RUSSIA has sent a dozen or more warships to patrol waters near its naval base in Syria, a build-up that US and European officials see as a new, aggressive stance meant partly to warn the West and Israel not to intervene in Syria’s bloody civil war.
Russia’s expanded presence in the eastern Mediterranean, which began attracting US officials’ notice three months ago, is one of its largest sustained naval deployments since the Cold War. While Western officials say they don’t fear an impending conflict with Russia’s aged fleet, the presence adds a new potential source of dangerous miscalculation in an increasingly combustible region.
“It is a show of force. It’s muscle flexing,” a senior US defence official said.
“It is about demonstrating their commitment to their interests.”
The build-up is seen as Moscow’s way of trying to strengthen its hand in any talks over Syria’s future and buttress its influence in the Middle East. It also provides options for evacuating tens of thousands of Russians still in Syria.
Russian navy and foreign ministry officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Moscow and Washington have worked publicly in recent days to assemble an international conference involving Damascus. But expectations are low that the meeting could lead to a political transition, with tension high across the region, and with the US and Russia backing opposing camps.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signalled this week that he will proceed with the sale of an advanced air-defence system to Syria, according to US intelligence reports, over Israeli and US objections.
Hezbollah and its chief sponsor, Iran, also have rallied around President Bashar al-Assad, sharing Russia’s interest in keeping the regime in place. Recent Israeli airstrikes inside Syria have targeted missiles believed to be from Tehran and bound for Hezbollah.
US officials said yesterday that another round of Israeli airstrikes could target a new transfer of advanced missiles in the near future. Israeli and Western intelligence services believe the missiles could be transferred to Hezbollah within days. Russia has strongly protested previous Israeli strikes in Syria.
Western defence officials say Russia appears to be trying to project power to deter a Libya-style intervention in Syria. The port of Tartus is Russia’s only remaining military outpost outside the former Soviet Union.
Consisting of a pair of piers staffed by about 50 people, according to Russian data, the base provides a toehold in the region that has grown in strategic and symbolic importance for Moscow.
“It’s not really a base,” said Andrei Frolov, an analyst at CAST, a Moscow military think tank. “It’s more like a service station.”
US officials believe Russia has plans to expand the base, which it negotiated with Assad.
Mr Obama yesterday held out some hope that the coming conference with Russia would help achieve a consensus.
“There’s no magic formula for dealing with an extraordinarily violent and difficult situation like Syria’s,” Mr Obama said at a news conference in Washington with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“I do think that the prospect of talks in Geneva involving the Russians may yield results.”
Moscow’s diplomacy notwithstanding, US officials believe that in addition to the naval deployments, Russia is moving more quickly than previously thought to deliver S-300 surface-to-air defence systems to Syria.
US officials say the S-300 system, which is capable of shooting down guided missiles and could make it more risky for any warplanes to enter Syrian airspace, could leave Russia for the port of Tartus by the end of the month.
Russian officials first announced the navy was deploying ships to the eastern Mediterranean near Syria starting late last year. In January, the Russian navy used these and other ships to conduct what it billed as some of the largest exercises in recent years in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea.
Before the start of the Syrian civil war, Russian ships stopped at the port only irregularly. But in the past three months, 10 to 15 ships have been near the Syrian port at all times.