A reason frequently given by Western commentators for Russia’s support for President Assad is Russia’s supposed wish to protect its naval base in Tartus in Syria. Some commentators have suggested conversely that one of the reasons for the whole Syrian war was to drive the Russians out of Syria.
In my opinion neither of these claims is true, but there is no doubt that one consequence of the war is that it has hugely increased the scale of Russia’s military presence in Syria beyond anything conceivable in 2011 when the Syrian conflict started.
Russia now operates two large bases in Syria which are definitely known about, and a third one whose existence is sometimes alluded to but which has never been publicly confirmed.
(1) Tartus naval base
The Russian navy has maintained a presence in Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus since the 1970s (some reports claim since 1971, other reports put the start date later).
Though the facility at Tartus was often called a base, until recently it was better described as a small logistics facility tasked with providing support for the Russian navy’s Mediterranean deployments. The facility lacked the capacity to hosting more than a small number ships, and none of anything beyond corvette size. Apparently it was mainly staffed by civilian contractors. At the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011 it had apparently fallen into decay, and was barely in use.
Russia has now contracted a 49 year lease for the base, which is set for a huge expansion. The objective is to enlarge it so that it can host simultaneously 11 warships, some nuclear powered. Apparently work has already begun.
Assuming this work is completed, it will transform the base into a major naval base comparable in scale to those the US and NATO elsewhere in the Mediterranean.
(2) Khmeimim air base
This did not exist prior to September 2015, and is a hurried adaptation of a part of the civilian Bassel Al-Assad airport. It consists of a single 2,979 metre asphalt runway, and was pressed into service by the Russian air force in September 2015 to enable it to conduct its air campaign against the Jihadis in Syria.
Russia has now contracted a 49 year lease for this base. There is talk that it too will be expanded, with the building of a second larger concrete runway more suitable for high performance aircraft such as fighter jets and bombers.
This too would transform the base into a facility more comparable to US bases in the area, such as Incirlik in Turkey.
Alongside the extra runway there will presumably also be permanent facilities for the personnel manning the base, together with all the standard equipment required for such a base.
(3) Latakia listening station
From time to time reports dribble out of a large Cold War Russian listening (SIGINT) station in Latakia province in Syria, though details confirming its existence are hard to find.
In October 2014 Jihadis overran a listening post at Al-Harra in south west Syria close to the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. This appears to have been a small listening post supposedly codenamed “Centre S”. Possibly it was a branch of the much bigger complex located deeper within Syria in Latakia province that rumour speaks of.
Assuming this facility exists it will certainly have been affected by the revolution in electronic and signals intelligence which has taken place since the end of the Cold War. This has made it easier to monitor signals traffic from within Russia, reducing the need for foreign based listening stations such as the one that supposedly exists in Latakia. Having said this it is likely that this facility does exist, and that it is still active.
Russian reports occasionally give the impression that signals traffic in Syria is now being monitored from a facility actually located within Khmeimin air base. It could be that the listening station has been relocated there, or – more probably – that this is being said in order to conceal its true location.
These three facilities are now protected by a complex belt of inter-locking defence systems, including the very powerful S-400 and S-300VM Antey 2500 anti aircraft missile systems deployed to Syria last year, the shorter range Pantsir S1 missile gun point defence missile gun system which came with the original Russian force that went to Syria in September 2015, the very advanced Krasukha 4 electronic warfare system (said to be capable of jamming AWACS aircraft and satellites), and the batteries of supersonic Bastion anti missiles redeployed along Syria’s coast late last year from Crimea. There are now reports that Russia is sending batteries of Tochka-U short range ballistic missiles to Syria as well, though the Kremlin is refusing to confirm this.
Moreover since all these facilities are located within a small area in Latakia province they are able to function together as a single giant air and naval base complex, possibly under the supervision of a single base officer.
Whether US support for the Jihadis in Syria really was motivated by a desire to drive the Russians out of Syria is open to doubt. However if it was then the conclusion must be that it has not only failed, but that it has achieved the opposite of what was intended to do.
Not only is Syria now more closely tied to Russia than ever before, but as a direct consequence of the Syrian war the Russians are now building an air and naval base complex in Syria the like of which they have never had in the Mediterranean before, making it possible for the first time for their land based aircraft to patrol the skies of the eastern Mediterranean, and for their ships to operate there without having to be supported at a distance from Russia’s home ports.
Moreover this is the first air and naval base complex on this scale to exist in the Mediterranean since the Second World War which is not controlled by the US or by one of its allies, but which is controlled instead by one of the US’s rivals.
Not the least consequence of the Syrian war is that it has not only weakened the US’s position in the Middle East, but it has also for the first time since the Second World War shaken the US’s hitherto unbreakable grip on the Mediterranean area.