Iran gains a foothold in Latakia
Iran has been granted the right to manage the port of Latakia, an important development as Moscow and Tehran try to secure their shares of control and influence in Syria as a reward for supporting the regime throughout the war.
The agreement is a major accomplishment for Tehran, which sees control of the port as an opportunity to strengthen its influence in Syria and the rest of the Middle East. It is also a step forward in the consolidation of the “Shiite axis” linking Iran to the Mediterranean by land. "The current management contract between the port, the company Suria Holding and the carrier CMA-CGM will expire on Oct. 1, 2019, when the Iranians will be officially taking over the port management,” Fabrice Balanche, a French geographer and Syria specialist, told OLJ.
After Oct. 1, the Islamic Republic will be able to use the 23 warehouse harbor for its own purposes. "Initially, the Iranians were supposed to settle in Tartous to build an industrial complex there... But having the Iranians so close to the Russian military port did not please Moscow… The Tartous project has been abandoned in favor of Latakia,” Balanche added.
The port agreement is a sign that Iran’s presence in Syria is still increasing, and it followed on the heels of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Tehran on Feb. 25, where he met with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The trip was Assad’s first to his closest regional ally since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, which is now in its ninth year.
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 port management agreement is another building block in Iran’s project to maintain its presence in Syria.
The move is bad news for Israel, which may be tempted to carry out airstrikes on the facility if it suspects that it is being used to move suspicious goods. The Russians, who consider Latakia to be a strategic location in their foreign policy and maintain bases in Tartous and Hmeimim, may not like the agreement either.
"The Russian bases of Tartous and Hmeimim are at the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea and allow Moscow to have a military presence outside the former Soviet Union... They are both used to project Russian power towards the Mediterranean and the Middle East,” Balanche said. "The Latakia region is supposed to be Russia's zone of influence inside regime-held areas of Syria,” Nicholas Heras, a Middle East Security Program fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), told OLJ.
"The advantage that the Russians have in the Latakia-Tartous region is that they are in contact with the Alawite population. It is favorable to them and not likely to provoke terrorist attacks against them. The Alawites feel grateful to the Russians for their intervention in 2015, and the Russian presence reassures them,” Balanche continued, adding that Russia hoped to gain control of the majority of the region in return for its intervention in the Syrian conflict.
Despite the emergence of competition between Iran and Russia, it is unlikely that the port management agreement will lead to a confrontation or crisis between the two countries. “This is not a crisis yet, but it shows that Iran is trying to send a message to Russia that it is better connected to Assad and his regime,” Heras said. "Moscow and Tehran have given a lot of money to Damascus. The Russians have got their hands on the country's hydrocarbon resources. Giving the port of Latakia to the Iranians is a return on investment for the Islamic Republic,” he added, referring to Iran’s intervention on behalf of the regime.
The Russians and Iranians are allies on paper. Both support the Assad regime and want to limit American influence in the region. But they also have divergent interests. Russia wants to focus on rebuilding the Syrian state and its institutions while Iran wants to consolidate its grip on the country and establish political control over Damascus.
According to the newsletter Intelligence Online, Assad's decision to give the Latakia port to Iran, announced during Assad's visit to Tehran, has sparked a great deal of irritation in Moscow. Russia has allegedly threatened Syria with the prospect of collecting around $10 million in war debts and of limiting fuel supplies to the country. The Russian-Iranian competition is also present on a military level. A meeting of Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi chiefs of staff took place last Monday, preceding another meeting between Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Syrian President in Damascus.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 22nd of March)