Russian military leases in Syria potential regional game changer

Putin is less a fan of democracy than upholding Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes and protecting them from colour revolutions.


2017/08/06 Issue: 118 Page: 13


The Arab Weekly
John C.K. Daly



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.


John C.K. Daly is a Washington-based specialist on Russian and post-Soviet affairs.


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