeimim base

Friday 25/03/2016
Russian soldiers working behind screens in Russia’s reconciliation centre

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.