Russia's Syrian Naval Base
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Russia's Syrian Naval Base

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Over the last five months, numerous Russian naval officials, along with President Putin himself, have declared that Tartus, the naval base in Syria, is critical to Moscow’s security strategy.  This has occurred in conjunction with Russia’s efforts to provide diplomatic cover for the Syrian regime at the UN.  In this context its worth asking whether Russia actually has an interest in the port facilities at Tartus or whether it is merely using the port as a means of exerting influence over the outcome the Syrian conflict.

The former might initially seem unlikely. After all, Tartus is a small and limited facility that does not even have permanent repair capabilities.  However, there are compelling reasons why Russia may consider Tartus to be a critical facility.  Pier side maintenance and resupply are vital for deployed Russian naval ships.  The U.S. Navy has perfected the operational art of resupply at sea, and can keep ships underway almost indefinitely. 

The Russian Navy simply does not have that level of deployed sustainability – they need secure ports to conduct repair and replenishment.  In fact, it appears that on twelve separate occasions Russian naval vessels have made port calls to Tartus over the last two years.  These ships have come not only from the Black Sea Fleet, but also from the Baltic and Northern Fleets.  These fleets have multiple missions, to execute deployments in the Mediterranean and to the anti – piracy operational area in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Somali Basin, so it does appear that Russia is leaning on its unilateral access to the port at Tartus for missions that have nothing to do with the Assad regime.  This would suggest Russia has a national interest in maintaining the port regardless of the outcome of the Syrian civil war.

On the other hand, the Russian state, separate from the Russian Navy, uses Tartus as a secure facility to deliver military equipment and supplies to the Assad regime.  Many will recall the convoluted voyage of the Motor Vessel (MV) Alaed, which departed the Russian Baltic port of Kaliningrad last June, laden with a cargo of MI-25 attack helicopters headed for Tartus.  Flying a flag of convenience from Curacao, MV Alaed was identified by the UK government as being in violation of EU sanctions against Syria, and thus had its maritime insurance cancelled.  This forced MV Alaed to return to Kaliningrad, hoist a sovereign Russian flag, and start its journey anew for Tartus.  Other Russian supply ships, such as MV Professor Katsman, have previously pulled into Tartus to offload military equipment and supplies. 

In other words, Tartus allows the Russian state arms export company, Rosoboronexport,  to deliver weapons and supplies directly to the Assad regime and is therefore an example of the interest the Russian state has in the port, as opposed to just the Russian Navy.  This would suggest that Tartus is more important to Moscow than merely being a means for it to affect the outcome of the Syrian civil war. 

Moreover, Tartus would be the logical point of embarkation for a Non- Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) of Russian citizens, should Russia deem it necessary due to Syrian civil war.  The exact number of Russian citizens in Syria is not readily known; Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated in June that the number was 100,000, but this seems excessive and suitable as a way to masking Russia’s real interest in Syria- namely Tartus.  Nevertheless, Russia has positioned three amphibious transport vessels bearing 360 Russian Marines off the coast of Tartus who could execute this mission. 

All of these are compelling reasons for Russia to support the Assad regime, both logistically and diplomatically.  If Russia’s true interest is maintaining access to the port, regime failure will complicate matters considerably, unless the regime retains the coastal Alawite region, in which Tartus lies.  If Russia is primarily interested in extracting its citizens, then neither Tartus nor the Syrian regime matter in the long run.  If Russia’s primary interest is actually to maintain a client state in the Arab world, then Russia will have to go all in for Assad.  At the present moment, Russia appears to be considering its options and their priorities.

Christopher Harmer is a Senior Naval Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the author of the new ISW Backgrounder, “Russian Naval Base Tartus,” which this article is based on.

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