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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Back to the Future: Russia to operate naval bases in Syria

In a disturbing development, YNet reported yesterday that for the first time since the fall of the iron curtain Russia has decided to operate permanent naval bases in another country: Syria.

Hat Tip: IMRA
For the first time since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia plans to re-operate the Tartus [pictured above CiJ] and Latakia ports in Syria as permanent bases for the Russian Navy in the Mediterranean basin, according to recent western media reports.

Rumors on the growing Russian activity in the Mediterranean began spreading following a statement by Russian Navy commander, Admiral Vladimir Masorin, as he visited the Russian Navy base in the Sebastopol port in Ukraine.

"Being present in the Mediterranean is very important for our Navy in the Black Sea," the admiral said.

The Qatar-based television network al-Jazeera quoted a senior Russian Defense Ministry official over the weekend, who declared that Russia must be permanently present in the Mediterranean again.

According to the reports, Syria plans to let Russia use its ports as part of the large arms deal signed between the two countries in the past year.

The breakthrough which led to the arms deal was made possible after the two parties resolved their financial differences.

Over the years, Syria had accumulated a huge debt of approximately $11 billion to Russia. The Russians recently conceded more than 70% of the debt. The remaining debt will be returned by Syria partly in cash and partly through permanent port services to the Russian Navy ships in Latkia and Tartus.

Israeli security officials estimated that the renewed Russian activity in these bases, which were active throughout the Cold War, was related to the renewed tensions between Russia and the United States, mainly in light of the American plan to station antimissile missile systems in Europe – a plan Moscow views as a threat to its security.

"The bases will allow Russia to protect its interests in the region," the sources estimated.


The Russian Navy is known to massively operate spy ships.

Israeli officials estimated on Sunday that a renewed base in Syria will help the Russians carry out spy missions also against Israel, particularly electronic spying aimed at observing new weapon systems and the flow of information in channels used by the army and the defense establishment
Kommersant, Russia's online daily, characterizes Israel's reaction as "serious concern." (Hat Tip: J6D Newsblog)
Masorin’s announcement, in which those plans were recalled, has caused serious alarm in Israel. The major Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported yesterday that Israeli intelligence holds that the presence of Russian ships in Syria is a direct threat to Israel’s security. In particular, the bases in Tartus and Latakia will turn into centers of electronic surveillance that will be able to monitor not only Israel, but the entire Middle East. There is also concern in Israel that Russia will share that information with its Muslim partners, especially Syria and possibly Iran. In addition, Russia will certainly create a major air defense system to defend its bases that will be able to defend much of Syria from attack as well.
But Russian experts say that the concern is premature.
Russian experts say that it is still too early for Israel to sound alarms. “Only the Soviet Navy had the means to maintain a rapid deployment group of ships in the Mediterranean Sea, and it maintain a permanent squadron in which ships from the Black Sea, Northern and Baltic Fleets served in rotation,” former commander of the Black Sea Fleet Eduard Baltin explained. “In addition, a rapid response brigade from the Iberian zone near Gibraltar. Judging by the quantitative makeup of our Navy, it would be very hard to maintain a military presence in Mediterranean. Essentially, we only have the capability to maintain a military-political presence in the region.”

The main problem with returning to the Mediterranean is money. The Navy is the most expensive of the armed forces. “We have almost no ships left in the Black Sea. There is a balanced group in the Baltic, but it is maintained at the minimum acceptable level. The Northern Fleet, no to mention the Pacific Fleet, is too far away for expeditions to the Mediterranean Sea. Therefore, all that Russia can maintain in Syria is a ship or two. That is only a symbolic presence,” Konstantin Makienko of the Center for Strategic and Technical Analysis commented for Kommersant.
I think the ships are less of a concern than the air defenses. Israel is able to hold Syria in check because its air force has unbridled access to Syrian air space. Therefore, saying that the Russians are not currently capable of stationing ships in Syrian ports kind of begs the question.


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