By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 17/08/07):
The declaration earlier this month by Admiral Vladimir Masorin, the commander of the Russian navy, that Moscow intends to re-establish a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean, is under close scrutiny from Washington to Tel Aviv. While more an aspiration than established fact so far, the move carries myriad, challenging implications, ranging from the US Sixth Fleet’s regional monopoly on naval power to the security of trans-Caucasian and north African energy supply routes.
But it is the prospect of Russia reactivating its cold war naval bases in Syria, at the ports of Tartus and Latakia, that could have the most dramatic geopolitical impact. By raising Syria’s stock in the region, analysts say such a move could further complicate western attempts to achieve settlements in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Defensive missile and surveillance systems around any Russian installations might also shift the military balance to Israel’s disadvantage. A stratfor.com intelligence brief said:
“A Russian naval presence off the Syrian coast could allow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime to better inoculate itself against a potential attack by the US or Israel … The Russians would be offering an attractive insurance policy.
“Though Damascus could not rely on [the Russians] to actually defend Syrian interests, their mere presence would change the threat environment for Israel and make things like low-level flights over Assad’s summer home a bit riskier.”
The 720th Logistics Support Point at Tartus has been in disuse since 1991, when the Soviet Union imploded. Yet it remains the only Russian military base outside the post-Soviet commonwealth of independent states. Last year Russia reportedly dredged Tartus and began to build a new dock at Latakia.
Russian reports claim Moscow’s plans are causing “serious concern” in Israel, where intelligence sources said they fear the bases “will turn into major centres of electronic surveillance and air defence centres and, as such, threats to Israel’s national security”.
The Kommersant newspaper said the plans were a long way from implementation. Analysts believe that given its still-depleted resources, the Russian navy would have difficulty extending operations to the Mediterranean, even with help from its northern and Baltic fleets as envisaged by Admiral Masorin. But as the Kyiv Post noted, the Russian Black Sea fleet’s lease on its Sevastopol base is hostage to Ukraine’s volatile relations with Moscow – and will in any case expire in 2017, necessitating a renegotiation or a move to new quarters.
Wary of Israel’s possible reaction, Syria denies it has any intention of hosting a new Russian military presence. But in the murky world of Middle East politics, such statements are not taken at face value.
Syria’s previous collaboration and arms purchases from Moscow, and the two countries’ common friendship with Iran, are taken as evidence that a new base agreement could be a logical step at some stage. On some readings, Damascus could threaten to give a go-ahead to the Russians if its increased cooperation with the US over Iraq fails to extract concessions on Lebanon or desired guarantees that Washington will not pursue regime change.
President Vladimir Putin, involved in a bare-chested global game of military and diplomatic one-upmanship with the US, may also be using the Syrian naval bases as pawns. Analysts say they could equally be used to increase Russian leverage over the US-led peace process – or to control Syria’s future behaviour, depending on where Moscow’s perceived interests lie at the time.
According to Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Moscow’s pragmatic (and by implication, unprincipled) foreign policymakers are “looking for opportunities wherever they may be”. That means building influence in the Middle East in particular.
For this reason, said Pavel Baev of the Eurasia Daily Monitor, Mr Putin, waiting to see how the twin crises in Iraq and Iran play out, is hedging his bets. One example: now that panicky Arab states are pursuing nuclear programmes to match Iran’s, Russia wants its share of the resulting business in the Gulf. Yet at the same time, Moscow is helping Iran complete its Bushehr nuclear facility.
The bottom line is that Russia is manoeuvring to profit from what it sees as an irresistible window of opportunity – the power shift that would follow a US defeat in Iraq, Mr Baev said. “In the envisaged no-holds-barred power play, Russia would not have any allies but could enjoy perfect freedom of manoeuvre and exploit the advantage of not being afraid of any oil crisis.”
“Declaring its adherence to pragmatism, Moscow is in fact increasingly adopting anti-Americanism as its guiding political idea.” Toying with military bases in Syria was just part of a bigger, bolder bid to challenge US regional and global leadership.