Russian media is reporting that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has given the green light to the Islamic Republic of Iran to erect a naval base not far from agreed to give Iran the right to deploy a naval base not far from the Khmeimim air base from which Russia unleashes air strikes against the enemies of the Assad regime. Both Russia and Iran are allies of the Assad government, which has been engaged in a fratricidal war with Islamist militants and others in a struggle for power.
The issue was an item discussed in a summit meeting held by Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week. Netanyahu said after the meeting, "We see that Iran is seeking to build up military power and military infrastructure in Syria, including efforts to build a sea port in the country. All this has serious implications for the security of Israel." Installing Iranian fleet operations on Syria’s Mediterranean shore could only come with approval from Russia.
In November, Iranian Chief of General Staff Major-General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri stated that Iran would soon have a naval base in Syria and Yemen. At the time, observers surmised that his statement was merely a propaganda ploy. Iranian forces have been supporting Assad for several years. Several high-ranking officers have been killed.
It is likely that Iran wants to improve the already existing naval infrastructure in Syria by installing additional berths, warehouses, and other facilities. This would be done at Latakia, a sea port where the Russians already have facilities and which is located in a region dominated by the Alawite sect of Islam to which Assad belongs. They are fiercely loyal to the dictator.
So far, Iran’s contribution to the conflict has been mostly in the form of advisors and instructors. However, there is evidence that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are fighting alongside Hezbollah -- a Lebanese terrorist organization consisting of adherents of Shia Islam, which is the sect that predominates in Iran. Iranian elements in Syria are believed to have enabled Assad to survive the onslaught by the Islamic State and militias supported by Western allies. However, the introduction of Iranian regular forces via a renewed port facility at Latakia could easily turn the equation much to the advantage of Assad. "If the military operations in Syria will involve regular Iranian troops, Assad will win" - said Russian military analyst Lt. Gen. Yuri Netkachev. He believes that Iran must create a firm logistical base so as to provide “arms and ammunition by sea through the Mediterranean naval ports." Netkachev opined that should Iran be enabled with a port on the Mediterranean, it would interfere with operations being conducted now in Syria by the US, Israel, and NATO.
The US has recently escalated its involvement in the conflict, having deployed the approximately 2,200 personnel of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit in support of Kurdish self-defense forces in the environs of Aleppo in northern Syria. Syria's President Bashar al-Assad scoffed at the deployment and called the Marines "invaders" because they came without his permission. In an interview with a Chinese network, he added, "And we don't think this is going to help. What are they going to do? To fight ISIS? The Americans lost nearly every war. They lost in Iraq, they had to withdraw at the end. Even in Somalia, let alone Vietnam in the past and Afghanistan, your neighboring country. They didn't succeed anywhere they sent troops, they only create a mess; they are very good in creating problems and destroying, but they are very bad in finding solutions."
The Marines came to northern Syria with artillery to support local forces fighting against the Islamic State. They are preparing to move on to Raqqa, ISIS' self-declared capital. The Defense department has declined to say exactly where the Marines are now. Besides the Marines, there are approximately 100 Army Rangers in and around Manbij, Syria. DoD advertised the location of the Rangers, apparently in an effort to prevent Russian, Turkish, or Syria forces from firing on them. Assad said in the interview that his forces are also closing in on Raqqa, thereby increasing the risk that American, Syrian, and Russian forces may come into inadvertent armed contact. The goal for the US is to attack ISIS and drive it into the Syrian wilderness, having first denied ISIS forces an escape route along the Euphrates River. The Marines are equipped with Osprey tilt-rotor air transport, attack helicopters, armored vehicles, and artillery. In addition, US fighter-bombers can be deployed.
The Marine Expeditionary force will rely on US special forces, including forward air observers who can direct air strikes and artillery barrages against Raqqah while seeking to avoid civilian casualties and thus a propaganda victory for ISIS. The attack on Raqqa appears imminent, while US special forces are within striking distance of Raqqah.