Since the beginning of Syria’s war in 2011, Russia and Iran have built a strong military presence in Syria in support of the Syrian government. Russia officially entered the Syrian conflict in September 2015 in support of the recognized government. Iran has supported the Syrian government since 2012, giving Syria extensive military aid in the form of training, weapons, and intelligence sharing.
On April 20, 2019, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met senior Russian officials for talks in Damascus, with both countries state media saying a deal was close to leasing out Syria’s Tartus port to Russia.
In December 2017, the Russian parliament ratified a deal with Damascus to allow for the Russian Navy to expand its technical support and logistics base. The agreement has been in temporary effect since it was signed. It will be valid for 49 years when the lease is officially signed, with possible extensions by 25 year periods, it also agreed that Russia would expand and modernize the port’s supply of facilities for its fleet, allowing Russia to deploy up to 11 warships at one time.
Tartus is Russia’s only base in the Mediterranean Sea dates back to Soviet days. Tartus lies on Syria’s western coast and has had a Russian naval presence since 1971. At the time, the Soviet Union was Syria’s primary arms supplier and used the deepwater port as a destination for shipments of Soviet weapons. Russia managed to maintain access to Tartus after the fall of the U.S.S.R due in part to a deal that wrote off Syrian debts to the Soviet Union.
Beginning just before the reign of Peter the Great in the late 17th century, Russia fought a series of wars with the Ottoman Empire in a quest to establish a warm water port off the Black Sea. By 1812, Russia had managed to secure control of the entire northern coast of the Black Sea. Even with year–round ports on the Black Sea, access to the Mediterranean was still governed by the whims of whoever controlled the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits. During World War I, Russia made a never consummated secret agreement with Britain and France that would have granted it control of Constantinople and the Turkish straits if the Allies proved victorious.
For Iran, which always dreams of building a strong regional economy based on trade, high ways and pipelines that cross from Iran to the Mediterranean, helping to build up Syrian ports is only one element in a much larger vision of prosperity and shared interests. Most important will be the day that Iran can sell its oil and gas to Europe by transporting across Iraq and Syria.
Iran gave the Syrians a line of credit totaling $6.6 billion since 2011, and that was topped up with an additional $1 billion in 2017. The two governments agreed to establish a joint chamber of commerce, a joint bank, and a power station in Latakia. Iranian developers were also given the rights to construct a 200,000 apartment housing development near the Syrian capital.
Iran has also promised to address Syria’s ongoing crippling fuel shortage by sending all future shipments of heating fuel, cooking fuel, and gasoline to the Iranian leased section of Latakia, once it is fully operational next autumn.
In 2017, the Iranians asked for a license to obtain 1,000 hectares of land in the coastal city of Tartus, which they wanted to transform into oil and gas port. Because of its proximity to the Russian military base, Moscow nixed the proposal. So, Tehran set its sights on 5,000 hectares of fertile territory close to the Shiite Sayideh Zainab Shrine near Damascus International Airport, which it wanted to develop for agriculture. Again, the Russians said no, offering instead agricultural fields in the countryside of Deir Ezzor, but they were inaccessible as they were controlled by Kurdish militants allied to the United States.
In recent months, a number of industrial, military, and energy deals between Tehran and Damascus have been made public, including one that provides for the establishment of power stations in Latakia. The Latakia port agreement gives Iran the right to use the Syrian harbor with 23 warehouses for economic purposes only, but once in control of the premises, nothing prevents them from transforming it into a military facility. Iran will take over management of the port at the Syrian city of Latakia from October 1st, 2019, as per an agreement between the two countries.
A foothold in Latakia fulfills a decades-long Iranian dream of having direct access to the Mediterranean Sea, from where it can ship goods, arms, and political influence to the rest of the world. The port-management agreement is another building block in Iran’s project to maintain its presence in Syria. The lease of Latakia will not only end Russia’s exclusive presence in the coastal district, but it may also put Russian troops and military vehicles at risk. A permanent Iranian presence in Latakia could limit and possibly obstruct Russian surveillance and intelligence gathering, jam their radio-electronic technology and jeopardize Russian air-defenses, aircraft, and the lives of military personnel.