Details of Moscow’s Deal With Syria Reveal Extent of Russian Dominance

Analysis: New documents suggest Russia is in the Middle East to stay

Vladimir Putin, Bashar Assad
Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin / AP
January 19, 2016

Last week, the Russian government posted a copy of a previously unknown agreement with Syria that sets out rules for the deployment of a Russian "aviation group" to Syria.

Signed in August 2015, the agreement pre-dates Russia’s acknowledgement that they were planning direct air or military operations in Syria.

The Washington Post’s Michael Birnbaum wrote on Friday that the open-ended agreement between the Russian and Syrian Ministries of Defense gives Moscow a virtual "carte blanche" in Syria. The agreement allows for the unrestricted passage of Russian men and material into Syria, allows Russia to direct its own military operations without Syrian input, and gives Russia immunity from Syrian law and an exemption for any damage incurred by Russian actions in Syria.

Russian officials insist the agreement shows their deployment to Syria has been done in accordance with international law. In 2012, Russia’s Foreign Ministry also referenced the 1980 Soviet-Syrian "friendship treaty" as justification for intervention in Syria.

But when the terms of the new agreement are compared to Russian military basing agreements with other states, it becomes clear that Syria has signed away considerable sovereignty—on par with arrangements made by Russia with territories they occupy, rather than countries in alliance with them—raising new questions about Russia’s broader ambitions in Syria and the region.

In March 2013, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia would establish a permanent presence in the Mediterranean. Russia’s Mediterranean Fleet was officially disbanded when the Soviet Union collapsed, though Russia maintained a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus. Western Syria, nominally controlled by the Syrian regime with heavy Russian support, is now semi-seriously referred to by regional experts as "Assadland" or "Alawistan."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that the preservation of Syrian sovereignty is a key reason for the Russian intervention in Syria, but what Syria has signed away becomes clear when the agreement it signed is compared with Russia’s other foreign military basing agreements.

In Ukraine, before the annexation of Crimea — after which Russia annulled its agreement with Ukraine, as well as the controversial 25-year extension signed by then-President Viktor Yanukovych — Russia’s basing of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol was governed by a detailed, restrictive agreement. The agreement placed limits on the total number of personnel, prohibited ships from carrying nuclear weapons in Ukrainian territory, protected Ukrainian airspace, and demanded compliance with Ukrainian law. Russia paid about $100 million each year to lease the base.

With the exception of Syria, Russia maintains military bases only in former Soviet republics that are also members of its Collective Security Treaty Organization—though Cyprus, a favorite off-shore tax haven of Russian elites, has granted Russian naval vessels some port access. Russia often refers to forces deployed in in treaty countries as "border guards" and uses the FSB, the domestic Russian security service, to direct parts of their activities.

Under Russia's agreement with Armenia, 3000 to 5000 Russian troops are based on Armenian soil. Armenia retains the right to consultations on Russia’s "maximum presence" and to approval of transit routes, and Russian personnel are subject to Armenian law (which has occasionally become a flash point between the two countries). In 2010, the agreement was extended until 2044. The latest revision removed limitations stipulating that Russian bases must keep to their former Soviet footprints.

In September 2013, Armenia announced it would no longer pursue a free-trade agreement with the EU and instead join Russia’s Eurasian Customs Union. This was followed by the deployment of new Russian weapons systems and drones to Armenian bases.

Kyrgyzstan signed a 15-year extension of its basing agreement with Russia in 2012. Russia pays about $4.5 million each year in leasing fees, though the use of the Kant airfield, which the Kyrgyz can only access in "emergency" situations, is free. The 2012 revisions grant Russian personnel and their families full diplomatic immunity. Russian personnel and equipment can move freely, but total deployment figures are determined in consultation with Kyrgyz authorities.

Tajikistan, whose borders were controlled by the Russian FSB until 2005, signed a 30-year extension of its basing agreement with Russia in 2013. Tajikistan retains the ability to "determine solutions" to potential threats on their territory. Russia’s 7500 security personnel and their families are exempt from civil and criminal prosecution in almost all cases. Russia has free access to Tajik airspace on specified routes, and rights to secure communications frequencies. It pays a "symbolic" leasing fee.

In each of these cases, the basing agreements were negotiated parallel to other deals, either explicitly or implicitly—including on investment, debt restructuring, rights for foreign workers in Russia, energy resources, and military sales and training. Russia has leveraged these deals to secure the best possible basing agreements in exchange for "domestic deliverables" for their partners.

Belarus, also a member of the security treaty organization, has resisted the idea of hosting a Russian base. In September, Putin ordered plans for a formal air basing deal to proceed, though no progress has been made. Russia has about 10 military aircraft in Belarus.

All of these states, which Russia considers in its immediate "sphere of influence," have, at least on paper, negotiated tougher deals than Syria.

Syria’s deal has more in common with Russia’s agreements with the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both territories have declared independence from Georgia, and only Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru recognize them as independent states.

Russia keeps an estimated 5000 troops in Abkhazia, including 1500 FSB agents. The 2008 agreement with Abkhazia allows Russia to "build, use and develop" bases and military infrastructure in Abkhazia. In 2010, a 49-year agreement to officially establish a military base was signed—but by then Russia already controlled Abkhazian airspace, borders, and railways, and had refurbished a naval base at Ochamchire.

In 2014, a more comprehensive "alliance and strategic partnership" agreement was signed, creating a common security and defense space and an integrated defense force. Russia also took over more interior functions, including policing and "border" controls.

The 2008 agreement with South Ossetia was primarily to give "border" controls to Russia—specifically, to the FSB. Russian forces have total immunity from local laws (and are granted the right to retire with full benefits in the territory). Russia stations about 3500 personnel and extensive defense systems in South Ossetia. There is no military infrastructure that is not Russian. The 2015 expansion of this agreement created a common defense space and security policy, granting broad controls to Russian army units and "security services."

Both the Abkhazia and the South Ossetia deals have been referred to as de facto or creeping annexations. Tajikistan may technically be Russia’s largest foreign deployment—but there are more Russian troops on the internationally recognized territory of Georgia than anywhere else.

In both territories, the Russian military and security services can do whatever they want—both on paper and in reality, a situation that recalls the September 1939 Soviet-Estonian Mutual Assistance Treaty, which gave then-Soviet Russia the right to freely establish bases in Estonia and access them at will. Similar treaties were signed with the other Baltic states.

"The Baltic experience is a good example of how open-ended, broad access rights for Russian military forces in times of crisis can be used to first erode, and then erase, national sovereignty," says Eerik-Niiles Kross, an Estonian historian who is now a member of parliament. "Russia is obsessed with these types of treaties and agreements. They are paper shields—vague reassurances to national hosts and the international order while they plan the next move in a revanchist game."

Russia has been careful to show it has two established transit routes to Syria: by water, from the Black Sea (including from newly-annexed Crimea and occupied Abkhazia) through the Bosporus to the Mediterranean; and by air, flying over the Caspian Sea, Iraq, and Iran. Russia has also shown it has multiple ways to defend Syrian territory—including with a cruise missile strike launched from Russian ships in the Caspian Sea.

Assad’s Syria, such as it was, has been all but erased by a bloody civil war, terrorist incursions, and mass emigration. Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations secretary general’s special envoy for Syria, has said a partition of Syria could be a solution to the current crisis. U.S. intelligence officials have also voiced the view that Iraq and Syria may not survive the current conflicts in their existing borders.

"It’s clear Russia has broad, game-changing ambitions in the Middle East," says Kross. "Their land grabs—like Crimea—have often left allies and opponents alike reeling … The Syrian agreement must be interpreted through that lens."

"It’s just paper—but paper is important to Putin."