Russia to open ports in Syria?

This kind of takes you back to history class, Russia's perennial search for a warm-water port, the Crimean War and all that:

In early June, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported Moscow's decision to establish naval bases in the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia. The Russian Defense Ministry officially denied the report, even though more than one source confirmed it.

As part of the plan, the port of Tartus would be transformed into a naval base for Russia's Black Sea Fleet when it is away from the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol. The Russian plan involves the installation of an air defense system with S-300PMU-2 Favorit ballistic missiles. The missiles have a range of 200 kilometers (124 miles), allow a larger warhead and are equipped with a better guidance system than the previous version. The air defense system would be operated by Russia for the defense of the Tartus base and would provide potential protection for a large part of Syria. Through these initiatives, it is clear that Russia wants to strengthen its position in the Middle East.
Read the rest here.


This kind of thing highlights the slow sea-change in great power strength in the Middle East, away from the US and towards Russia and China. I won't play armchair geostrategist and talk about the ineluctable re-rise of the Russian bear (although, as an occasional reader of Russian international relations magazines, there's definitely something going on there). The article points out that this will be a double-edged sword for Syria:

The increase of Syrian strategic dependence on Russia will strengthen Moscow's political role in the region, even if Russian arms sales to Syria risk damaging the good relations built with Israel in recent years. Of course, stronger Russian influence in Syria could be used by Putin in a dual way. For example, if Russia needs to improve relations with Israel and the United States, it could possibly compel Syria to take a softer approach toward these countries. On the flip side, if Russia needs to increase pressure on these countries, it can use Syria as its arm for this purpose.
One thing it does not mention is that, should there be a Russia navy base on the Syrian coast, it will make Syria much more difficult to attack (and perhaps even make difficult the occasional Israeli overflight of Damascus?) It's yet one of the many clues that tell you Syria is not about to be invaded anytime soon.

Will we be returning, if 20 years' time, to a great power game in the Middle East akin to the one that began in the 19th century and culminated in the 1920s and 1930s? US, EU and Russia sharing the Mediterranean, US trying to control an unstable Persian Gulf against a Iran-China alliance, China controlling Sudan and the horn of Africa, etc? I know Arabs are meant to have a great sense of hospitality, but sometimes you feel like you have all sorts of guests who just won't leave.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.