Russian bases in Syria – the window to the Mediterranean sea

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September 25, 2015

Sergey Ishchenko

Translated by Kristina Rus


Following Russia Iran is about to throw some troops into Syria 

The Syrian city of Latakia today is on the front pages of the most influential newspapers and magazines around the world. Reason: apparently, this is where the ever-increasing global military-political confrontation between Moscow and Washington had focused. Americans believe that in Latakia at the military airfield Bassel al-Assad, which was previously used by the Syrian army, the Russians are building up their forward operating military base at a record pace. Moscow did not officially confirm it, but that doesn’t matter. Yes, building. And — not hiding from anyone. Yes, in a hurry. But why?

Before looking for the answer to this question, here are some brief points, which suggest that, most likely, for the Russian General staff there is really now no city more important than the very remote from its walls Latakia. So:

— according to American newspaper “The New York Times”, in recent days to the Syrian airfield Bassel al-Assad from Russia arrived four new multi-purpose fighters Su-30CM, two mobile air defense complexes “Pantsir-S1”, two helicopter gunships Mi-24 and two – multi-purpose Mi-17;

— last Sunday, the Russian aviation group near Latakia was enhanced by four front-line bombers Su-24M, accompanied by military transport aircraft Il-76, which flew there from Mozdok through Iran;

— analysis of data of space intelligence allowed the American agency Stratfor (which is close to the CIA) to determine, that near the construction of a military base a Russian battalion tactical group is deployed consisting of two infantry and one tank company. Artillery battery is installed on combat positions. According to Stratfor, the number and total weight of transported cargo testify that in addition to the aerial bridge, provided by the Russian heavy transport aircraft An-124 “Ruslan”, a consistent supply of the new base was established by sea.

Moreover. Apparently, any day it will become obvious to he world that actually Russia intends to establish in Syria, not one but two military bases. Second, obviously, will be Tartus, located just 90 kilometers from Latakia.

Actually, our military has been there since 1971, when in Tartus in agreement with Damascus was founded the 720-th logistics outpost (PMTO – material-technical supply point) of the 5th operational squadron of the Soviet Navy. However, Tartus never aspired to be a real naval base in the Mediterranean. The tiny territory, only two decks, barracks, a headquarters building and small mechanical workshops. Security — four dozen marines from Sevastopol — were able to scare off only nomads and bandits.

But even such modest military and manufacturing capabilities allowed to somehow ensure routine maintenance of ships and submarines, some of which came in these waters from thousands of miles — all the way from the Northern and Baltic fleets. And to drive the battle units back to replace any tiny detail would cost an unthinkable lot of money.

In addition, Tartus gave the opportunity of respite to the sailors, whose combat service in these waters usually lasted continuously for six to eleven months. Psychological and physical fatigue of the crews concerned Moscow. The then commander-in-chief of the Soviet Navy, Admiral Sergei Gorshkov even initiated the talks with the leadership of Yugoslavia to allow the ships of the 5th operational squadron go to Dubrovnik. It was planned to rent a hotel there and by air at public expense to deliver the port officer’s and midshipmen’s wives and children for short family meetings.

But the Yugoslavs did not agree. Dusty and desolate shore of Tartus remained the only place where at least some Soviet crews from the 5th squadron could feel the ground under their feet. To deliver their families to Syria of course was not an option. 

Then, in the early 90-ies, the 5th operational squadron was disbanded, the Russian sailors have deserted the Mediterranean sea. The moorings of Tartus emptied, and the fate of PMTO literally hung in the balance. Moscow of that time could easily make a decision to leave Syria, as we left the Vietnamese island of Cam Ranh in 2002, where we had a full-fledged naval base of the 17th operational squadron of the Pacific fleet.

But by some miracle Tartus was not written of the balance of the Russian Navy. And now, when Russia announced the restoration of the permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean, it became clear that without Tartus we can not to translate this political commitment into reality.

Moreover. Apparently, the 720-th PMTO was destined to turn into the first full-fledged Russian naval base on the Mediterranean. At least on Monday our press reported that the staff of the PMTO will be increased several times to 1700 people. Neither the current territory, nor our buildings can accommodate so many people. So, there is an agreement with Damascus on a significant expansion and the start of major construction.

Can you imagine the hysterical reaction in the West! Latakia, and then Tartus… Strengthening of the Russian military presence in Syria in the U.S. and Western Europe is viewed the same: Moscow wants to support President Bashar al-Assad militarily, who, from the point of view of Washington and Brussels, has lost legitimacy and must go into political oblivion.

The second view of such commentators — Russian troops arrive in Syria to fight ISIS terrorists on the side of the Syrian army. Only it’s too far from the truth. Our arsenal already located in Latakia seems too incompatible for such development. The Su-30SM with “air-air” missles — against whom? Against whom – the defense systems “Pantsir-S1”? After all, ISIS doesn’t have its own combat aircraft. And one armored, two mechanized infantry companies and an artillery battery are not able to reverse a fierce civil war. But to provide security for the airfield from disparate bands should be enough.

And for some reason almost anyone abroad does not think that it’s not about Assad. And from a geopolitical point of view, Moscow, by and large, doesn’t care who in a few years will be called the President of Syria. Russia has its own strategic goal: by 2020 to be able to stand up in the Mediterranean sea to the 6th American fleet. This requires ships and bases. Our shipyards are loaded with construction of warships to the eyeballs. Bases should also be taken care of in advance. If the situation in Syria makes it possible to solve this problem — it needs to be urgently addressed.

However, this is not just my opinion. The same opinion was recently expressed in an interview with Israeli television by the former head of one of the special services of this country, Yaakov Kedmi. Here are his words: “Russia has never hidden its military presence in Syria. Russia never hid that it supports the Assad regime. Russia never hid that it supplies him with weapons and military equipment. But suddenly they started to talk about it all over the world, as if it wasn’t the same yesterday.

It’s just that Russia wants to strengthen its presence in the Mediterranean sea. It is looking for other bases, besides Syria. Received permission for visits of its warships to the ports of Cyprus. Trying to negotiate with the Egyptian leadership about the use of Alexandria. I don’t know about Algeria, but likely negotiations are ongoing.

Americans have plenty of bases in the Mediterranean, and Russians have only Tartus. If the Russian leadership has come to the conclusion that in the case of approach of the opposition troops (read: ISIS — ed.) to the coast, the danger for Tartus will rise, they will strengthen their military component in Syria. To defend themselves in the first place.”

By the way, according to Kedmi, soon the war in Syria will gain a new feature. Currently at the direction of Iran on the side of Assad are fighting 6,000 “Hezbollah” fighters. But, says a well-informed Kedmi, Tehran “is about to bring in its troops to Syria. And no matter how many soldiers – hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands. Iran will not allow the Assad regime to be overthrown”.

And if that be so — everyone should brace themselves. Russia and the Americans. I’m not surprised that our General staff in agreement with Damascus in advance increases the defense of Tartus and Latakia with Russian tanks, artillery, helicopters, fighters and tactical bombers. And at the same time gets a chance to get a stronger foothold in the Mediterranean for decades to come…

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