Russia’s new base in Qamishli is a message. But for whom?

Russia will reportedly use the new base, located within a civilian airport, to host military helicopters. (AFP)
Updated 16 November 2019

Russia’s new base in Qamishli is a message. But for whom?

  • Russia commandeering the Qamishli base is a statement of intent

ANKARA: The strategic significance of Russia’s new base in Syria’s northeastern city of Qamishli is currently being debated. As is the question of whether it is intended as a message from Moscow to Ankara.

Russia already has bases in Crimea, Armenia, Tartus and Khmeimim. This new addition — in a Kurdish-populated area on Turkey’s southern flank — means Russia now has a ring of bases around Turkey.

Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the Ankara-based think tank ORSAM, said Russia’s move is significant for both Ankara and Washington, coming as it does less than a month after the abrupt withdrawal of US forces from some parts of Syria.

The Qamishli base was previously used by American troops until last month, when Turkey launched its two-week-long incursion into northern Syria.

“With this new base, Russia makes a stride to the eastern flank of Syria. The zone where Qamishli is located is very strategic in geographic terms,” Orhan said, explaining that it is close to oil and gas fields and the main transit route between Iraq and Syria.

Russia recently called America’s move to protect Syrian oil fields “banditry,” and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Syrian forces must take back control of the country’s oil fields.

Russia will reportedly use the new base, located within a civilian airport, to host military helicopters. Defense will be provided by surface-to-air missile systems, helicopters and gunships. It will also help Russia protect its military police personnel working on the Turkey-Syria border.

According to Orhan, Russia commandeering the Qamishli base is a statement of intent that it will fill the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of US forces and consolidate its presence in the eastern flank. “And it will be a message given to Turkey and the US, with the control of airspace in the region,” he said.

There are two ways for Ankara to view Russia’s latest move: As a threat to its regional footprint, or as a boon for its attempts to oust the Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey considers a terror group.

If Moscow’s move ends up shielding the YPG, intentionally or otherwise, then it will inevitably irritate Ankara.

“This move (means) Qamishli is not a legitimate target for Ankara, and that could be a concern for Turkey,” said Orhan. “But, on the other hand, as long as the Syrian regime and Russia take a hold here, it could also be an opportunity for weakening YPG. It all depends on Moscow’s preference.”

Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said that if the move is intended as a show of Moscow’s strength, the intended audience is not Washington.

“This base shouldn’t be read as a challenge to the US,” he told Arab News. “The Americans don’t have any intention of deploying their forces in the cities. They care about the suburbs. The Russians having more military equipment won’t cause them any problems.”

According to Saban, the base will likely be used to facilitate joint Russian-Turkish patrols of the area, which began in northeast Syria on Nov. 1.

“Despite some claims, I don’t think that this (is a bid) for full control of the area, because the Russians wouldn’t need (to make such a bid),” Saban said. “It is obvious that this area is run through specific international agreements, and it is not about the power of certain countries.”

Analyzing the move from a Russian perspective, Dr. Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst of Russian- Turkish relations, said he thinks Moscow’s decision to set up a helicopter base in Qamishli seems to have long-term goals in terms of Russia’s influence in the region.

“First, the Qamishli base will most likely mean that there is a second permanent Russian air base in Syria in the near future, as the town has a strategically important location so close to Turkey and Iraq. Russia can benefit from observing not only Syrian but Turkish and Iraqi airspace,” he told Arab News.

Has also noted that Russian military began to operate out of Khmeimim in 2015, while the deal with Damascus to use Khmeimim airport as a permanent military base came about 18 months later. He foresees a similar situation unfolding in Qamishli.

According to Has, Russia’s takeover of the base may also reflect its growing engagement in the Kurdish issue.

“It is no coincidence that Qamishli was excluded from the areas of joint Turkish-Russian land patrols along Syria-Turkey border in the Sochi deal between Presidents Erdogan and Putin,” he said. “An emerging Russian air base in Qamishli would also definitely and foremost aim to prevent a possible military clash between not only Turkish and YPG forces, but also the Turkish and Syrian armies.”

Speaking to reporters in Brazil following the BRICS Summit on Thursday, Putin underlined Russia’s interest in solving the problems in Syria’s Idlib province, as well as along the eastern bank of the Euphrates and in the southeastern Al-Tanf area.


Egypt army drill ‘sends a message to Erdogan’

Updated 30 min 40 sec ago

Egypt army drill ‘sends a message to Erdogan’

  • Military exercise near Libyan border a ‘warning shot,’ experts say

CAIRO: A major Egyptian army exercise near the border with Libya is being viewed by military and strategic experts as a message of deterrence to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over his backing for the Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj and supported by militia groups.

The combat exercise, codenamed “Hasm 2020” (Firmness 2020), was carried out by Egypt’s Western Region units together with armed forces formations and special troops, including paratroops and SEAL teams.

The drills included strategic incursions by land forces and land-sea operations by troops in coastal areas of the Western Region near the border with Libya. Other exercises focused on the threat from mercenary or terror groups.

Air defense and artillery maneuvers were also carried out during the exercises, which lasted several days. 

African affairs and national security expert Gen. Mohammed Abdel-Wahed said the Hasm 2020 exercise “carries many internal and external messages of assurance to our brothers in Libya and deterrence to some regional parties.”

The drill “was a message of deterrence to anyone who thinks he can threaten Egyptian national security” and “a simulation of war,” he added.

According to an army statement, the drill’s main phase was attended by Egyptian Minister of Defense Mohamed Zaki, and included live artillery and weapons fire.

Strategic expert Gen. Samir Farag said: “What happened was not an ordinary drill because the forces attacked mercenaries. Our army always fights a regular army. What is different about this drill is training to combat mercenaries. One of the training tasks is to carry out attacks to eliminate mercenaries in cooperation with the air force.”

Farag said the drill “is a message that we will operate on the coasts if they are under threat.”

He said the Egyptian air force succeeded in providing air supplies, “meaning that we have forces capable of going anywhere.”

Farag said that the Western Region had been carefully selected as a location for the exercises.

“We closely monitor any drill carried out by any of our enemies,” he said, adding that Hasm 2020 had been studied and followed up by some countries in the region. 

Egyptian MP and journalist Mustafa Bakry said that “every Egyptian should be proud of their armed forces and their extensive preparation to counter any attack on Egypt or threaten its national security.”

Bakry said that Hasm 2020 sent “a clear message to anyone who attempts to threaten Egypt or its people.”

The Libyan cities of Sirte and Al-Jufra are a red line, he said, adding that “Egypt will never leave Libya and its brotherly people as an easy prey to the Turkish invader.”