Russia wins Eritrean Base Facing China’s Rising Naval Outpost in Djibouti

The big world powers are zooming in on the Horn of Africa and its strategic Red Sea shores – by invitation.
Eritrean President Isaisas Afwerki has offered Russia permission to build sea and air bases at its southern port of Assab on the Red Sea coast (see map).
This opening of Africa to the Russian military closely parallels Syrian President Bashar Assad’s 2015 proposition to Moscow, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report.
In Syria, Russia received approval for an air base at Hmemimim and the deepening of Tartous sea port to accommodate large Russian warships (an operation nearing completion at present). In Eritrea, Afwerki is making available to the Russians a section of Assab port for expansion plus an adjoining area for use as their first Red Sea naval base.
A military delegation from Moscow visited the site in mid-December and returned with a recommendation for President Vladimir Putin to build two bases linked by a private road for exclusive Russian use.
As the Eritrean-Russian project took shape, the Ministry of Information in Asmara was forced on Jan, 1 to deny the granting to the United Arab Emirates of a 30-year lease for a military base at Assab.
Eritrea’s Ministry of Information accused Hizballah’s Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV channel, which ran this story, of broadcasting speculative news “in a highly dramatized manner and without rudimentary verification.”
Iranian and Hizballah media spread this claim in order to sir up trouble for the Asmara-Moscow negotiations at a time when Iran’s bid for control of the Red Sea region is being pushed back on all fronts.
After being crowned king of the region by the Obama administration, Tehran had for years aspired to the role of lord protector of the key Gulf oil shipping routes to the Mediterranean through its control of the Straits of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Suez and the Suez Canal.
That aspiration was never backed up by the necessary Iranian naval strength.
Even in Sudan, Iran’s military presence, which reached its peak in 2014, has been whittled down and its warships are no longer welcome in Port Sudan.
Then, five months ago, on Oct. 13, the three radar installations Iran had built on Yemen’s Red Sea coast were destroyed by US Navy cruise missiles, depriving the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels of the ability to menace Red Sea shipping from the east.
Now, Iran sees the “Russian Syrian story” about to be retold in Eritrea and the Red Sea, with no happy ending for the Islamic Republic or its ambitious drive for a strong military presence in that critical world region.
But the Eritrean president is less concerned with Iran’s frustrations than with worries closer to home:
1 Last year, landlocked Ethiopia, Eritrea’s main adversary, finally gained its first outlet to the Red Sea through a Chinese-built railway link to the port of Djibouti that was inaugurated in Addis Ababa on Oct. 5.
The 1,435mm gauge line electrified at 25 kV 50 Hz replaces the disused railway founded in 1917. The Chinese have designed it for a speed of 120 km/h, which cuts short freight transit time between the two points to between 10 and 12 hours, compared to three days by road truck.
Chinese engineers will manage the railroad for five years until local staff is trained.
2. In Djibouti itself, China is building its first overseas military base on the African continent. It is a naval facility that is due for completion by the end of 2017, and will house weapons stores, ship and helicopter maintenance workshops and possibly accommodation for special operations forces.
Some of the half-finished structures and shipping containers have been sighted flying the Chinese flag, attesting to Beijing’s ambition to extend its military reach to the west, across the Indian Ocean and beyond.
The Eritrean president wants the Russian base to go up at Assab without delay, to provide him with a big power counterweight against the military and economic clout China offers his Ethiopian rival on top of the longstanding American support.
Moscow, for its part, is perfectly willing to acquire new sea and air bases on the African coast of the Red Sea, to complement the burgeoning network of Russian air and naval footholds in Syria and Benghazi, Libya.

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