By Ioannis-Sotirios Ioannou
With the situation in Syria entering into a new abyss regarding the ongoing diplomatic game, things are starting to become clearer in terms of Russia’s active support to the Assad regime. The Kremlin, especially after the announcement of the Obama-Putin meeting at the United Nations, added an important diplomatic dimension to the issue with the aim of negotiating Assad’s stay in power. Yet at the same time, a closer look at the map shows that Russia did not go “all in” with Syria but rather sought to re-establish a strong sphere of influence. Russia’s sphere of influence is a prerequisite for the survival of Assad and is now focused on securing the heart (or “center of gravity”) of Assad’s regime: Latakia – the home of Alawites.
Whoever controls Latakia can impose a siege on Damascus and gain access to the Mediterranean Sea. The city, before the outbreak of the devastating civil war, had a population of 400,000 inhabitants, half of which were Alawites (the minority Assad’s family comes from), 40% Sunni (Syrian and Turkmen) and 10% Orthodox Christians. During the 1980s, Bashar al Assad’s father (Hafez) “Alawitized” the population, enabling this community to become the majority in the city and, unlike the Sunnis, reside in expensive suburbs. The war has changed the societal dynamics . The areas of Rabia and Castalia Maaf, or the seaside villages Salimp al Tourkman and Burj, turned against the regime with men entering the armed opposition or remaining strategically neutral. On the other hand, the mountain Jabal al Ansarigia (or “mountain of Alawites”) gave its very youth to the frontlines of Assad’s army. The area of Jabal Al Akrant has become since 2012 a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army (the main and mostly secular opposition group), with its Sunni residents not participating massively in the opposition due to fears of reprisals.
Today, almost five years since the outbreak of the war the demographics of Latakia looks quite different. Mostly Sunni refugees from Idlib (northern Syria) and Aleppo (central Syria) are now nearing 200,000 and had a great impact on the geopolitics of the area. Similarly, the offensive of various Salafist organizations (e.g. Ahrar Al Sham) and the active presence of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham) and Al Nusra pushed the Syrian army to defensive positions in the northwest. In the Armenian village of Khasab, in March 2014, the jihadists even destroyed the Russian radar (operating there since the Cold War) in the area of Jabal Akra, sending a message to the Russians that their naval base in Tartus may be next.
Assad’s regime is facing great challenges. It is not only the fear of a Sunni insurgency in Latakia, but also the fear of losing its legitimacy among Alawites. Especially among those who refuse to join the Syrian army or have already lost their sons who fought in support of the regime. If Assad loses Latakia, he will not only face a strategic disaster but also a great blow to his image and prestige. Idlib, controlled by Ahrar Al Sham (already a target for Russian fighter jets) is literally next to Latakia. And a war that would reach the coastline of Syria would be a deadly challenge for Assad. The regime may have created the “Coastal Shield Brigade”, a militia organization manned by young people (100% Alawite, receiving a monthly salary of $210), but this will not be sufficient when it comes to battling the experienced veterans of Al Nusra. So, what ways are there left to save Latakia? The Russians.
One might think that Russia’s support to the Assad regime is all about the naval base of Tartus. But Latakia is more important for the Russians. Whoever controls Latakia, controls the country’s exit to the Mediterranean Sea. The “Army of Conquest” (Jeish Al Fateh), a broad coalition between Ahrar Al Sam (supported by Turkey) and the jihadists of Al Nusra (Al Qaeda in Syria), could easily attack Latakia. A few months ago, Al Nusra “blitzkrieged” Khassab and reached the coast within a few weeks. In Kremlin’s eyes, these are potentially disastrous developments, not only for the Russian naval base in Tartus but also for the overall survival of the so called “Alawistan”. The villages between Tartus and Latakia are purely Alawite while, in Soviet times, 20 km south of the port existed the submarine naval base of Jabla; something that Putin is thinking of building again from scratch.
Like with Crimea, Abkhazia, etc., Russia creates regional microstates that act as advanced military bases. The base in Latakia, with around 6,500 Russian citizens residing there permanently, could in the future remain a strong Alawite territory as part of Moscow’s sphere of influence regardless of the developments in the Syrian civil war and the fate of the Assad regime. The presence of Russians in Syria comes at a juncture where the future of Assad looks dim and multiple fronts are open across the country. For Assad, accepting Russian help is a one-way street, while Kremlin’s diplomatic initiative to start a dialogue does not only favor Russia’s international image. It also serves as a narrative that promotes Moscow as the protector of religious minorities (e.g. Christians residing in Alawite villages) and a frontrunner in the fight against terrorism.
Overall, the Russian involvement in Syria seems to be aiming at securing the vital, for Assad, sea lane rather than generalizing the conflict. It remains to be seen whether further pressure on Sunni insurgents will give rise to a new form of conflict around Latakia; or Idlib for that matter, if Russia insists on bombing Jeish Al Fateh positions there. If Latakia becomes the theatre of a new fight with Al Nusra going on the offensive against positions of the Syrian army, then the Russians will enter the fight. That is mainly because there are already several small factions of Russian-speaking insurgents, including Uzbeks, Tatars and of course Chechens, who have pledged allegiance to Al Nusra after the second day of Russian bombings in Homs/Idlib. These militias could become a major problem should they move back to Russia or other places in the Caucasus. If things escalate in such a way, no one can predict where this new Syrian front might lead. Until then, it seems that Latakia will remain quiet, and Assad safe.
In collaboration with the Diplomatic Academy, University of Nicosia.
 A similar argument has been made in another TELO policy brief as well. See, Zenonas Tziarras, “Russia in Syria: Changing the Power Balances”, TELO Policy Brief, 01 Oct. 2015, http://da.unic.ac.cy/index.php/article/1825/.
Ioannis-Sotirios Ioannou is an Analyst on Media and Extremism at TELO, Diplomatic Academy. Follow him on Twitter: @johnpikpas.