Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Tartous: Russia’s naval portal

The town of Tartous has flourished since the Russians made it their naval base in Syria, but the situation may be short-lived, writes Bassel Oudat

Brezhnev
Brezhnev
Al-Ahram Weekly

Tartous has not been much touched by the war in Syria. Its status as the stronghold of the Alawite clan, to which Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad belongs, has protected it, along with the apparently infinite supply of shabbiha, or thugs, who have joined pro-regime militias.

But there is another reason Tartous is now surrounded by fortifications, beside the fact that Hizbullah and Iranian troops are helping in its defence. Since Tartous acquired a Russian naval base, its strategic importance has grown exponentially, and all the more so since the Russians began their military intervention in Syria in late September 2015.

Tartous is the capital of the Tartous governorate in northern Syria. It is surrounded by dozens of predominantly Alawite villages and towns. Just 50 miles south of Latakia, this major city is also the hometown of Al-Assad’s family. Tartous is less cosmopolitan, and as a result less ethnically mixed, though even in Latakia the Alawis are not a majority. Half of the Latakia population is Sunni and a minority, around ten per cent, are Christian.

For decades, the regime has worked to turn Latakia and Tartous into bastions of its power. Over the course of the current war, security in both places has been tightened, but Tartous has not been completely spared the horrors of the war.

Every day, dozens of its young men now die, falling victim to a sectarian war in which they fight mostly on the regime’s side. Their funerals are now regularly held, the mourners passing by walls plastered with the images of thousands of the fallen.

The people of Tartous are trying to put a brave face on the crisis, staying up late each night to listen to patriotic songs glorifying the regime and its fighters and encouraging the young to join the fray.

Both Tartous and Latakia are crucial to the regime as potential pillars of the mini-state it hopes to create, if all other territories are lost, on the western coast of the country. One thing the regime hopes will be of help in that plan is if the Russians also have a motive to defend the coastal area — or rather two motives, in the shape of the Russian naval base in Tartous and the airbase in Latakia.

Tartous used to be a backwater, a small coastal town with few projects, no major investment, a strip of picturesque historic buildings and a smattering of tourist-oriented urbanism caught between farmland to the east and the Mediterranean to the west. Vacationers went there for the town’s seafood restaurants supplied by the small community of fishermen that has lived there since time immemorial.

When former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar’s father, came to power in 1971 he decided to turn the town into a stronghold of his sect. His plan was for a Syria that was fully controlled by his clan, the Alawis, an offshoot of the Shias.

He proceeded with caution, replacing army and police officers, top government officials, and the directors of public agencies with people from his own clan. To fortify his rule, Al-Assad wanted an insurance policy, however, so he gave Tartous to the Russians to use as a naval base.

One day, the Russians would come to his help if things went wrong, he must have calculated. This insurance policy has now paid off, but under his son, Bashar, Syria’s president since Hafez’s death in 2000.

In 1971, Hafez Al-Assad signed a military agreement allowing Soviet ships to use Tartous facilities for refuelling and repair. In the 1980s, he signed a friendship agreement that gave the Russian navy continued access to Tartous. Since then, the town has built additional facilities to service Russian naval ships.

The Soviets enjoyed similar privileges in Egypt in the 1960s but lost them in the early 1970s when then-president Anwar Al-Sadat switched his allegiance to the United States. As a result, the Tartous naval base in Syria took on added importance for Russian strategists, who continued to rely on it for their naval operations after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

In 2005, Bashar Al-Assad promised the Russians long-term control over the port of Tartous in exchange for forgiving 73 per cent of Syria’s debts to Russia, which amounted to $13.4 billion at the time.

Tartous today is the only naval base that gives Moscow access to the Mediterranean. It may not be large, but it provides crucial logistical services for Russian naval ships operating not only in the Mediterranean but also in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Russia has a major naval base in the Ukraine, but Russian strategists are worried they may not be able to keep it as a result of recent hostilities. By contrast, the naval base in Tartous offers major operational backing to Russian ships operating close to Europe and the Middle East.

Russian ships can sail from Tartous to Aden in Yemen, 1,870 nautical miles, in only four days. It is no understatement to say that the base in Tartous is crucial to Russia’s status as a major seafaring power.

And though this may not be the only reason the Russians have intervened recently in Syria, it is one good reason. If Russia were to lose its control of this port, its influence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East would instantly diminish.

In mid-2013, several battalions operating under the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) declared their intention to march on Tartous, threatening the future of the Russian naval base. Immediately, Moscow put its battleships on alert and let the FSA know that Tartous was a “red line” as far as it was concerned. Over the past few months, Russia has sent additional troops to Tartous as a way of saying that it has every intention of holding its ground in Syria.

Last summer, Al-Assad also offered the Russians a military base in the town of Jabla, between Tartous and Latakia. The Russians accepted the offer, but decided to use Latakia instead, enlarging the airport and beginning to use it as a military base. They also began operating a military airport in Jabla and used it in the course of their subsequent military intervention.

Latakia is less solidly pro-regime than Tartous. It is a bigger city with a cosmopolitan composition, and the Alawis there are relative newcomers, having arrived at the turn of the last century. During the recent hostilities, about 300,000 people from Aleppo and Idlib have also taken refuge in Latakia, swelling the ranks of the Sunni population, which is mostly opposed to the regime.

Since the beginning of the Russian intervention in Syria, there have been credible reports that the Russians have flown more sorties against FSA battalions stationed close to Latakia than against Islamic State (IS) group strongholds, which they claim are their main target.

The inhabitants of Tartous have been given extensive privileges by Bashar Al-Assad, and by his father before him. Many have made fortunes smuggling weapons and currency. During the recent conflict, pro-regime gangsters have run profitable businesses taking hostages for ransom.

As the conflict has continued, the unscrupulous have accumulated great wealth while the authorities have turned a blind eye. A sizeable proportion of the residents of Tartous now makes its living out of war-related activities, whether legal or illegal.

When Moscow first intervened in Syria, the Tartous population was divided. Some viewed the Russians as their ultimate defenders, while others claimed the regime was in no need of outside help. The majority of the Tartous population remains loyal to the regime and is adamant in its rejection of negotiations with the opposition.

However, sooner or later the Russians will have to press for a negotiated solution in Syria. They may be willing to shore up the regime to a certain point, but they know that their future interests in Syria, and their continued use of the naval base in Tartous, cannot be ensured through military force alone.

Russian strategists may have their eyes on Tartous and may be pleased with the additional gains they have made in Latakia. But they know that their military involvement is only a temporary measure, since otherwise they might generate the kind of resentments that could take years, if not decades, to reverse.

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