Backing for the Assad regime in strife-torn Syria hinges on a centuries-old Russian ambition. From the Crimean War to “the great game” of the 1800s, the lack of a deep, warm-water port has cramped Russia’s global desires.
Syria, a Cold War ally of the Soviet Union, has provided a solution, by offering its eastern Mediterranean ports of Lafakia and Tartus for Russian naval visits and logistics supplies. A few years ago, this offer turned into virtual control by the Russian navy, which built full-scale naval facilities to create a strategic asset in the eastern Mediterranean.
The importance of Tartus may not be as great as it was during Soviet times, but unfettered access to the high seas remains a goal of Russian strategy. Most of Russia’s main naval ports—Severomorsk and Murmansk on the Barents Sea, and Vladivostok on the Pacific—are ice-locked some of the year. The Black Sea base at Sevastopol is locked by the Bosphorous, controlled by NATO member Turkey, and Russia’s lease expires in 2017.
That’s why Tartus, which has already started supporting Moscow’s growing Mediterranean fleet, is worth defending for the Kremlin. To bolster its strategic interest, and at the same time signal support to embattled Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Russia launched its aircraft carrier group, led by the Admiral Kuznetsov, to anchor off Tartus.
Iran, meanwhile, sent two warships, the frigate Alvand and the supply ship Kharg, through the Suez Canal, also docking publicly at Tartus. Unconfirmed news reports alleged that the Kharg carried weapons and ammunition, which were unloaded at Tartus. And a recent shipment of Russian defensive arms, air defense missiles and long-range radars delivered to the port underscored Russia’s commitment to its multibillion-dollar arms deal to Syria, while ignoring a European Union arms embargo against the Assad regime.
Russia’s support for Syria dates back to the days of the Soviet Union. The continuing partnership can be attributed to several factors—historic ties, economic interests and geopolitics. Russia’s recent veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria goes far beyond mere protection for a close ally and arms buyer—it showed Moscow’s determination to counter all Western efforts to use the United Nations to topple Assad’s regime. Russia fears a civil war in Syria would fracture the nation into ethnic factions, leaving open the possibility that it could be ruled by Islamic elements hostile to Russia. Russian Middle Eastern experts compare Syria to Russia’s own province of Dagestan in the North Caucasus.
There is an important economic element involved. Syria is one of the top five foreign buyers of Russian defense equipment, with 6% of all its arms imports in 2010 supplied by Moscow. Contracts for further deliveries are worth about $4 billion, and are critical for some Russian companies’ financial survival. Russians fear that regime change in Syria would lead to the annulment of these agreements, as new rulers may pursue opportunities to purchase weapons from other countries.
The Syrian uprising has not stopped Russia from sending weapons to Syria, including a shipment of various munitions including the heavy 2S4 Tulpan (Tulip) mortar with its 240-mm high-explosive shells, recently used by the Syrian army to demolish parts of the Baba Amr section of Homs, the epicenter of the uprising.
The big question also raised by some Western and Israeli defense analysts is how the U.S. Navy is going to react when the threat could spiral upward into a dangerous naval escalation in this highly strategic region.
While the Arab Spring has so far had little direct connection to the rallies against newly reelected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s control, Russian leaders feel they are surrounded by a tide of anti-incumbent protests and see each government toppled as potentially feeding the same mood throughout the world. A related fear is that the overthrow of the Assad regime may feed a resurgence of anti-government protests in Iran, bringing political instability even closer to Russia’s borders and sphere of influence.
Furthermore, Russian leaders are concerned about the gains made by Muslim forces in the region, particularly in Egypt. The twin dangers of a popular overthrow of local autocrats and subsequent electoral victories by Islamic parties have raised fears about an Muslim takeover in one or more Central Asian states. Though such a scenario appears unlikely, it is a particularly sensitive issue for Russia because it could lead to a significant increase in migration inflows from the region, further destabilizing an already volatile domestic political situation.http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story_channel.jsp?channel=defense&id=news/dti/2012/04/01/DT_04_01_2012_p21-439630.xml&headline=Russia,%20Iran%20Use%20Navies%20To%20Bolster%20Syria