Deal Ups Russia’s Role in Syria With Control of Qamishli Airport

In a landmark step that reflects Moscow’s growing and influential role in Syria, Russia has begun moving some of its best and latest attack and patrol helicopters, as well as other equipment to a new Syrian airbase on the Turkish border, only a few weeks after US forces, had left the area. As Russian and Syrian officials were reported to be putting final touches on a 49-year lease deal – similar to the one about the Russian lease of Tartous seaport signed last April – regarding setting up a Russian base within the perimeters of the Qamishli airport, next to the Turkish borders, at least two Mi-35 attack helicopters and a transport helicopter were moved from the Hmeimeem base on the Mediterranean to Qamishli airport in northeastern Syria. The move was officially confirmed by Damascus and Moscow and reported by Zvezda television, which is run by the Russian defence ministry. Some 200 Russian soldiers and over 50 military vehicles are already in the vicinity of Qamishli airport.

The city of Qamishli which is located in northeastern Syria, adjoins the Turkish city of Nusaybeen and is close to the Iraqi western borders, has a population of some 185,000 population, comprising of Syrian Christians, Muslims and Kurds. Al-Qamishli airport is about 600 kilometres away from the capital Damascus and 500 kilometres to the north-east of the main Russian base of Hmeimeem in the Mediterranean city of Latakia. The presence of Russian forces in the area was part of the last deal between presidents Putin of Russia and Erdogan of Turkey in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi following Ankara’s military offensive against Syrian Kurdish militias along the borders which has drawn strong international condemnation and caused a tide of outrage against the Turkish aggression with many Western nations, including the USA, threatening harsh punitive sanctions against Ankara should it not stop its military campaign in Syria’s northeast.

Moscow bolsters Role in Vital NE Syria

Although much of the region had been under the control of US-backed Kurdish YPJ/SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces, the civilian airport outside Qamishli has been under the control of the Syrian government forces throughout the nine-year conflict. The bolstering of Moscow’s military presence there is bound to change the balance of power in the area, and pose a serious challenge to any Israeli, American or Turkish plots in the northeast. This is despite an agreed 32km buffer zone along Turkish borders, void of any YPJ militia presence in the safe zone Turkey has long cherished, even under a unilateral military operation against Kurdish militias if need be. There have been widespread reports of excessive use of force, summary executions and even war crimes committed by Turkish soldiers and their National Syrian Army mercenaries since the beginning of Turkish military operations inside Syria.

Newly-arrived Russian helicopters were seen patrolling the border region from the sky as joint Russian-Turkish military police took part in patrols on the ground. They were seen near the town of Derbasiyah in Syria’s northeastern Hassakah province, along the Syria-Turkey border, less than five weeks after US troops had left the area amid massive Kurdish and international criticism and accusations of abandoning Washington’s closest Kurdish SDF allies in Syria.

Russian forces in Qamishli include helicopters, ground support, fuel and several military vehicles and is protected by a Pantsir air defence system with the aim of “ensuring continuous flights, safety of the helicopters and the defence of this territory,” air force official Timur Khodzhayev said. “The main goal is to ensure calm,” he maintained. The landing area is encircled by Russian military police. Moscow has expanded its presence in northeastern Syria following the withdrawal of American forces ordered by US President Donald Trump last month, which triggered a Turkish invasion into the mainly Kurdish-populated territory.

Lease Deal in Moscow’s Bag, More to Come

Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said SDF units had redeployed from the border area on October 29. That was followed by joint Russian-Turkish patrols to a depth of 10km.  In a nutshell, despite US promises not to abandon its Kurdish allies, Kurds have quickly turned to Russia and the Syrian government for protection from the advancing Turkish army and its NSA proxy militia, and Russian forces are moving into areas where American flags once flew. Defence correspondent Alexander Kots of Russian Komsomolskaya Pravda summed up Moscow’s plan in a tweet: “We should more actively occupy their bases so that they have nothing to come back to.”

With the 49-year lease deal for Qamishli airfield very much now in the Russian bag, civil aviation to and from the small regional airport is set to continue and expand with promised international flights under Russian protection, while a large section was to be closed off as a Russian military facility. Construction work is reported to have already started by the Russian a few days ago that will transfer this small airfield into a large airbase able to accommodate the landings of Russian fighter jets and larger air freights, granting Moscow an unchallenged upper hand in northeastern Syria.