Amid deteriorating relations between the US and Russia over the Syria crisis officials in Moscow are voicing that country’s intention to establish a permanent naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coastline. Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov told the Federation Council on October 10 that Moscow “will have a permanent naval base at Tartus“.
Igor Morozov, a member of the Federation Council, followed up this announcement by declaring, “[b]y doing this Russia is not only increasing its military potential in Syria but in the entire Middle East and in the Mediterranean region as a whole.”
Since Soviet days the Kremlin has had a warm water port in Tartus, but it was never more than a naval depot. Russia has reportedly begun dredging the sea around the port to enable it to host its larger warships. If Russia does this then Tartus would constitute its most strategically important foreign military asset. The big ships of the Russian navy could stay for months on end not far from the British RAF station in Akrotiri, Cyprus and Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, which is a major NATO base.
Russia’s state-run press could hardly contain gloating about the strategic significance such a facility would provide Moscow. Sputnik News published an article outlining what it considers the “five reasons why Russia needs a military base in Syrian Tartus“.
“If our new combat surface ships and submarines outfitted with Kalibr cruise missiles are based in Tartus, this will allow Moscow to keep the situation in the Middle East and Mediterranean under control,” Igor Korotchenko, the editor of the National Defense magazine, told Sputnik.
Russia has been making moves in this direction since early in its Syrian intervention. A foretaste of this came in late November 2015, following Turkey’s shoot-down of a Russian bomber over its border with Syria, when Moscow deployed long-range S-400 missiles to its Hmeymim airbase in Latakia and dispatched its large Moskva cruiser, outfitted with S-300F missiles, off Syria’s coast. These advanced weapons would have enabled Moscow to shoot down any Turkish jet fighter which violated Syrian airspace.
In October and November 2015, Gepard class frigates and Buyan class corvettes, part of the Caspian Flotilla totally launched 44 Kalibr-NK system cruise missiles 3M-14T from the Caspian Sea at targets in Syria. The missiles traveled 1,500 km through Iranian and Iraqi airspace and struck targets in Al-Raqqah (then controlled by the Islamic State) and Aleppo Governorate, but primarily in Idlib Governorate (then controlled by the Jaish al-Fatah and its ally al-Nusra Front
The only major thing to change since that time is the striking fact that Russia and Turkey are making great headway in restoring relations since they began their rapprochement over the summer. Meanwhile, Washington’s accidental bombing and killing of at least sixty-two Syrian soldiers in Deir Ezzor last month along with Moscow’s full backing of, and support to, the Syrian regimes ferocious bombardment of Aleppo, has seen relations deteriorate to dangerous Cold War lows.
Russia has just added advanced S-300VM missiles to its arsenal in Syria amid the fallout with Washington, a clear message to Washington that Moscow could readily make all of Syria’s airspace a no-fly zone if the US tries to interfere with the present campaign it is waging, alongside the Syrian regime, in Aleppo.
Also, data accumulated by Reuters show that Russia’s “Syrian Express”, hence the international shipping route from the Black Sea through the Bosphorus to the Mediterranean Sea, is more busy than ever. “Some of the ships that have been sent to Syria were so heavily laden the load line was barely visible above the water”, Reuters observed.
With such a logistical route stretching directly from the Russian mainland to a large permanent Syrian naval base, Russia could maintain a very formidable force in that wider region in the foreseeable future. Having warships, as Korotchenko describes, with lethal weaponry permanently based in the Mediterranean Sea (rather than further north in the Black Sea) would seriously alter the balance of power there.
For the meantime Syria remains a largely unstable country. Granted, while Russia does have a largely stable foothold in the Latakia province – which it helped secure through its initial intervention, when the Syrian regime was largely on the defensive – the future of Syria remains in the balance. Russia counts on having a weak regime, that it will have to continuously shore up, as its host in a country which has been completely wrecked from war.
However, even under the two Assad’s relations with Moscow, while mostly cordial, have had their ups and downs over the decades. One notably tense, but largely forgotten, incident occurred back in 1989 in Tartus. The scholar David W. Lesch, author of a political history of the presidency of Bashar al-Assad, recalls that incident well since he was present as a graduate student at the time. It saw two Syrian helicopter gunships attack one of the Russian cruisers docked at that port, killing two Soviet sailors. Not knowing why on earth Damascus did such a thing to their superpower ally Lesch wagered a guess that the incident was “a not-so-subtle message from [then Syrian President] Hafez al-Assad to [General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union] Mikhail Gorbhachev that Damascus did not like the direction of Syrian-Soviet relations at the time.”
That incident aptly demonstrates that the relationship between the major Russian power and the Syrian regime was not always built on solid foundations and is susceptible to sudden ruptures. Something the Kremlin should bear in mind before it commits to devoting the large amount of capital and resources such an undertaking will inevitably require.