Russia links east and west at al-Jarrah airport in central Syria
Enab Baladi – Ahmed Deeb
Years after al-Jarrah military airport in the eastern Aleppo countryside ceased operating, Moscow revived it days earlier when the Russian Ministry of Defense announced on 24 January the restoration of the air base for joint use with Syrian regime forces.
Al-Jarrah or al-Jaira military airport is located east of al-Mahdoum village in Manbij, 60 kilometers from Aleppo city. It contains 12 hangars and one runway with a length of 3.1 kilometers. It is of strategic importance, as it is the region’s East-West focal point.
The rehabilitation of an airport that has been out of service since 2017 has opened the door to questions about the importance of this airport, the indications of the timing, and its impact on the region as a whole, especially with its proximity to areas held by the opposition and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The said airport is located in the middle of areas controlled by the SDF, opposition factions, and the Syrian regime; it is 10 kilometers from the nearest SDF-held areas and 47 kilometers away from the center of Manbij (which is also held by the SDF). It also is about 40 kilometers away from the nearest opposition-controlled area in northwestern Syria.
The Russian restoration and seizure of a section of the airport is added to the list of strategic bases and locations that it has seized in Syria since its military intervention on 30 September 2015, overturning the balance of forces in control on the ground after the Syrian regime lost large areas of Syrian territory.
The Russian intervention killed 6,943 civilians, including 2,044 children, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR). Moscow made gains at various levels after conducting more than 100 air sorties that revived the regime’s control on the ground and used and tested more than 320 types of Russian weapons in Syria until July 2021.
The Hmeimim military base is one of the most prominent Russian military bases, having played a crucial role as a main hub and starting point for Russian military engagement in Syria since the start of its intervention on behalf of the Syrian regime in 2015. In 2017, Russia landed a long-term lease for the base, which will continue for 49 years.
Proving existence and covering up the losses
The military analyst, Abdallah al-Asaad, told Enab Baladi that Russia has rehabilitated the airport in this strategic location because it has Hmeimim airport in the west and Qamishli International Airport in the east. It aims to fill the existing vacuum, remove the Iranian presence, and preserve geopolitical gains.
Any Russian move in Syria is accompanied by talk that it is at the expense of the Iranian presence, the regime’s second ally, whose militias and forces are in control of large sites and areas in Syria. Tehran’s intervention also influenced its battles alongside regime forces.
Russia uses its influence in Syria as a pressure card on the US and Turkey in particular because it has become a “loser” in its war on Ukraine, al-Asaad added, explaining that it was determined to retain Syria in order to negotiate with other countries.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been going on for about 11 months without achieving the desired goals of the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Conflict persists in Ukrainian cities amid losses to Russia and Ukraine since the invasion began on 24 February 2022, coinciding with Western support for Ukraine.
Since the outbreak of protests in Syria in 2011, the party controlling the al-Jarrah airport has changed many times. The opposition factions were able to control it in 2013 after the factions besieged the regime forces for about two months. In 2014, the Islamic State (IS) took control of the airport after expelling the opposition factions.
The airport remained under IS control until the regime’s forces, with Russian air support, recovered it after battles between the two sides in May 2017. The regime used the airport to bomb opposition-held areas in the Aleppo countryside and Idlib.
On the reason for the choice of this region, analyst of Russian affairs Nasr al-Youssef believes that Russia could have chosen to be stationed at other airports but chose al-Jarrah airport to pester the US, especially with US positions being located close to the said airport. He added that the airport is capable of receiving strategic aircraft TU-122, which indicates that Russia does not wish to reduce its military presence in Syria.
The analyst and military expert agreed on the reason for choosing the timing to restore the airport, which is not to allow Turkey to carry out operations deep inside Syria, in addition to using the region as a pressure card against other countries in the region.
The refurbishment of the airport coincided with the accelerated talk of a Turkish rapprochement with the Syrian regime, represented by meetings at the level of the defense ministers of Turkey, the Syrian regime, and Russia in Moscow on 28 December 2022, a meeting at the level of the presidents of Turkey and the Syrian regime that has not yet seen the light of day, and Turkey’s intention to carry out a military operation against the SDF-held areas, and a ground attack in northern Syria that Ankara has been waving since October 2022.
According to a report issued by the Jusoor for Studies center in April 2022, the Russian forces control a multitude of military airports in Syria, and they are the forces that most control air traffic and air defenses; Russian forces use 24 airports in Syria, including those used by Moscow alone without any regime or Tehran presence.
According to the report, Russia shares the rest of the airports with Iranian forces and the regime, which are six airports in Damascus and its countryside, four in Aleppo, three in Homs, two in Deir Ezzor and As-Suwayda, and one in each of Hama, al-Hasakah, Raqqa, Idlib, and Tartus.
Israeli media outlets reported Israeli fear of the Russian and Syrian regime’s joint activity at al-Jarrah airport, as the security establishment feared Iranians would use the space to ship their weapons. Israel will find it difficult to act militarily for fear of damaging Russian equipment or aircraft.
Israel continues to target Syrian military and civilian airports with air raids. Israeli attacks targeting Syrian air defenses accounted for 12% of all Israeli attacks across Syria, according to a study by the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies that was released on 23 November 2022.
According to the study, Israeli strikes on Syrian civilian and military airports have been on an upward trend since 2013, coinciding with developments in the Syrian conflict.
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