Syria's new shopping list for weapons backed by
half a billion dollars put up by Iran could include
sophisticated Tor-M1 systems to bolster Russian air
defences in Tartus
Amid the ongoing debate, Russia
continues to develop political and economic ties with
both countries. Putin wishes to stamp Russian authority
onto the international stage, especially the volatile
Middle East, in which Bush's bungling strategy and Israel's
poor showing in the Hezbollah war last summer, has already
weakened US 'Pax Americana' vision substantially.
Russian Moskva Class Cruiser - Syria's president Bashar
Assad may yet present Vladimir Putin with a return ticket for
Russia's longed strategic ambitions in the Middle East.
In fact, as had been revealed recently, Russia,
Iran and Syria have already entered a defence pact aiming at
Moscow's ambitions to the process of altering the balance of
power in the entire Middle East. Russia’s own part in
this pact has been kept relatively secret for a long time.
Syria has clinched a deal with Moscow early last
year, in which Russia agreed to write off more than 70 percent
of a multi-billion dollar debt owed from the Cold War era, when
Damascus was a stounch ally and arms customer of the Soviet
Union. Bi-lateral relations between Moscow and Damascus have
considerably warmed since early 2006. A Russian military delegation
has been touring military bases and headquarters in Syria as
part of an effort to increase cooperation with the regime of
President Bashar Assad. The delegation, led by Chief of Staff
Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, has met his counterpart, Gen. Ali Habib,
as well as senior Syrian commanders and defence officials. Western
intelligence experts estimate that up to 2,000 Russian military
advisors, under the command of Lieutenant General Vassily Jakushev,
60, the former commander-in-chief of the country's Far East
military district, are currently serving in the Syrian military.
Russian officers hold teaching positions at Syria's military
officer training academy.
Currently , Damascus' new shopping list for weapons
backed by half a billion dollars put up by Iran - in cash if
needed - has been granted by President Ahmadinejad to purchase
modern Russian arms. Among this, intelligence sources claim,
Damascus was advised in advance that certain surface systems
on request, which were formerly rejected, would now also become
available. However, while the transaction could include sophisticated
Tor-M1 systems, supplies of
which began reaching Iran last month, Syria's request will remain
on hold until these were completed.
Together with thousands of AT-14
anti-tank and SA 5 Gammon anti-air missiles, Damascus also
wants to commission Russian military industry to upgrade all
4,500 of its outdated Soviet-era T-62, T-72 and T-80 tanks.
Israel’s head of research in military intelligence, Brig-Gen
Yossi Baidetz was referring to this huge Russian-Syrian arms
deal bankrolled by Iran, in his presentation to the Knesset
committee last week, which made headlines next day in the media.
A highly interesting development was revealed
a few months ago, when sources related to Israeli intelligence
revealed, probably through satellite reconnaissance, having
for some time observed the Russians dredging the port of TARTUS
in northern Syria. Last June, the Russian newspaper Kommersant
surprisingly unveiled Russian secret plans to upgrade the servicing
station it has maintained since Soviet times at the Syrian port
of Tartus. According to the paper, the short-term goal is to
enable Russian warships to dock at Tartus, with a view to its
future transformation into a fully-fledged Russian Mediterranean
Fleet naval base. Kommersant’s unidentified source in
the General Staff said the Navy plans eventually to relocate
the bulk of the Black Sea Fleet, currently still stationed in
Sevastopol, to Syria.
Not surprisingly, Russian officials quickly denied
these reports, but insistent facts nevertheless remain. According
to these reports, at the Tartus naval base, covering an area
of almost a hundred acres, about 300 men already serve under
the command of sea captain Vladimir Gudkov, a former officer
in Russia's North Sea fleet. Satellite photos reveal that Russia
has already undertaken to deepen the port to permit the docking
of its largest fighting ships, and even build a stationary mooring
place. Moscow has also begun work on a new mooring at the Syrian
port of Latakia, which could also be used in the future to base
fighting ships. In this respect it is worth noting that the
Black Sea Fleet Project 1164 Moskva guide missile cruiser called
on Latakia in February 2006.
In fact, Kommersant
got its information about the work at Tartus from no less
an authority than Vladimir Zimin, the Russian Embassy’s
senior counselor for economic issues in Syria. Tartus
port is being prepared as the base for a fully fledged
Russian naval squadron. Anti-air defence for these forces
will be upgraded to the new S-300PMU2
Favorit (SA-20) SAM systems and no doubt, the Thor
M-1 deal will become part of this endeavour.
The appearance of Russian ships in
Tartus will signal a dramatic reinforcement of Russia’s
naval potential in the NATO dominated Mediterranean Sea,
even when compared to the cold war period.
It is worth recalling that permanent access to
the Mediterranean has been the dream of Russia’s rulers
for several centuries. Already in the second half of the 18th
century for operations against Turkey, squadrons of the Baltic
Fleet were sent to the Mediterranean. The rebirth of Russia’s
naval presence in the Mediterranean began in the 1950s with
the aim of countering NATO forces and to support Moscow’s
interests in the Middle East. In 1958, a permanent base for
Soviet submarines was established at Vlyora in Albania, but
in spite of the establishment of close relations with a range
of middle eastern Arabic states, the Soviet Union never acquired
a permanent naval base in this region, and the powerful Soviet
naval forces in the Mediterranean (Fifth Operational Squadron)
had to anchor at small plots in the neutral waters off the coast
of Tunisia and Libya. Only in 1984 were servicing stations at
Tartus and Latakia, established for occasional servicing calls
by Soviet warships.
But the recent constant presence of major Russian
fleet units in the Mediterranean is nothing new. On 9 February,
this year, the Russian Black Sea Fleet Project 1164 Moskva guide
missile cruiser RFS Moskva, under command of Admiral Vladimir
Vasilyevich Masorin, Commander in Chief Russian Naval Forces,
docked alongside NATO vessels in Messina, Sicily as part of
a bi-lateral visit with Italian authorities. Two weeks later,
the Moskva and the Naval Commando carrier Azov docked shortly
at Latakiye port in northern Syria, the first official visit
of Russian warships to Syria in 10 years.
The appearance of Russian ships in Tartus for
any period of time would represent a dramatic reinforcement
of Russia’s naval potential in the Mediterranean Sea,
even when compared to the cold war period. Syria's president
Bashar Assad may yet present Vladimir Putin with a return ticket
for Russia's longed strategic ambitions in the Middle East.
Read David Eshel's past commentary here
A Google-Earth view of of the Syrian Naval Base at Tartus
showing landing crafts and fast missile boats.