In an unfortunate exercise of naval muscle-flexing, a flotilla of Russian warships will be sent to the anchorage and naval base of Tartus in Syria for a port call next spring, led by the only Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov.
According to the Russian navy representative, this exercise was planned since 2010 and has no ties to the current situation in Syria. Yet, in view of the Bashar al-Assad regime’s agony, any reasonable government would cancel the visit.
Moreover, the squadron may even appear too late, just as the Assad regime collapses, much to the embarrassment of the Russian navy. And there is practically nothing, besides waving the flag, that the Russian warships can do to save Assad. Yet by resorting to gunboat diplomacy, Russia will certainly invoke the ire of the Europeans, the U.S., the Arab League, and the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, who are fighting the Assad regime. These radical Sunnis have tentacles into Northern Caucasus and the radical Muslim communities in Russia, where they support the anti-Russian insurrection. After the Kuznetsov visit to Syria, such support is only likely to increase.
Yet global politics are behind this demonstrative gesture. Russia and Iran remain among the very few nations to continue support for Assad’s regime. After acrimony over Libya and the professed shock over Colonel Muammar Qadhafi’s bitter end, Moscow staunchly opposes Western intervention in Syria. Together with Beijing, it torpedoed sanctions against the Assad regime and views a military action by the West against Damascus as unacceptable.
Moscow rejects the pretext of “responsibility to protect,” used by the Obama Administration and the Europeans as a legal base for “humanitarian interventions.” It appears that Russia continues to arm Syria against its neighbors but also to defend itself against a possible assault. Apparently, Tehran is picking up the tab, as the Assad regime is broke.
Despite Israeli and U.S. pleas, sophisticated weapons systems seem to be making their way to Syria from Russia. According to unverified reports in the Palestinian-owned Al Quds al-Arabi, a pan-Arab daily newspaper based in London, Russia has recently supplied Syria with advanced S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles and sent advisors to help Syria run the system.
According to these news sources, in addition to the missiles, Russia has installed advanced radar systems in key Syrian military and industrial installations. The radar systems are supposed to be able to track the movement of ground and air forces north and south of the Syrian border. Its targets include much of Israel as well as the Incirlik military base in Turkey used by NATO.
In September 2010, Russia cancelled the sale of the S-300 system to Iran and returned Iran’s deposit on the weapons after a round of new U.N. sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, which Moscow supported in exchange for the U.S. signing New START and some economic carrots. However, Iran allegedly paid for Syria’s S-300 missile system, and it is not know at the time of this writing if some of the missiles have reached or will reach Iran.
This alleged sale could not come at a worse time. The U.N. estimates that more than 3,500 have died since March. Members of the Arab League, from which Syria has been suspended, drafted a series of economic sanctions to impose on Syria if it does not allow monitors into the nation.
In its Syria policy, Moscow has broken with Washington. Russia clearly ignores the Obama Administration’s reset policy when it hugs and arms rogue nations, namely, Syria and Iran. While the Obama Administration works tirelessly to get Russia accepted into the World Trade Organization, the Kremlin continues to undermine U.S. foreign policy. This is the net result of the Obama “reset,” as Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College and I wrote in our “Reset Regret” WebMemo this summer:
Russia defends Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime despite its bloody repression of its own citizens. This is, among other reasons, because Russia has signed an agreement with Syria to return Soviet naval bases in Latakiye and Tartus to Russian control. Therefore, Russia obstructs U.N. resolutions of censure against Syria.…
Despite the “reset,” it is in U.S. interests to find out to what degree Moscow orchestrates or participates in joint activities among these problematic states, including arms sales from Iran and Syria to Hamas and Hezbollah.…
U.S. policymakers should reassess the “reset” and develop regional strategies that counter Russia’s (and China’s) agendas. Such policies should increase pressure on Iran, the most anti-American regional power, and [its satellite] the Assad regime in Syria.