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.