Tartus: why Russia will never leave Syria’s side

Analysts say only Moscow can compel Syrians to end their country’s 10-year conflict, in doing so protecting Russia’s regional interests

The Syrian port of Tartus is of considerable importance to Russia.
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Work is well under way on a Russia-funded $500 million project to modernise Syria’s commercial port of Tartus.

Moscow’s involvement is a clear signal that its role in the decade-long Syrian conflict is far from over.

Russia first intervened in the civil war in 2015, but its close relationship with the Assad regime began far earlier.

Analysts say access to port in Tartus, the last Russian military base outside the former Soviet Union, is a key driver of Moscow’s continued involvement in the conflict.

“Russia deals with the Syrian situation as a geo-strategic opportunity that resulted from the changes taking place in the regional balance of power,” said Ghazi Dahman, a political analyst specialising in Middle Eastern affairs.

“Russia’s strong role in the Syrian conflict shows its effectiveness in securing its position on the global ladder of power.”

Tartus reflects Moscow’s commitment to stay present and assert its dominance in the Middle East region, also pointing to the long history of co-operation between Russia and Syria in many areas.

In 1971, Hafez Al Assad, the father of current Syrian President Bashar, signed a Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation with Moscow. Placing few or no international legal commitments on either part, it merely symbolised mutual respect and similar world views.

Moscow has operated the naval facility at Tartus since signing an agreement with Damascus in the early 1970s as part of a multi-billion-dollar debt write-off. Historically, the port served as a repair and refuelling station with a limited Russian military presence.


It also allows Russian warships on the Mediterranean to refuel en route to their Black Sea bases, a shorter, simpler trip than by the Bosphorus strait in Turkey.

Tartus also serves as a solid fall-back plan should relations with Ankara decline to the extent that its navy and supply line could be cut off beyond the Black Sea.

But in 2017, Russia increased its influence in the area and over Syria by striking a deal with Mr Al Assad’s government to extend its lease on Tartus by 49 years.

The agreement allowed Moscow to expand the naval base and grant Russian warships access to Syrian waters and ports, Viktor Bondarev, head of Russia’s upper house security and defence committee, told RIA news agency at the time. It will also allow it to keep up to 11 warships there, including nuclear-powered ones.

“The Tartus base is the most prominent feature of Russian external influence, because it gives it control and influence over a wide area that extends to Europe, through the ability of its strategic bombers to move and monitor,” Mr Dahman said.

“Additionally, it gives Russia a good margin of manoeuvre that balances a Nato force [Turkey] that seeks to assert control over Russia from the West, through the countries of Eastern Europe and from its south by bringing about changes in Central Asian countries.”

Moscow’s forces have used Tartus to support Mr Al Assad’s fight against rebel groups. Russian commander Andrei Krasov said the port’s strategic location was a means for his country to “strengthen its position in the Middle East as a peacemaker and as a guarantor of global security”.

Dr Khattar Abou Diab, professor of international relations at Sciences Po in Paris, said: “Since Russia’s mid-air intervention in the Syrian conflict, they have expanded and cemented their presence in the ports of Tartus and Latakia, where Russia exercises direct control, indefinitely.”

The enemy of my friend is my friend

The Assad family, which has been in power since 1971, continues to honour its friendship with Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al Assad. Moscow’s military campaign in Syria helped consolidate Mr Al Assad’s power and allowed his government to reclaim control over most of the country.

For Russia, engaging in Syria has been a gainful experience for its regional interests. It has been involved in military action without any significant ramifications, has the country’s support in UN-related matters and has leveraged Israeli fear of Syrian aggression and the Iran-backed militias within its borders by mediating between Israel and Damascus to reduce tension.

Russia also placated Israeli concern of Iran sending advanced weaponry to its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, which has a significant presence in Syria, through Tartus.

By fortifying its presence at the port, Russia can intercept ships carrying weapons from Iran to Syria, as Israel did in 2019. If Moscow cements its hold over Tartus, that would give its ally Israel some peace of mind.

Earlier this year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offered to help Israel to neutralise threats on the Israeli-Syrian border, rather than have IDF air strikes against Iran-linked sites in Syria. He said Israel should instead share intelligence about such threats, and that Russia doesn’t want Syrian territory to be used against Israel or “as a platform for the Iranian-Israeli strife”.

Russia can bring Syria to the table

James Jeffrey, the US envoy for Syria, said Russia had enough leverage to bring the Assad regime to the negotiating table and end the decade-long conflict, which has displaced and impoverished millions of Syrians.

But the Kremlin has little faith in Syrian opposition parties. In contrast, they fear they may undermine Russia’s regional strength and put its interests, particularly Tartus, in jeopardy.

“Russia has tried to manage complex balances in the Syrian crisis by both weakening the effects of international decisions, such as the Security Council Resolution 2254, and also forming a new context for the Syrian peace process, between the regime and the opposition, which guarantees the survival of the regime while introducing some reforms that allow the opposition get involved,” Mr Dahman said.

Having provided the Assad regime with considerable military and financial support, it is in Russia’s financial interest to help Syria reach a political settlement and get back on its feet – economically and structurally – to minimise the likelihood of it footing the bill for the country’s rehabilitation and reconstruction.

“Both Russia and Iran need the United States to take part in bringing this conflict to a close and to start the very costly process of rebuilding Syria from the ground up,” Dr Abu Diab said.

“That way, Russia can fully reap the many rewards and benefits it has sought after for so long, via its hold on Syrian ports, in addition to its interest in Syrian oil and gas reserves.”