A little bit of peace seems to be breaking out in the apparently endless Syrian civil war. Russia seems to be withdrawing military forces. ‘Seems’ to be. It is classic Russian tactics to perform a ‘maskirovka’, literally a disguise to conceal the true intent of military operations. Time will tell.
What, exactly, is Russia doing in Syria in the first place? Syria is a client state of Iran, but has a close relationship with Russia. In fact the relationship is so close that Russia actually has a military base in Syria.
The Tartus Military Facility allows Russia to maintain some kind of military presence in the Mediterranean. It is a relic of the Cold War, when the USSR had numerous bases around the world. Tartus is one of the two remaining Russian outposts based in a country that was not once part of the USSR. The other base is in Vietnam.
Russian naval access to the Mediterranean has been a sore point for over 150 years. Its fleet in the Black Sea has been restricted by treaty as to how many ships may be deployed from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. The problem is the Turkish Straits.
These straits are the only exit from the Black Sea. They have been in Turkish control for centuries. When the Ottoman Empire was collapsing in the late 19th Century, Russia stood poised to occupy the Straits and coveted Constantinople. The possibility of Russia taking over the Straits after its victory in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 was enough for Britain to mobilise the Royal Navy and send troops to Malta. The fact that Britain was on the side of Russia against Turkey in 1914 was a compete reversal of its foreign policy for much of the Victorian age. In the early 20th Century, part of the diplomatic manoeuvring prior and during the First World War by Russia, was to obtain acceptance of its ambitions. At the time this was not entirely unreasonable.
Some 90 per cent of Russian nautical trade used the Black Sea in 1914. According to historian Barbara Tuchman, the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the First World War on the side of the Central Powers (something she witnessed as a child) cut off Russian exports and imports. Had Russia been able to import grain, it is possible that the food shortages that were a contributory factor in the first revolution of 1917 may not have happened. In the Second World War, Arctic Convoys were seen as the only way of supplying the Soviet Union.
There was a treaty in 1936 that regulated the passage and type of naval ships to and from the Mediterranean through the Straits that was disputed, but adhered to, by the USSR. It was Soviet agitation in over this in 1946 that drew Turkey into Nato. The treaty, when it was written, had kept everyone happy. The British did not have to worry about the Russians threatening the Suez Canal from the Black Sea, the Turks were given actual control of the Straits, and the Russians were protected from foreign naval incursions into the Black Sea. This was useful as it prevented significant German or Italian naval forces taking part in the siege of Sevastopol in the Second World War. The city fell, but the delay meant that more Axis forces could not be sent to Stalingrad, a move that may have influenced the outcome, but probably not the war.
So Russian ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean have been persistent irrespective of regime. Also, as I have written elsewhere, Putin is not acting any differently to what any other Russian leader would do in his place. Russia’s motivation in bailing out Assad may be due to the fact that any post-Assad regime may have repudiated the Soviet-era agreement that gave the Russians their base. It cannot be seen to lose its toehold in the Eastern Mediterranean, for reasons of prestige and centuries of strategy. It does not want to repeat the national humiliation that followed its ejection from Afghanistan, which led to the collapse of communism.
Losing Tartus could have cost Putin his job.
What may have changed now is that Tartus is now secure irrespective of the outcome of the Syrian civil war. It does mean there may be a road map to peace in Syria and Daesh is finally doomed.