Russia seems set to secure a permanent perch on the Mediterranean for the next half century after Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov announced that Moscow was on the verge of finalising a 49-year lease on the Syrian port of Tartus following a visit to Damascus last week. Borisov said he expected the lease to be signed very soon.
The development came as no surprise to observers in the light of Russia’s role in safeguarding the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad from collapse.
There had already been concrete harbingers of the development in 2017 when Moscow signed an agreement with Damascus approving the expansion of the technical support and logistics base that the Russians had established in Tartus.
The ramifications of the Russian lease extend well beyond closer Russian-Syrian relations. The presence of Russian forces in warm-water ports has historically been a gauge of the international balance of power and changes in the international order, and at the height of the Cold War in the 1970s Tartus served as a base for former Soviet Union’s fifth fleet.
The Russian return to the Mediterranean port is a reflection of the currently shifting equations in the global order.
Russia calculated its steps carefully. On 28 December 2017, in a meeting with Russian military service personnel who had taken part in anti-terrorist operations in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “you have performed all the missions assigned to you... In Syria, two Russian bases – an air base in Khmeimim and a naval facility in the port of Tartus – will operate on a permanent basis. This is an important factor in defending our national interests as well as ensuring Russia’s security in one of the key strategic sectors.”
Russia began to advance its strategy when its intervention in Syria began in 2015 and it established a strategic command centre at the Khmeimim airbase. This has been steadily reinforced with Russian-made aerial defence systems that vie with sophisticated international counterparts.
Russia also began to renovate the Tartus naval base in the framework of a military agreement with Damascus, after which it gradually stepped up its military presence.
In October 2016, Moscow announced that it had been renovating the base to furnish logistical support for counter-terrorist operations in Syria.
On 18 January 2017, the two countries signed an agreement to expand the technical and logistics support centre for the Russian fleet at Tartus and to allow Russian military vessels entry into Syrian territorial waters and ports.
In December 2018, Russian Deputy Defence Minister Timur Ivanov told the Russian daily Kommersant that the Russian Defence Ministry and Ministry of Trade and Industry were working together to construct a shipyard in Tartus, indicating that Russia had already initiated plans to prepare the infrastructure for a more permanent stay.
The 49-year lease is significant for Russia in several ways, not least of which is that it is emblematic of its victory in the conflict in Syria.
The Russian press underscored this aspect when it observed that the agreement over the long-term lease of the base meant that the Russian military engagement in Syria had accomplished its strategic aims.
After all, the agreement was signed with a regime that Russia has successfully rescued from collapse.
Secondly, the lease signifies the enduring Russian presence in the region. In late December 2017, Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu announced that the Russian Armed Forces had approved the structure and staffing of Russia’s main bases in Tartus and Khmeimim and was cited by the local media as saying that “we have started to install permanent forces there.”
The Tartus lease has important implications for the international balance of power. The 31-article agreement to lease the port and expand the technical and logistic support centre offers Russia numerous advantages, one of which is the possibility of keeping 11 large vessels, including some nuclear-powered ones, docked at the port.
Nothing could more tangibly demonstrate the fact that the Russian vision for the Tartus facility extends beyond its natural functions in the framework of the Russian mission in Syria to embrace the long-held Russian aspiration for anchorage in the Eastern Mediterranean in a sphere of influence otherwise belonging to the US Sixth Fleet.
Not only does the long-term lease of the port free Russia from the strategic constraints of its relatively narrow maritime window in the Baltic, it also promises Moscow considerable economic and trade advantages with its allies and commercial partners in the Middle East.
At the same time, its presence positions it to win a large share of reconstruction projects in Syria.
Damascus will have calculated that it also stood to gain from the lease, and it also has ramifications from the Syrian perspective. The agreement to lease the Tartus facility is as much a symbol of success for Damascus as it is for Moscow, since Damascus has also claimed victory in its battle with its adversaries.
Signing agreements such as this is proof of the sovereignty it has regained over the country.
At the same time, the regime feels the need to reward Russia for standing by its side, spending vast sums of money protecting it and helping it to survive as the government of the country. Russia’s continued presence in Syria offers the regime a guarantee of protection after the military operations are over.
The defeat of the regime’s adversaries would not be sufficient to guarantee stability in the country and safeguard the ruling Alawi sect in the coastal area.
Politicians affiliated with the Syrian regime underscored the benefits of leasing the port. Former Syrian communications minister Amr Salem said that “we concluded the agreement with a country that has the experience and the money to equip and manage [the Tartus port] in a manner conducive to its needs and ours... That’s all there is to it.”
“Regardless of the details of the agreement signed with Russia, it will certainly serve the interests of Syria and those of Russia as well... It is only natural that this deal should be concluded and that both countries should benefit from it,” he said.
The lease might encourage other allies and supporters of the Syrian regime to compete for similar agreements. Iran may feel that it should be rewarded with a similar agreement, perhaps involving the lease of the Latakia port.
Some commentators foresee competition between Moscow and Tehran to win deals from Damascus, whereas others believe that the matter will be managed in a coordinated framework.
All agree that Tartus will not be the final reward Damascus has to offer after the conflict has ended and that both Russia and Iran regard themselves as powers owed favours by the Al-Assad regime.
A possible indicator of the direction this process might take was President Al-Assad’s recent visit to Iran, which according to the Russian media occurred without Russia’s knowledge.
The lease agreement may also stir up other problems. Other powers are likely to oppose an extended Russian stay at Tartus, including the US which sees the Mediterranean as part of its sphere of influence and of its allies in Europe, NATO and the Middle East.
The Russian presence in Syria also runs counter to Israeli interests.
At the same time, the agreement will impose restrictions on Russia. Moscow will be obliged to maintain close relations with Turkey, a NATO member which straddles the Bosphorus through which Russian ships must pass on their way from Sevastopol on the Black Sea to Tartus.
This may also present another challenge to the relationship between NATO and Turkey, already strained because of the Turkish deal to buy Russian S-400 missiles.
Russia’s long-term lease of the Tartus port is highly symbolic. It marks the beginning of Russia’s return to the Middle East in a manner reminiscent of the former Soviet Union before the collapse of the bipolar global order at the end of the Cold War.
It will therefore have strategic repercussions throughout the region in the context of transformations in the international order and the restructuring of the balance of power in the Middle East.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The Russian bear returns