Presence of Russian warships near Syria is a powerful deterrent

YEVSEYEV, Vladimir
Valdai International Discussion Club
26/07/2012

ValdaiClub.com interview with Vladimir Yevseyev, Director of the Public Policy Research Center.

What is the objective of the combined Russian naval task force dispatched to the Mediterranean Sea?

According to official statements, the combined task force from the Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets has two objectives – to fight piracy and to conduct exercises. But I believe that its main, though unofficial, task is to keep NATO from pursuing a military scenario in Syria. Otherwise, what is the reason for having marines on board these ships in the Mediterranean?

In practical terms, there is as yet no reason for evacuating Russian nationals from Syria. To date, there are about 30,000 Russian-speaking families in Syria, so if necessary Russia will have to evacuate between 80,000 and 100,000 people. Five amphibious assault ships cannot evacuate this many people. Even if Russian marines assume control of Tartus, where the Russian supply and maintenance base is located, no one would be able to bring these families there from all over Syria.
I have no explanation for the marines and the large number of amphibious assault ships sent there. The task force consists of different ships: a large anti-submarine warfare ship, two escort ships and five amphibious landing ships. Unlike large warships, such as the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, the task force’s warships are unable to effectively restrain NATO from launching an invasion. But the presence of Russian warships near Syria is a powerful deterrent itself. The Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led to active U.S. interference in the conflict between North and South Vietnam, largely resulted from the mere presence of a U.S. destroyer near Vietnam’s territorial waters.

Nevertheless, I see no clear reason for pursuing a military scenario in Syria, even though current trends in the Syrian conflict are very bad. The Untied States is looking for ways to interfere under the pretext that Syria has chemical weapons. It should be said that chemical weapons have not been removed from the depots in Syria, where they are closely guarded. The latest statements about “leaks” of chemical weapons that could be seized by al-Qaeda don’t hold water. But all of this could be used as a pretext for a military interference in Syria’s affairs.

In late June, the Royal Navy turned back a Russian ship carrying three Mi-25 helicopters, repaired at the request of Syria. Could one assume that these helicopters are being delivered to Syria by the Russian naval task force? Could these warships be used to transport air defense systems or weapons for Syrian government forces?

I don’t have any information about this. But we must not forget that amphibious landing ships are designed to transport vehicles, especially heavy armored vehicles, which means that they have enough space to carry anything. As for helicopters, a large part of the landing ships have been dispatched from Severomorsk [in northern Russia] and hence it is highly unlikely that the helicopters could be put on them en route, for example in Baltiysk. Still, since these amphibious assault ships can be used to carry a large number and variety of cargo, it is technically possible to use them to deliver weapons and military equipment.

The Russian task force includes only three combat warships, one of which was built in 1966. How strong is the Russian naval task force that has been dispatched to Syria?

The task force does not look strong. The situation would have been different had it included the heavy nuclear-powered missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky. Nevertheless, I repeat that the presence of landing ships raises questions. They are usually not included in the task forces that take part in naval exercises. As a rule these task forces have a large vessel that acts as the flagship. In this case, it is a large anti-submarine ship and is accompanied by surface ships and submarines, which also provide escort and protection. But what is the role of the amphibious landing ships? How could they be used to combat piracy?

The biggest intrigue is the reason for dispatching the landing ships to Syria. Their presence would be logical if coastal exercises were being performed. But as far as I know, it will be a purely naval exercise, and so it is very difficult to explain the presence of landing vessels in the group. One possible explanation, that was already mentioned, is that they are carrying military equipment for the Syrian army.

How important is the Tartus base for the Russian Navy? What is the situation there?

To begin with, it is not a naval base but a supply and maintenance base. It has two floating piers, a floating workshop and several military facilities. According to available information, it is manned by ten people, which is clearly not enough to fulfill their mission.

However, the existence of such a supply and maintenance base is important. It is one of the few naval facilities Russia has outside the former Soviet Union, and it could potentially be turned into a full-scale naval base. This facility is also very important geopolitically. The Russian military presence in that unstable region, which has enormous influence on global politics, reaffirms Moscow’s foreign policy ambitions and supports Russian diplomatic efforts.

It would be unwise to modernize the Tartus supply and maintenance base in the current unstable situation in the region. This can and shall be done only when the situation in Syria stabilizes and the new government shows interest in cooperating with Russia.

Can the tension surrounding Syria escalate to a direct confrontation between the Russian and NATO navies? Early this year, experts expressed concern over the massing of Western warships in the Strait of Hormuz. Could they be quickly moved from the Strait to Syria if tensions mount?

As far as I can see, the Western powers and Gulf monarchies are pressuring Syria largely because of its close relations with Iran. The destabilization of Syria would definitely weaken Iran. There are many countries where civil war is underway, yet no one is interfering in their internal affairs.

Syria is located in the zone of operation of two U.S. fleets, the Fifth Fleet (the western part of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf) and the Sixth Fleet (the Mediterranean Sea). But these days it is virtually impossible to conceal the deployment of a large naval task force. Moreover, the naval component must be accompanied by the deployment of a coastal element. The best country for doing this is Turkey, but creating such a task force would take time. Of course, warships could be moved to Syria, but a military operation against Bashar Al-Assad cannot be effective without land forces. An air operation would not be enough to resolve the Syrian crisis, considering that the Syrian army is 300,000 strong. Given their training, fighting spirit and technical support, the intervening force should be at least half as strong.

So I believe that they are relying on clandestine operations: the assassination of individual leaders and covert assistance to the armed opposition. Six thousand of the 25,000 militants fighting Al-Assad in Syria are mercenaries. Every fourth man fighting the government is a mercenary, so this is not a revolution at all but an operation to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad.

How strong is Al-Assad’s position in the country?

At least 40% of people continue to support the President. All religious and ethnic minorities in Syria are working against the Sunni, who constitute the bulk of the armed opposition. The religious groups include not only the Alawis but also the Shia, Ismailis, Christians and the Druze. Bashar Al-Assad is supported by all ethnic minorities – the Kurds, Armenians and Circassians. They will not turn on Al-Assad without good reason, because they fear a potential massacre, which is why the people support the president and will continue to support him in the near future.

Moreover, if free and fair elections were held in Syria according to the highest Western standards today, Bashar Al-Assad would win. There is no other alternative to him as long as the opposition is split.
At present, a military intervention in Syria is not in the cards. But efforts are being made to complicate the situation and to distort certain issues, such as Syria’s chemical weapons. I see this as an attempt to gauge the feasibility of an Iraq-style intervention in Syria: Iraq was invaded under the pretext of weapons of mass destruction, which was later proved to be untrue.

The United States and Israel clearly have the technology to destroy Syria’s chemical depots in an air raid, but this is not a solution. To get really reliable results, they will have to carry out a limited ground operation. This explains the rumor about the need to secure Syria’s chemical arsenals, which the Syrian military allegedly cannot do. This is a lie: these arsenals are very well guarded, and no one will give up or surrender them without a fight.

Moreover, no one plans to use these weapons against the Syrian opposition. The Syrian government has recently issued an official statement saying that the chemical arsenals would be opened only in case of foreign invasion and would not be used against the anti-government forces.

These deliberations about weapons of mass destruction in Syria and the government’s alleged inability to safeguard its chemical arsenals are a bad sign, which could mean that the Americans are planning to repeat the Iraqi scenario in Syria. But still, I don’t see any possibility of a military intervention in Syria in the near term.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club’s, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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