The Russian Foothold in the Middle East

The chaotic situation in Syria has provided a golden opportunity for Russia which, since the collapse of the USSR, has aspired to regain a dominant role in the Middle East

Russian officers in Syria (Photo: AP)

For more than a year now, Russian forces have been operating on Syrian soil alongside the forces of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The Russian forces have been assisting Assad's regime in its war against the forces of the opposition, which has been fighting the regime for more than five years. The Russian force in Syria has thus far consisted primarily of an aerial element – strike fighters deployed at the Khmeimim Syrian Air Force base, to the south-east of Lattakia.

At the same time, extending support to the Syrian regime that slaughters its own population was not the main reason for dispatching the Russian forces to Syria. The one thing that is clear to everyone is Russia's renewed interest in regaining its former status as a naval superpower in the Mediterranean, with the emphasis on the eastern basin of that sea.

In this context, the USSR had invested considerable efforts in an attempt to establish naval bases in Egypt for their flotilla, which they deployed to the Mediterranean mainly after the Six-Day War of 1967. This situation continued until President Sadat of Egypt expelled the Soviet forces from Egypt in the summer of 1972 and decided to revoke the treaty of friendship between the two countries (in 1976) and suspend the military cooperation between them, including the docking rights for Soviet naval vessels at Egyptian ports. Consequently, the center of gravity of the Soviet military presence shifted to Syria, which remained the Soviets' only base in this region.

Consolidating the Soviet presence in Syria was a gradual, long-term process. Admittedly, the Syrian ports of Tartus and Lattakia did not offer a good alternative to the ports the Soviet flotilla had used in Egypt, but the Soviets nevertheless pressed on with their efforts of gaining a foothold at these ports. The ports in question were small, dense and crowded – nothing like the Egyptian ports in Alexandria and Mersa Matruh, and lacked the necessary equipment.

The Treaty of Friendship of 1980

Pursuant to the signature of the treaty of friendship between the USSR and Syria in October 1980, the Soviets stepped up their efforts toward the establishment of a naval base for their flotilla on the Syrian shore, and also intended to establish an airbase in Deir ez-Zor for the long-range aircraft of their fleet air arm. The plan was to establish a logistic naval base for the Soviet flotilla with an airbase at its back, to defend it. The Soviets expected that in exchange for the massive aid they were providing Syria with, the latter would consent to the establishment of a sea port on the Syrian shore for the Soviet naval vessels operating in the Mediterranean. The Syrians eventually gave their consent in early April 1982, although Assad had committed to it at the time of the signature of the treaty of friendship back in October 1980. A significant move forward was made only in early 1982, against the background of the intensifying Israeli involvement in Lebanon, and in particular after Operation Peace for Galilee that followed.

The Syrian military defeat in the First Lebanon War, and in particular the destruction of the Syrian surface-to-air missiles by the Israeli Air Force, convinced Assad to agree to the Soviets' demands and enable them to establish a naval base on the Syrian shore unconditionally. This was agreed upon during Assad's unpublicized visit to Moscow in October 1982, at the same time as the signature of the agreement concerning the deployment of SA-5 surface-to-air missile brigades to Syria. Assad asked the Soviets to deploy in Syria air-defense forces that would defend the Syrian airspace against IAF, similarly to what Nasser's Egypt had done during the War of Attrition, when they demanded the deployment of Soviet aerial and air-defense forces to Egypt, to confront IAF. Against this background, President Hafez al-Assad agreed to sign with the Soviets, in May 1983, an agreement regarding the establishment of a logistic base for the Soviet Navy at the port of Tartus, which led to the arrival in Syria of about 1,000 Soviet specialists for this purpose. Consequently, Soviet Navy vessels started calling regularly at the port of Tartus and aircraft of the Soviet fleet air arm started using the T-4 Syrian Air Force base for their missions in the Mediterranean. The Russian payment consisted of the deployment to Syria of two air-defense brigades equipped with SA-5 surface-to-air missiles as well as shipments of new weapon systems for the Syrian Army. The SA-5 missiles had a range of about 300 kilometers, which covered the entire northern region of the State of Israel. The Soviet air-defense brigades eventually returned to the USSR in 1984 while the SA-5 missiles had been handed over to the Syrians.

The Soviet flotilla further intensified the process of consolidating its deployment at the port of Tartus. Soviet warships operating in the Mediterranean made regular calls to this port, which became a base for Soviet submarines as well. This also led to an expansion of the Soviet personnel in Syria by an additional 1,000 specialists who came to Syria in this context. Various logistic installations intended to serve the vessels of the Soviet flotilla were built at the base, and the base started providing maintenance services to Soviet surface vessels and submarines. The Soviets upgraded the base infrastructure in 1987-1988 by sending an engineering battalion to Syria especially for this purpose – to complement whatever was necessary for the normal function of the base.

At the same time, in 1985 the Soviets renewed the activity of Soviet fleet air arm aircraft in the sky over the Mediterranean out of Syria, having deployed a fleet air arm reconnaissance squadron to T-4 airbase. This squadron started performing routine reconnaissance missions over the Mediterranean using their Tu-16R aircraft in an effort to monitor the vessels of the US Navy's Sixth Fleet and NATO naval forces, with the emphasis placed on the task forces led by the US Navy aircraft carriers – for the first time since the Soviets had stopped operating out of Egypt back in 1972. This activity decreased in intensity during the second half of the 1980s and stopped altogether in December 1989.

Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and after the Soviet flotilla officially ceased to operate in the Mediterranean in December 1992, the activity of the Soviet naval base in Tartus stopped almost completely, with the exception of random calls by Soviet naval vessels. In late January 1996, this activity was renewed pursuant to the visit of the Soviet aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov.

Since the collapse of the USSR, the successor, Russia, continued using the services of the naval base in Tartus for the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. Russian specialists continued to operate at the base and provided the Russian naval vessels with various logistic services: repairs, supply of food and water and rest for the crews. Dozens of naval vessels have since then called at this base, which evolved into the most important Russian outpost in the region.

Back in the Mediterranean

The deteriorating state of the Bashar al-Assad regime in its fight against the various opposition forces provided the Russian leadership with an opportunity for fulfilling their aspirations regarding the renewal of their military presence in the Mediterranean and flying the Russian flag over that sea.

The Russians promptly responded to the Syrian president's request for assistance and deployed Russian forces to Syria. These forces included primarily an aerial element deployed to the Syrian Air Force base in Khmeimim, as well as ground troops assigned to defend the aerial element. The Russians also reinforced their military advisor personnel within the Syrian Army. This Russian move included two phases, as was customary in the days of the Soviet Union: the first, short-term phase was intended to guarantee the well-being and continued survival of the present Syrian regime, which is currently reflected in the indiscriminate air strikes staged by Russian aircraft against the "terrorist" population in the eastern neighborhoods of the city of Aleppo – just as the Russians had done during their war against the Chechen minority at the turn of the century.

Now, after a year has passed, the initial objective appears to have been accomplished and the Syrian regime has had the upper hand owing to the assistance provided by its supporters from Hezbollah, Iran and Russia. Consequently, the Kremlin has made the decision to implement the second, long-term phase of their plan – consolidating their renewed military presence in Syria, as a basis for renewing their military presence in the Mediterranean. This decision was clearly reflected in the announcement made by the Deputy Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, Nikolay Pankov, on October 10, 2016, according to which the Russians will establish a permanent base in Syria with the intention of expanding their military presence in Syria (and, implicitly, in the region and in the Mediterranean as well). The practical implication of this move is the fact that the port of Tartus will be converted to a naval base offering a higher capacity and possessing improved capabilities for maintaining and servicing Russian Navy vessels operating in the Mediterranean. Expanding the capacity of the port of Tartus is indicative of the intention to increase the number of Russian Navy vessels that are now expected to operate in the Mediterranean over longer periods of time.

The establishment of the naval base and the adaptation thereof to the needs of the Russian flotilla will naturally enable the expansion of the Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean and the redeployment of the Russian flotilla to that sea – as was the case during the USSR period – so as to operate opposite the US Navy's Sixth Fleet and the western naval forces operating in that sea, whatever the consequences. According to Russian sources, the base will be expanded so that it may support large naval vessels; it will be fitted with anti-submarine defenses and with such cutting-edge air-defense systems as the S-300, deployed at the base just recently. These systems will be added to an array of S-200 and S-400 air-defense systems (possessing ranges of 400 and 250 kilometers, respectively) which the Russians have deployed to Syria recently, in addition to other systems possessing shorter ranges like the Pantsir S-1 system. This deployment of air-defense systems will have implications with regard to aerial activity in the region by western aircraft (mainly those of the US Sixth Fleet) and aircraft of Syria's neighbors – Turkey, Jordan and Israel (refer to the enclosed map).

This decision, which is currently reflected through various moves on the ground, points to the fact that the Russian leaders in Moscow continue to regard the Middle East, and particularly the Mediterranean Sea, as a region of major strategic importance for them. It further indicates that the Russians will probably do anything to consolidate and enhance their presence in this region. Among other things, this takes place against the background of the declining US foreign policy during the present administration, regarding the region and US military presence therein, and in particular the position of the present administration with regard to the various developments in the region since the outbreak of the "Arab Spring". The Russians need their presence also in order to reestablish what the Americans had referred to back in the 1970s and 1980s as "The Soviet Naval Diplomacy", which the USSR sometimes used to demonstrate to the West their position regarding various issues and crisis situations that took place in the region. Back then, the US media stressed that "Since Soviet destroyers and submarines had entered the Mediterranean Sea, this has led to a rapid development of Soviet diplomacy." The commandant of the US Navy's Sixth Fleet during the 1967 war, Admiral Martin, said after the war that "The Mediterranean Sea is no longer the same sea it was prior to the war," and that "The missions of the Sixth Fleet have changed in order to deal with the increasing Soviet presence in the Mediterranean."

Indeed, as this is being written, the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov – the only vessel of its class in the Russian Navy – is making its way from the Northern Fleet to the region, escorted by several warships of various types. The pretext: these vessels are joining the war against the Islamist State (ISIS) in Syria, after having practiced counterterrorism and counter-piracy warfare tactics, and are intended to operate in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean. The carrier has on board several Sukhoi-33 and MiG-29 fighter aircraft along with a number of helicopters. These naval vessels will reinforce the Russian vessels that already operate in this region, which were joined over the last few days by other vessels from the Black Sea, all under the pretext of fighting ISIS. A nuclear-powered submarine and a Tu-160 long-range bomber that would practice counterterrorism operations are expected to join this force. Russian media sources have indicated that this is an event of historic importance, as a Russian aircraft carrier will be employed operationally for the first time. The impressive naval task force that is currently amassing in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean is reminiscent of the glorious past when the Russian flotilla had operated in the Mediterranean, except this time, as far as can be determined, the Russian naval force does not face any opposing naval force on behalf of ISIS, unless the naval forces of the West are now regarded by the Russians as ISIS. Indeed, the Russian Minister of Defense, Sergey Shoygu, announced last month that his move was intended to enhance Russia's naval capabilities in the region.

According to Russian commentators, the presence of the aerial force at the Khmeimim airbase in Syria was intended to provide an air umbrella, namely – to defend the vessels of the Russian flotilla in the Mediterranean, which has not operated there since the Soviet forces had been expelled from Egypt. It was an important change for the Russians when they reached the agreement with Syria regarding the use of this airbase for an indefinite period of time and at no cost. Consequently, the Russians deployed cutting-edge Sukhoi-30SM interceptors to defend their bombers, which had also been deployed in order to assist the Syrian regime in its fight against the rebels (ISIS). Deploying such a small number of interceptors of this type stems from the fact that at this point the Russians do not face any serious aerial opponents, and should they wish to do so, they will be able to reinforce their aerial force in Syria within 24 hours. The Russians are already using the Khmeimim airbase to employ their aircraft over the Mediterranean. For example, last June, a Tupolev-142 maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft landed at this airbase. This aircraft had definitely not come to Syria to assist in the fighting against the Syrian rebels. Its primary mission was to search for enemy submarines in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean.

The announcement made by the Russian Deputy Minister of Defense regarding the establishment of the base in Syria is not isolated in a vacuum. It is a part of the new Russian policy led by President Putin and of the implementation of his ambitious plan to reinstate his country as a global superpower, as in the days of the USSR. A week previously, an official announcement had been made regarding Russia's intention to reopen bases in Vietnam and Cuba, as in the days of the USSR. According to reports in the Russian media, Moscow is also negotiating with Egypt the establishment of an airbase and this month, Russian paratroopers have conducted, for the first time, a joint training exercise with Egyptian paratroopers on Egyptian soil.

Against the background of the differences of opinion between Russia and the USA regarding the issues of Syria and the Ukraine, the Russians have made several provocative moves on the ground, like deploying an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to the port of Tartus in Syria and deploying surface-to-surface missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads at their Baltic enclave in Kaliningrad.

Owing to the failure of the talks between the two superpowers over the attempt to achieve a ceasefire in Syria, Russia has reinforced, in late September, the aerial force deployed at the Khmeimim airbase with additional Sukhoi-24 and Sukhoi-34 fighters, and also prepared for deployment Sukhoi-25 fighters, all against the background of the threats made by the USA to operate alongside elements of the (moderate) opposition in Syria by bombing the forces of the Syrian regime and providing arms to the elements fighting against the regime. According to Russian media sources, the Sukhoi-25 fighters will be deployed to Syria within two to three days if the need arises.

While some Russian commentators noted that the aircraft deployed to Syria recently were intended to replace the aircraft that returned to Russia in March of this year, others stressed that this move was intended to reflect the Russians' determination to take far-reaching measures in order to uphold their views and accomplish their objectives on the ground, through the diplomatic negotiations with the USA, regarding the situation in Syria. This move as well as others can reflect Russia's determination to achieve future diplomatic solutions that would benefit Russia for crisis situations and other issues currently on the agenda between Russia and the West. In this context, another noteworthy event was the extensive exercise conducted recently by Russian forces in the Crimean Peninsula and accompanied by the proclamation "we shall defend the Crimea like any other area of Russia." According to the spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Defense, some of the capabilities demonstrated by the Russian Army during the exercise had been acquired in Syria. This was a clear message to the USA and the countries of the West, which have imposed severe sanctions on Russia since it had invaded the Crimean Peninsula and conquered it from the Ukraine in February 2014.

In conclusion, Russia's moves of the past year, and in particular those we have witnessed recently, in Syria and elsewhere around the world, have clarified very effectively the intentions of the Russian leadership in Moscow with regard to our region as well as with regard to their policy in Europe and in other parts of the world, opposite their old-new opponents – the USA and the West. Identifying the apparent weakness of the foreign policy of the West on the one hand, and the determination demonstrated by the Russian leadership headed by President Putin on the other hand, were the primary factors behind these moves, and have indicated to the West the true intentions of the Russians from now on.

The West, led by the newly elected president of the USA, will face a new and apparently uncompromising challenge presented by the Russian leadership, against the background of the various crisis situations regarding which the two parties differ, like Syria and the Ukraine. The Russians are flexing their muscles opposite the West, thereby trying to demonstrate that Russia is once again a global superpower facing the USA (which maintains a foreign policy in line with their own needs and interests), despite the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the West.

The moves the Russians are making in Syria, and in particular their decision to establish the naval base in Tartus, to which some Russian commentators referred to as a "power move", actually points openly to the considerations that had stood behind the Russians' decision to deploy their aircraft to Syria over the last year. The Syrian interest was secondary while the Russian interest was the one actually considered. The Russian bases in Syria will help, according to Russian commentators, to improve the Russian foreign and national security policy and assist in "neutralizing various threats". Naturally, they will help Moscow exercise control over the situation in the Middle East and the Mediterranean opposite undesirable initiatives by NATO (as in the days of the USSR). The implications of the Russian moves in Syria far transcend the boundaries of this war-torn country. Those moves have actually upset the balance that had existed in the region until recently.

Without a doubt, the coming year will be influenced by the political clash between the two superpowers, whose relations have deteriorated recently, as noted by the Russian ambassador to the UN. We will no doubt witness various provocative Russian moves that could upset the balance that currently exists in different parts of the world, including our region. The leaders of the West will have to do their very best to pacify the international situation and restore normal relations with Russia, so as not to reach a situation of a new cold war opposite the Russian Bear – whatever its consequences might be.


Mr. Nehemiah Burgin assisted in the preparation of this article.

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