By Roger McDermott*
Moscow plans to increase its military basing presence in Syria, building on its main existing agreements with the Bashar al-Assad regime in relation to the Khmeimim airbase in Latakia province and the naval logistical facility in Tartus. While these facilities will also be expanded, on May 29 President Vladimir Putin instructed Russia’s defense and foreign ministries to negotiate new deals with Damascus aimed at boosting the quantity of its military basing rights in the country. Precise details on the locations under consideration are yet to emerge. Yet, these appear to include both ports and ground-based facilities (Topwar.ru, May 29). Such plans are most likely rooted in the model used for the bilateral basing agreement concerning the existing Russian military facilities in Syria. Whereas, the intent to increase the number of bases confirms Moscow’s long-term commitment to use Syria as the cornerstone of its overall Middle East strategy.
The bilateral agreement to base Russia’s Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) grouping in Latakia and to further enhance the use of the naval facility in Tartus is rooted in a document signed on August 26, 2015. Accordingly, the VKS aviation group was granted access to the Khmeimim airfield to conduct military operations, with the facility transferred to the Russian side free of charge. Two years later a further agreement allowed Russia’s navy, the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Мorskoi Flot—VMF), to use the Tartus facility, basing up to 11 ships in the port. Both accords were concluded for a 49-year period with the right to automatically extend by an additional 25 years (Echospb.ru, May 29, 2020; see EDM, October 6, 2015).
Russian diplomacy underlying Putin’s announcement on increasing military basing in Syria has developed within the past few months, following the Russian president’s visit to Damascus on January 8, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu holding talks there on March 23. The Putin-Assad telephone consultations seem to have declined in frequency lately, with the last reported call occurring on March 20. However, the drive for more bases in the country reflects a wider intensification of Moscow’s involvement in Syria (19rus.info, May 31; Unionnews.ru, May 29).
Both the airbase in Latakia and the naval logistical facility in Tartus will be expanded. According to Yury Shvitkin, the vice chair of the Duma Defense Committee, these will be further modernized and developed to increase performance levels and boost functionality. Shvitkin noted, “Tartus now has a rather limited functionality,” adding that it will become a full-fledged naval base. He also clarified that the airbase in Latakia will separate the civilian side from the VKS role to ensure better force protection of its personnel and military equipment (Interfax, May 29).
The access to Tartus, which has existed since the Soviet era, was mainly for logistical and material purposes; it was intended to facilitate the minor repair of ships and to replenish fuel and food supplies. Since Russian operations began in September 2015, Tartus has served as a key logistical hub. Moscow plans to develop this facility into a full-fledged naval base. Nonetheless, the possibilities for achieving this remain limited, since the port of Tartus is also used by both the Syrian Arab Navy and civilian shipping. This is one reason for Moscow to seek access to an additional Syrian port. An additional issue involves symbolic “power projection” into the Mediterranean Sea. “From the coast of Syria, there is an opportunity to control not only the eastern part, but the entire Mediterranean Sea,” explained Captain 1st Rank Anatoly Ivanov, a Moscow-based naval expert, adding, “If our powerful group can be in Syria on an ongoing basis, then this will significantly expand its potential and save money on its maintenance. The United States has in the Mediterranean Sea not only the ships of its 6th Fleet, but also an extensive ship repair base and training centers of the Navy. For Russia, the Mediterranean Sea is much closer not only geographically, but also geopolitically. Therefore, to use the opportunity to establish [itself] more densely in Syria seems to be a reasonable measure” (19rus.info, May 31).
A further justification for Moscow seeking to increase its military basing in Syria relates to the protection of Russia’s growing economic interests in the country. Notably, in December 2019, the Syrian parliament ratified agreements with Russian energy companies to develop three blocks of oil and natural gas. The total area is estimated at several thousand square kilometers. Given the ongoing energy interests in addition to security concerns and force protection, it seems Russia’s defense ministry requires greater presence on the ground, and it does not feel it can rely on alternative out-sourcing such as to Russian private military companies (19rus.info, May 31).
Since initiating military operations in Syria, the Russian Ministry of Defense and General Staff have used the opportunity as a practical way to boost combat training, increase combat experience and deploy and test a whole swathe of new or advanced systems. One illustration of this is the testing of the newest Russian main battle tank, the T-14 Armata. The head of the Ministry of Industry and Trade, Denis Manturov, confirmed the T-14 was tested in Syria in April. Manturov explained, “They were used in field conditions, in Syria, so we took into account all the nuances” (Gazeta.ru, May 29).
Although the details on the expansion of Russian military basing in Syria remains sketchy, it is likely to be developed based on the models of existing bilateral agreements—namely, over a lengthy period and free of charge. It is driven by a number of factors, including force protection, energy security issues, as well as securing a more durable and cost-effective maritime presence in the Mediterranean Sea. It also reflects the limits of the existing military facilities, though these will be further expanded. The overall message from Moscow is that its presence in Syria is long term and part of a new normal for the Russian Armed Forces.
*About the author: Roger N. McDermott specializes in Russian and Central Asian defense and security issues and is a Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies, The Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC, Senior International Research Fellow for the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Affiliated Senior Analyst, Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen. McDermott is on the editorial board of Central Asia and the Caucasus and the scientific board of the Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies.
Source: This article was published in the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 79