Among the nine military bases currently used by the Russian Federation, so far the only one in Syria is Tartus, a naval facility classified by Russia as a “technical and material support point”, operating since 1971 thanks to an agreement with Hafez al-Assad’s Baathist Syria.
The Humaynim air base, however, is Syrian and, in any case, Russian aircraft and sensors are stationed there.
The Tartus base is a necessary supply and repair point for the initially Soviet and later Russian ships that were to transit through the base located in the Syrian territory to reach the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
The Tartus base can accommodate three ships at the same time and an Amur PM-138 class repair ship is stationed there. Nevertheless the base is not yet suitable for hosting, protecting and repairing the new large Russian warships.
Nevertheless the new agreement between the Russian and Syrian governments, signed last January, extends the concession of the base to the Russian Federation for further 49 years and allows the necessary works to make the Tartus base capable of repairing and supplying eleven ships at the same time. Most importantly, it grants to Russia sovereignty over the base territory and its waters.
In particular, the Tartus base will be able to host ships which are both nuclear-armed and nuclear-propelled.
If we relate this fact to the Russian base planned by Khalifa Haftar’s “Operation Dignity” on the coast of Cyrenaica – an operation seeking to ridicule the European and North American powers which have bet on the wrong horse, namely Al Serraj, a true Machiavelli’s “unarmed prophet” – we have all the geopolitical dimension of the new projection of Russian power onto the Mediterranean.
We must also consider the Conference managed by Russia for mediating between Hamas and Fatah, making Russia stand for becoming the only real Middle East power broker, while the United States is turned into a free tool of the Saudi policy against Iran and Qatar, which are still supported by Turkey, namely NATO’s second armed force.
It is certainly not easy for NATO to find a common policy on the Middle East, considering that France and Turkey support Haftar; the other NATO European countries unnecessarily support al-Sarraj’s government, in line with UN preferences; Russia backs “Operation Dignity” of Libyan General Haftar, who already controls Cyrenaica, Sirte and much of the Libyan oil crescent, and the United States does nothing.
In other words, in the Mediterranean basin, the Russian Federation plans to restructure the whole Maghreb region on its own, after the evident US failure of the “Arab Springs”.
The Russian strategy is easy to explain, namely a series of military bases or concessions, which progressively expel the United States and its European allies from the Mediterranean region.
Furthermore Russia will soon propose a possible agreement of mutual alliance and bilateral support against terrorism that will be offered by it to all NATO and EU Mediterranean countries, ever less seduced by NATO and above all by the United States.
Let us revert, however, to the new Russian base in Syria, which closes the loop of this strategic project.
Today, the military engineers’ corps of the Russian Armed Forces are building a new base, which will probably be the vertex of the new Russian Mediterranean triangle, at Kirbet Ras Al-Wa’r, in the Syrian district of Bir Al Qasab.
The Syrian-Arab army, the main force available to Bashar al-Assad, has recently reconquered the whole area from Kirbet up to Arinbah and the whole desert south-east of Damascus, by defeating the para-jihadist – albeit US-backed – forces of Assud Al Sharqia.
Assud Al Sharqia’s group operated under the command of the US base of Al Tanf, on the Syrian border with Iraq.
As we will see later on, this base has now been made harmless.
The war material left by the defeated anti-Assad “rebels” is certainly remarkable both in quantitative and in qualitative terms: many RPG-26 disposable anti-tank rocket launchers developed by Russia, but probably of Jordanian origin; other GRAD BM 21 missiles, namely largely and effectively used rocket launchers manufactured by Russia; many KONKURS (NATO reporting name: AT 5 Spandrel), widely-used wire-guided anti-tank missiles developed in the former Soviet Union.
Clearly the new Russian base of Khirbat Ras al Wa’r, at the core of the Syrian Southern region, deprives the United States of the only concrete possibility of attacking Bashar Assad’s forces north of Al Tanf and, in any case, of drawing the Syrian-Arab Army of the Alawite government away from the Iraqi border, a primary source of support for jihadists and for those whom the United States – using an Orwellian expression – calls “moderate Islamists”.
The new Russian base is 85 kilometres from Damascus, 96 from Deraa and 185 kilometres from the US base of Al-Tanf, which will soon be encircled from the South by the operations of Bashar al-Assad’ Syrian-Arab Army, which is also opening its way to Deraa and Idlib along the Jordanian border.
Furthermore, the recent US operation against the Russian-Syrian base of Shayrat, in central Syria, was meant to be a retaliation against the attack on the village of Qan Shayqun, for which Syria had considered the possibility of using nerve gas.
Despite the scarcity of sources, also the US intelligence had clarified that the Syrian attack had been targeted against a jihadist gathering organized there on April 4 – an attack carried out by a Russian-guided missile containing conventional explosives.
The US reaction – prompted by the fake news that Syria had used Sarin – was based on a series of Tomahawk missile launches, but most of the Syrian aircraft had already been moved to bases far from Shayrat.
All this gives you the idea of the poor quality of the US operational and tactical intelligence on the Syrian territory and of the particular level of disconnection between the collection of data on the field and the US decision-making process.
The new base – the intelligence axis of Russia’s engagement in Syria – will be aimed at controlling the Syrian South-Eastern border, where both the US-backed and the Iranian forces enter.
Building this new military base, just 50 kilometres from Damascus, means protecting the Syrian capital city from any present and future threat, namely the one currently coming from the Al Tanf area and, hence, from the Jordanian forces, from the US ones and their “moderate jihadist” allies operating on the Syrian soil.
Hence the final stabilization of Bashar al-Assad’s regime under the Russian protection is approaching, as well as the consequent expulsion of the Sunni and pro-American jihad from the Syrian territory.
This is the operation that will become the starting point for a new Russian hegemony in the Greater Middle East, where Russia has no real enemies, but wants to restructure it according to its interests: at first, the projection onto the Mediterranean and, later, the strategic correlation between Russian and OPEC oil.
The construction of the base has begun when the secret contacts between the United States and the Russian Federation resumed in Amman, Jordan.
Contacts useful primarily to define the “de-escalation zone” in Southern Syria, especially in the Deraa area.
For various parts of Syria, the four de-escalation zones had already been defined during the Astana talks of last May in a specific agreement between Russia and Iran.
Obviously the United States does not accept an agreement with Iran, but proposes a new de-escalation zone to Russia, without having to rely on a relationship with Iran.
The two delegations are led by Michael Ratney for the United States and Aleksandr Lavrentiev for Russia.
At the end of last January, the Russian envoy had already negotiated with Israel the central lines of the future peace in Syria.
Al Tanaf, the US base that the new Russian facility could make harmless, was one of the two pillars of the US plan, consisting in unilaterally declaring a “de-escalation zone” between Al Tanaf itself up to the Euphrates valley, in the direction of Deyr al-Zur.
The plan underlying this operation was to break the “Shiite crescent” that was supposed to connect, on the ground, Iran to the Lebanon via Southern Syria.
It is likely, however, that the plan was, in fact, to build a larger Sunni corridor, at the sides of the Shiite crescent, going from the Saudi-Iraqi border, namely from Al Anbar – through the Syrian Sunni area and the area occupied by the Kurds, up to the Turkish border.
The Syrian forces alone have blocked this plan by connecting the Western area of their country to the Iraqi border, north-east of Al Tanaf, and by advancing just north-east towards Abu Qamal and the Euphrates valley.
The US-Jordanian base of Al Tanaf has been closed southwest – as in a vice – by both Syria and the Iranian forces. This is the premise for the passage of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrians towards Deyr al Zur and the Euphrates valley, although today Deir is still surrounded by jihadists.
Hence the United States is acknowledging its limited room for manoeuvre in Syria.
In fact, on June 22, a still confidential tripartite agreement was reached by the United States, Russia and Jordan to create a true demilitarized zone in Southern Syria, which would also cover the Israeli and Jordanian borders.
As far as we know, the agreement envisages that the United States will continue to manage the base of Al Tanaf.
In return, the United States will not react to Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah operations against Daesh-Isis to reconquer the border town of Abu Kamal, north of Al Tanaf.
Conversely, Russia ensures the return back home of the Iranian forces, of Hezbollah and the militia they command, in a still undefined phase of the future stabilization of the Syrian area.
Moreover a joint Russian-American administration will be defined to manage the civil affairs of Southern Syria, including the areas bordering on Israel and those bordering on Jordan.
Russia, to which Syria cannot deny large interference with some Syrian areas, will ensure stability north of the Jewish State – in the place of the United States and, anyway, in a hegemonic way with respect to it – which Russia wants to keep within the Middle East, but without playing the old role of power broker it had before the conflict in Syria.
A clash that has revealed who is the new, real Middle East broker and manager, after the US ill-advised support to the jihadist guerrilla warfare against Bashar el Assad, the last tessera of the “Arab Springs” and the final crucial point of the US hegemony over the whole area.
Meanwhile, the US-linked Syrian Democratic Forces have encircled Raqqa – and Syria foresees that the liberation of the last “capital city” of Daesh-Isis will last at least three months.
The US geopolitical tape will rewind: hence future stabilization – also with the US support – of the tension between the various Palestinian organizations; probable peace between Israel and the PNA Territories; Russian-American cooperation against the jihad in Sinai and a new agreement between the United States and Egypt, while a new role of armed mediation will be probably played by the United States and by the two conflicting governments within Libya.
Conversely, no one can say anything about Russia’s expansion in the Mediterranean, which will probably be supported by Turkey that, as already said, is the second NATO armed force, while Russia will favour either an agreement between Khalifa Haftar and Fayez al-Sarraj or a definitive military action against Tripoli’s government.
Nevertheless, the United States will not have the opportunity of accepting the new bilateral US and Russian administration in Southern Syria: in fact, if Bashar al-Assad’s forces conquer Abu Kamal, Iran will strengthen its position on the Syrian-Iraqi border, while the United States does not want any presence – albeit limited in time – of Iran and Hezbollah on the Syrian territory.
Hence, according to the United States, at first the Shiites must be out of the Syrian territory and later the real bilateral negotiations on Southern Syria can start.
Nevertheless will Israel trust more the control that Russia has shown over the Iranian and Lebanese operations north of Golan or the US side guarantees which, however, will be marginal in the future in the region?
Another factor we must consider – also in view of understanding Syria’s future – is the clash between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
As is well known, the Saudi demands to Qatar are thirteen: in particular, breaking any relationship with Iran – and I think it will be hard, considering the cooperation between the two countries for the South Pars gas field; closing the Turkish military base, which does not only depend on Qatar – but Turkey has no intention of closing anything and, indeed, it is planning joint Turkish-Qatari exercises after Eid-ul Fitr, i.e. in a few days; Qatar’s closing Al Jazeera and not funding media such as “Arabi21”, “Rassdi”, “Arabi Al-Jadid” and “Middle East Eye”; blocking any funding to terrorist groups so defined by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United States, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – and you can tell they will be mainly Shiite and pro-Iranian groups; breaking off any relations with Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and the Caliphate; not interfering with the internal affairs of the signatory countries of the motion against Qatar; suspending any aid to the internal opponents in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain; compensating the damage caused to the above-stated countries; finally aligning with said countries from all viewpoints, according to the agreement signed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia in 2014, so as to be later subjected to monthly inspections to monitor the implementation of these agreements, at least for the first year.
In principle, it is a spoliation of Qatar to support the Saudi finances and back the transformation of the Saudi economy, with the capital and funds of the wealthy Qatar, so as to make it no longer dependent on oil.
The United States supports this agreement to rebalance the power void experienced in Syria, but it is by no means certain it will have to do with friendly countries and with similar regional interests.
Saudi Arabia’s financial crisis is severe, mainly because of the expensive engagement of the Al Sauds’ kingdom to support the war in Syria, Iraq and Yemen – a war that the very link between Bashar al-Assad and the Russian Federation has shown to be useless and dangerous from the Sunni side.
The fight to reduce the oil barrel price, triggered off by Saudi Arabia to undercut the US shale oil competition, on which Obama’s new economic growth was centered, led to Trump’s victory, thus creating – in the Saudi clan – an internal war between those who want a new relationship with Russia and China, the winners on the field, and a new and stronger relationship with the new US Presidency – which, however, will be ever less important in the Middle East.
An almost explicit goal is to block the participation of the Saudi-dominated Middle East system in the Chinese New Silk Road project, encompassing Iran and part of Syria.
And here we revert again to the Russian project on Syria, crowned with the future victory on the field.
In fact, Iran would be the spearhead of the new Chinese project to put its currency at the core of future oil trade.
This is also the reason why we are still fighting in Syria. And it is precisely Iran that has just liberated Mosul.
Nevertheless it is exactly the Chinese finance that is currently pivoting on Qatar, for the whole Middle East.
Hence if the situation in Syria stabilizes under the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad, Saudi Arabia will no longer have any protection from the Syrian-Jordanian border towards its territory, and even a pincer movement might take place, while the Kingdom’s finances go bust, between Qatar and Iran’s Northern allies, namely Syria, the Lebanon and Iraq.
Moreover, if Saudi Arabia keeps its role as Asia’s primary oil supplier, excluding Iran from playing this role, it can reasonably support its post-oil project for transforming its economy.
Conversely, if the United Kingdom unwillingly accepts a strong and dominant presence of Iran and its allies in the New Middle East, it shall necessarily accept to play a marginal role in the Chinese Road and Belt Initiative, which already makes most of its Middle East investment in Qatar.
Nevertheless there is the variable of the contrast between Hezbollah and Israel. Just in these days the Jewish State has carried out air raids against Syrian positions near Quneitra, three kilometres from the Golan border.
Shortly before, Bashar al-Assad’ Syrian-Arab Army and Hezbollah had fought against a large alliance of Salafist jihadist groups, while the Lebanese Shiite groups were made up of Shiites, Circassians, Shiite Afghans and soldiers of some Bashar al-Assad’s brigades.
If Syria tends to put Golan under its control, Israel’s immediate reaction will be very tough. Moreover if, from Deraa southwards, Syrians arrives at the border with Jordan, a severe casus belli will be created with the Hashemite Kingdom.
Syria cannot hit two of its opponents at the same time to avoid a joint attack that would move the Syrian-Arab Army away from Golan and would push it into the arms of Al Nusra and the other jihadist groups still present north of Quneitra.
And this will be a real acid test for the Russian Federation’s credible mediation role.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France