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Michael Young

Pivot to the Middle East

What the Hmeimim announcement tells us about Russian aims

Russian servicemen prepare an SU-34 fighter jet for a mission from the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria on May 4, 2016. (AFP/Vasily Maximov)

The announcement this month that President Vladimir Putin had submitted to the Duma an agreement to deploy a Russian Air Force group for an indefinite period of time at Syria’s Hmeimim airbase provoked little reaction abroad. And yet it told us much about Moscow’s aims in the country.

 

The deputy chairman of the defense committee of Russia’s upper house, the Federation Council, was quoted as saying, “After the legal status is agreed upon, Hmeimim will become a Russian Armed Forces Base, appropriate infrastructure will be built, and our servicemen will live in proper conditions.”  

 

Hmeimim, which is located southeast of the city of Latakia, is already being used by Russia to launch bombing operations. What the Russian announcement signaled, however, was that the base would play a more long-term role in Russia’s strategy in Syria, one not solely related to the ongoing military campaign in the country. In other words, Hmeimim’s purpose is intimately linked to the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.

 

This should be taken into consideration when speculating about Russian intentions toward the Syrian president. The long-held assumption that Moscow is not wedded to Assad remaining in power may well be true. But that actually means nothing. As Russia accumulates the strategic advantages of maintaining a permanent military presence in Syria, its outlook toward Assad will be largely shaped by these advantages, not by any need to achieve a political solution that satisfies all sides.  

 

In this context, Russia’s relations with Iran would seem to be of prime importance as well. The announcement this week that Russian bombers were using an Iranian base to launch bombing runs in Syria showed that the Russian-Iranian relationship in Syria is considerably more complex than many assumed. Where some have seen competition between the two over influence in Damascus, the reality is far more nuanced.

 

The Russians appear to realize that eliminating Iran’s sway in Syria is not possible, certainly not when an insecure Assad can swing his relationships back and forth in such a way as to play the Russians and Iranians off against one another. Instead, both Moscow and Tehran recognize the advantages of collaborating, even if there is disagreement over aspects of their respective agendas in Syria. But as the battle for Aleppo has shown, their agreement is more pronounced than their differences.

 

A bolstered Russian military presence offers Iran definite advantages. It helps secure a friendly Syrian regime, with or without Assad. In so doing it preserves the strategic depth that Hezbollah enjoys in Syria. And, though Iran will not admit this, Russia offers a useful line of communication to Israel in the event of a confrontation between Iran’s surrogates and the Israelis--a line that does not pass through Washington.

 

The recent announcement by Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif that Iran and Turkey agreed over the need to maintain Syria’s “territorial integrity” did away with speculation that Tehran is willing to accept Syria’s fragmentation if it means it can protect its stakes in the country—above all keeping open supply lines to Hezbollah. By hinting that Iran favored the reconstitution of the Syrian state, Zarif not only echoed Assad’s past statements on the issue, but also affirmed that Russia and Iran were on the same page.

 

Zarif’s remarks were interpreted as Iran’s way of reassuring Turkey that it shared its goal of preventing the emergence of a Kurdish entity. The Russians, through their deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, had initially declared that a federal structure in Syria was possible, but Moscow may have to alter course as it improves ties with Turkey. Moreover, Assad, too, is hostile to Kurdish aspirations. As a consequence, it is difficult to imagine the Russians resisting Assad, Turkey and the Iranians over the Kurds when its aim is preserving the Syrian state.

 

Which brings us back to Hmeimim. As Vladimir Putin takes the long view on Russia’s presence in Syria, this will determine what his moves in the country are likely to be. Ultimately, his desire is to rebuild a Syrian state in which Russia has a strong say, even through a partnership with Iran. At the same time Putin has maintained open channels to Israel, while reconciling with Turkey and preserving relations with the Gulf states.

 

In other words Russia is now closer than ever to playing an axial role in a region from which President Barack Obama has insisted the United States must rotate away. Obama’s successor may not agree, but Putin is now ensuring that any American reversal on the Middle East becomes that much more difficult. There was more symbolism than substance in the Hmeimim announcement. But that was enough. It was Putin’s way of saying that Russia is filling the void left by the Americans.         

 

Michael Young is a writer and editor in Beirut. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

Russian servicemen prepare an SU-34 fighter jet for a mission from the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria on May 4, 2016. (AFP/Vasily Maximov)

The Russians appear to realize that eliminating Iran’s sway in Syria is not possible, certainly not when an insecure Assad can swing his relationships back and forth in such a way as to play the Russians and Iranians off against one another.