The Cable

Putin Signs Long-Term Basing Deal With Syria

Russia’s military foothold in Syria just got a lot firmer and will last for decades, boosting Moscow’s heft in the region.

A Russian Sukhoi Su-35 bomber lands at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria on May 4, 2016.
Syria's conflict erupted in 2011 after anti-government protests were put down. Fighting quickly escalated into a multi-faceted war that has killed more than 270,000 people and forced millions from their homes. / AFP / Vasily Maximov / MOY        (Photo credit should read VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A Russian Sukhoi Su-35 bomber lands at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria on May 4, 2016. Syria's conflict erupted in 2011 after anti-government protests were put down. Fighting quickly escalated into a multi-faceted war that has killed more than 270,000 people and forced millions from their homes. / AFP / Vasily Maximov / MOY (Photo credit should read VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)

While the world warily eyed Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday, Russia and Syria signed a long-term basing agreement giving Russian ships and planes access there for 50 years, a major commitment that underscores Russian President Vladimir Putin’s years-long effort to restore Russia’s once-powerful role in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The pact calls for expanding and making permanent Russia’s temporary air base in Latakia, and expanding the Russian naval facility in Tartus that would allow it to permanently harbor 11 ships. The expansion would enable Tartus to host larger ships than it currently can accommodate — for instance, the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov couldn’t dock there last fall — as well as nuclear submarines, according to Russian state-controlled press reports. Moscow will also send engineers and specialists to Damascus to help refurbish Syrian warships and defend the port area.

Russia has used the port to pour troops and weapons into Syria to bolster the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and dozens of Russian warplanes have used the airbase to attack any rebel group battling the regime, though Moscow has insisted that it is targeting the Islamic State. American defense officials have long complained that the Russian strikes rarely targeted ISIS, however, even as they at times bombed U.S.-backed rebels. The expanded base will mean less reliance for Moscow on supply and maintenance ships from its Black Sea fleet.

State Duma member Sergei Zheleznyak said on Friday that the deal “will help protect the Syrian people from the terrorist threat and, on top of that, will make it possible to consolidate stability across the Middle Eastern region.”

Even before the basing agreements, a Defense Department official told FP that Moscow “could sustain their current pace of operations for years” in Syria due to its relatively light footprint, and advances the Russian military has recently made in supporting troops operating overseas.

The new pact, which gives Russian ships and aircraft the ability to operate far away from their home bases for months at a time, also allows Moscow to continue to flex its muscles in the war in Syria.

The U.S. defense official said that Russia uses Syria “as a testing ground” for its latest weapons systems, showing off the fruits of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military modernization. “Their mobile operations, their use of special operations Spetsnaz forces, and electronic warfare” in particular have been noted by the Pentagon.

“They’re a real great power to contend with, and they have significant military capabilities,” the official said.

The timing is also notable as Washington prepares for a possible transformation in its role in the Syrian civil war. In his inauguration speech on Friday, President Donald Trump returned to familiar themes of ending foreign wars and cutting spending on overseas military deployments. He said Washington has for too long “spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”

That echoed Trump’s campaign trail calls to partner with Moscow and let Russia take the lead in fighting Islamic State, though to date Russian forces have attacked mostly civilians and anti-Assad opposition forces. However, some of Trump’s aides, such as National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, have in the past advocated a much bigger role for U.S. troops on the ground to fight Islamic State in Syria.

The U.S. diplomatic role in Syria is also in flux. On Saturday, the State Department said Washington would not send a delegation to the Syrian peace talks in Kazakhstan Monday despite an invitation from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who had urged the Trump administration to send a Middle East expert.

The Trump administration, which is still racing to fill vacancies in the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, will have an observer there in the form of the current U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, George Krol. In explaining the lack of a delegation, State Department acting spokesperson Mark Toner cited the “presidential inauguration and the immediate demands of the transition.”

The talks aim to shore up the shaky nationwide ceasefire in Syria that remains in place despite fighting in several areas across the country and pave the way for some sort of negotiated end to the six-year conflict.

 

John Hudson contributed to this report.

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