Dr. Yossi Mansharof: Moscow is likely to allow Israel to launch strikes on Iranian targets around Latakia if it uses the port to ship weapons.
The Sunday Times, 15.03.2019
By Hannah Lucinda Smith
Iran is preparing to take control of Syria’s main commercial port, advancing its plans to secure a trade route from Tehran to the Mediterranean and establishing a significant foothold on Israel’s doorstep.
Talks began last month to transfer the container port at Latakia, 150 miles northwest of Damascus, to Iranian management from October 1, when its lease expires, according to The Syria Report, which tracks growing Iranian and Russian commercial influence in the war-ravaged country.
That would give Tehran unhindered access to the facility, which has 23 warehouses and was handling three million tonnes of cargo a year before the conflict. The port would be the Mediterranean link on an emerging trading route through the so-called Shia Muslim crescent from Iran through Iraq — where Tehran already exerts huge economic influence — and Syria.
For Israel the move could present a new security headache. Iran already wields huge military influence around Damascus, where its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) and proxy militias such as the Lebanese group Hezbollah are operational.
The Israeli air force has launched waves of strikes on warehouses close to Damascus airport to prevent Iran bringing weapons and components into the country by air. That has pushed Tehran to repeatedly request access to Syria’s ports; something that has until now been overruled by Russia, President Assad’s other big international backer and the dominant force in the coastal area around Latakia. Russia is understood to have given tacit approval last summer for Israel to strike Iranian positions around Damascus.
Iranian companies linked to the IRGC have started shipping goods through the port, suggesting that Tehran might use it as an alternative route to bring weapons into the country. That could trigger new Israeli airstrikes and exacerbate creeping tensions between Russia and Iran as they vie for influence in post-war Syria.
“Russia has no desire to see Iran close. Even though both have fought for Assad, there are differences and competitions between them,” said retired Brigadier-General Michael Herzog, former chief of staff to the Israeli minister of defence. “In the past, the Iranians have deployed close to the Russians thinking it would deter Israeli attacks. But the Russians understand why Israel is taking action against Iran, and they accept it in most cases.”
Yossi Mansharof, an expert in Iran and Shia militias at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, believes Moscow is likely to allow Israel to launch strikes on Iranian targets around Latakia if it uses the port to ship weapons. “There are always talks between Israel and Moscow, there is an open line,” he said. “I am sure that there are talks going on already to find a solution to this. So long as it serves Russian interests, they will give Israel the green light again.”
The current contract for the management of Latakia port is held by a joint venture between Souria Holding, a Syrian investment company, and CMA CGM, a French shipping firm. It was one of the first Syrian public assets to be managed by the private sector as part of Assad’s push to open up the economy in the first decade of his rule. Its revenues have been battered by the conflict as Syria’s exports have been slashed from $1.95 billion in 2012 to $622 million in 2017, and its imports from $6.7 billion to $4.4 billion.
The port, which remains state-owned, has been under US sanctions since 2015, meaning that American individuals and companies are not permitted to trade with it. It has enjoyed some recovery in the past year, however, recently announcing its best results since 2013. CMA CGM did not confirm whether they would bid to extend their contract.
Acquiring the port contract would be a boon for Iran, which is openly pursuing economic benefits in Syria as the eight-year civil war draws to a close, in compensation for the support it has lent Assad. Senior officials in Tehran have said that it would not provide aid to reconstruct the country, as it did to Lebanon and Iraq after their civil wars, but would look to recoup its costs through state and private contracts.
Regionally, Tehran hopes to use its investments in the Syria and Iraq conflicts as leverage to galvanise its trading position across the region. In November Iran’s state rail company announced that it had started construction on a line from the Iranian border city of Shalamcheh to the southern Iraqi port of Basra; part of a route that will eventually run all the way to Latakia. Tehran has wholly financed the project, with Iraq expected pay back its share at a later date.
“It’s connected to Iran’s long-term plan to become a main hub in China’s Belt and Road initiative, connecting the east to the west via land routes,” said Hamidreza Azizi, an economics expert at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, referring to Beijing’s enormous funding of infrastructure projects around the world.
“If Iran manages to realise such a central role for itself, not only would it be hard for the US to isolate it economically but this would also have security implications, as Iran’s security would be of a greater importance for two major world powers, namely Russia and China, and a new geopolitical axis would emerge as a result.”
However, David Butter, an associate fellow at Chatham House, said that the prospect of further US sanctions on the port, should Iran take control of it, may put Damascus off the deal. “At the moment Syria is getting the backwash from the changed US view on Iran. The port is an important asset for the Syrians and the Iranians would have to come up with elements that are useful to Damascus, as well as a decent franchise arrangement,” he added.
The Sunday Times, 15.03.2019