Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 January 2020

Iran and Russia vie for influence on Syrian coast

Latakia port will soon be leased to Iran in a region dominated by Russia

A Russian Su-24 bomber passes a portrait of Syrian President BasharAl Assad at Hmeimim airbase in Latakia province , Syria, 04 May 2016. EPA
A Russian Su-24 bomber passes a portrait of Syrian President BasharAl Assad at Hmeimim airbase in Latakia province , Syria, 04 May 2016. EPA

As the war in Syria grinds to an end, President Bashar Al Assad’s most loyal backers Iran and Russia are finding their marriage of convenience may be showing signs of strain.

Syria will soon give Iran access to its most important commercial port in Latakia, just 25 kilometres from the Russian airbase of Khmeimim, potentially increasing friction between the two allies of Mr Assad. Russia also operates a naval base in neighbouring Tartus.

Both countries have invested heavily in supporting the Damascus government, and hope to reap the rewards for it.

According to figures published last month by Al Araby Al Jadeed, Russia has spent about $3 billion on military operations since 2015, while Iran has spent double this amount.

There have been reports that Iran operates secret military bases in Syria too, though Tehran denies this.

Divergences between the two countries are not new. While Iran focuses on “cash and land”, Russia’s aim is to strengthen its influence militarily, wrote BBC journalist Lina Sinjab last year, adding that “many in Damascus believe that Russia is trying to block Iran’s economic expansion plans.”

Last January, Syria and Iran signed a flurry of new trade agreements. Iran was charged with rehabilitating the ports of Tartus and Latakia as well as building a 540-megawatt power station.

Russia’s intervened in the war in 2015, changing the trajectory of the conflict in favour of Mr Assad. The Kremlin’s involvement was seen as an effort to maintain control over its military presence in Latakia, which provides it direct access to the Mediterranean Sea. In 2017, Russia renewed its lease on Khmeimim for another five decades.

Latakia’s container port will be transferred to Iranian management from October 1 when its lease expires, The Times of London reports.

“The current contract for the management of Latakia port is held by a joint venture between Souria Holding, a Syrian investment company, and CMA CGM, a French shipping firm,” writes The Times.

But Iran securing a permanent coastal foothold in Syria may be too much for Russia, which has reportedly opposed the move.

In recent years, Russia’s airbase has suffered several drone attacks and officials in Moscow may be concerned that an Iranian base nearby could expose Russia to more attacks, particularly from Israel. Late last year, the Kremlin blamed Israel after Syrian air defences, which were targeting Israeli jets, accidentally shot down a Russian military plane.

However, Russia and Israel have made it clear since then that they have put the incident behind them. The two countries enjoy a close diplomatic relationship. In January, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that while the airstrikes were unjustified, “the security of Israel is of paramount importance”.

“If the port in Latakia were used by Iran to store weapons or technical military equipment, it could be bombed by Israel or even the United States and its coalition, which might also affect Russia and the security of its military infrastructure at the Hmeimim base,” said Alexei Khlebnikov, a Middle East analyst at the Russia International Affairs Council think tank, which was set up to advise the Kremlin.

Another risk factor for Russia could be the operations run by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) in Latakia port. US President Donald Trump has designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organisation earlier this week, increasing regional tensions.

“Iranian companies linked to the IRGC have started shipping goods through the port, suggesting that Tehran might use it as an alternative route to bring weapons into the country,” wrote The Times.

Russia’s concerns over the lease of the port to Iran, however, are unlikely to escalate, analysts told The National.

“US policy of increasing pressure on Iran will push it closer to Russia,” Mr Khlebnikov said. “Iran and Russia will maintain this marriage of convenience because they still need each other, especially in Syria.”

Updated: April 10, 2019 07:42 PM