Russian Navy in Syrian Waters
Russia to hold naval exercises off coast of Syria
LONDON, Asharq Al-Awsat—A Russian naval task force is reportedly sailing into the Mediterranean this weekend for exercises with a mix of political and strategic aims linked to the crisis in Syria. Consisting of five battleships, the force may be used to evacuate Russian citizens in Syria in case Damascus falls.
According to the Defence Ministry in Moscow, the flotilla could be used for a variety of purposes. The ship Novocherkask is designed for close coasting and land operations, including the transfer of Russian citizens still in Syria. The ship Kaliningrad may be used for breaking a naval blockade of Syria, if one is imposed. The ships Nikolai Filchenko, Azov, and Aleksander Shabalin could be used for providing support for operations inside Syria.
The flotilla’s mission includes exercises in air defense, anti-ship warfare, and anti-submarine warfare, a Russian Navy statement said.
According to sources in Moscow, Russia has already seized effective control of the Syrian port of Tartus. Work on expanding the mooring facilities there is scheduled to start in the spring, the Russian news agency Novosty reported. However, it is not clear when the task force would call on Tartus or how long it plans to stay there.
This is the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union that Russia is organizing a naval parade on such a scale in the eastern Mediterranean.
Over the past twenty years, Russia has lost all its bases and mooring facilities in the Mediterranean Sea as a result of changes in the former Yugoslavia and, more recently, Libya. Syria is the last country in the Mediterranean to receive the Russian navy.
Russia’s chief naval base is located at Sebastopol in the Crimean Peninsula, which is part of Ukraine. The lease for the base expires in 2017, although an accord to extend it for a further twenty-five years has been initialed between Moscow and Kiev.
If Ukraine asks Russia to leave the Crimean, Moscow would effectively cease having a blue-water navy. Tartus is therefore very important as an alternative base.
The warships are being deployed as a contingency plan for the possible evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria, a source in the Navy told Interfax news agency. The vessels would transport Russian nationals from the war zone to Russia’s Black Sea ports, according to Moscow sources.
Last month, a senior Foreign Ministry official confirmed that Russia has prepared a plan to evacuate its citizens from Syria, which will be implemented if the situation deteriorates further. The plan encompasses not only the staff of the Russian embassy in Damascus, but also several thousand Russian civilians living in the country, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said.
Reports of Iranian naval participation in the exercise have not been confirmed, although Iran maintains a token presence in Tartus. This consists of around four hundred members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) naval combat units armed with small assault boats.
The exercises may be designed as a warning to NATO not to take military action against the Syrian regime. However, they may also be used as a means of protecting shipments of weapons to President Assad.
There are an estimated thirty-five thousand Russian citizens in Syria. Of these, only a third are registered with the embassy in Damascus. This may indicate that the majority of Russians in Syria are military and security personnel engaged in training Syrians and maintaining Russian weapons systems sold to Syria.
Over the new year holidays, Russia evacuated hundreds of its citizens, mostly women and children, from Syria, but denied that a full evacuation was planned.
Military experts describe Moscow’s move as an annual show of Russian presence in Syrian waters. However, the task force sent this time may have a distinctly “warlike profile,” according to Hamid Zomorrodi, an Iranian naval analyst.