Syrian President Assad Hints Russia Will Expand Military Presence in Eastern Mediterranean

On March 16 Syrian President Bashar Al Assad announced that any Russian proposals to add new military bases in his country, or to increase personnel numbers, would be welcome. “We speak about international balance and Russian presence in Syria has to do with the issue of balance of power, as Syria is located at the coast of Mediterranean sea. Today the superpowers can’t defend themselves or play their parts just being inside their borders, so they need to do it outside their borders with the help of their allies or with bases,” the president stated. “We think that expanding the Russian presence in Syria is a good thing because it will serve such an idea,” he added. The president’s statement provided an indication that such an expansion may be under discussion in Moscow, or indeed that it may have been decided on. Assad met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow the previous day, and reaffirmed his support for Russian military operations in Ukraine.  Alongside South Yemen, Syria was considered the Soviet Union’s closest strategic and security partner in the Middle East during the Cold War, with relations having improved considerably after Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 and three years later launched a large scale military intervention to support Syrian counterinsurgency efforts. 

Russia currently operates two military facilities in Syria, including Khmeimim Airbase which was opened in August 2015, and the small Tartus naval facility on the Mediterranean, both of which are situated in the eastern Latakia Governate. Its aircraft have at times deployed to other facilities in the country, particularly in 2016 during the hight of joint counterinsurgency operations.  Latakia’s proximity to the Turkish border meant it was a leading target for attacks by Al Qaeda linked jihadist militants before the Russian military intervention, with Turkey being by far the largest supporter of the terror group among the states bordering Syria making their capabilities particularly potent in the area. The Russian intervention was widely seen as a measure to prevent Turkey and its Western partners, as well as Jordan which borders Syria to the east, from establishing what they termed ‘safe zones’ on Syria soil where Western and allied forces would be deployed to guard insurgents and impose no fly zones.

Although Russian military intervention was key to forestalling the total collapse of the Syrian state, large parts of northeastern Syria remain under the control of Al Qaeda linked groups which continue to be protected by the Turkish Military. Syrian efforts to force terrorist militias off its territory have accordingly consistently been met with direct and large scale assaults by the Turkish Army and Air Force. Northeastern Syria is currently under the control of the U.S. Military, which operates with the support of a number of local militias as well as units from allied Western powers such as Norway, and which has continued to appropriate the oil reserves there which make up around 80 percent of all Syrian oil wealth. These appropriations have complemented extensive Western economic warfare efforts against the Syrian state, preventing a recovery to the pre war status quo even in government controlled areas.

Russia’s military presence in Syria has evolved significantly since it began to support Syrian counterinsurgency operations in late 2015, with the focus of its facilities having switched from countering Western and Turkish backed insurgent groups, to countering NATO powers directly. This was reflected in the kinds of assets it deployed. The most notable change was the expansion of the runways at Khmeimim Airbase to accommodate Tu-22M bombers and MiG-31K strike fighters, both of which deploy hypersonic weapons capable of striking NATO territory from Europe’s more vulnerable southern flank. Russia first began to deploy higher end assets suited to countering NATO militaries from December 2015, after the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian Air Force Su-24M strike fighter to provide cover to jihadist groups on the ground over western Syria. From late 2015 to early 2016 this included the first deployments of S-400 air defence systems and Su-27SM3 and Su-35 air superiority fighters. 

A larger Russian military presence in Syria could see a very wide range of assets deployed, the Russian Air Force presence spread out across more bases, and the Tartus naval facility expanded further into a major naval base. Syria’s position provides important strategic benefits to the Russian Military as it continues to see tensions with NATO escalate, with anticipated much higher levels of Russian defence spending over the coming decade potentially being key to facilitating this. Damascus is expected to be a key beneficiary, as more Russian forces on its territory could place further pressure on American and Turkish forces to withdraw, with these widely seen to be imposing illegal occupations with no permission from Damascus or UN mandates to legitimise their presences.