On April 13, the Russian RIA Novosti news agency quoted a high-ranking source in the Russian defense ministry as saying, “A decision was made to deploy Russian warships near the Syrian shores on a permanent basis.” The source announced that Russia’s naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean had “nothing to do” with Syria.
Russia’s naval maneuvering has everything to do with geopolitics. This news comes at a troubling time, as a fragile ceasefire holds in Syria. Russia, which acts as Syria’s political sugar daddy and weapons supplier, has continually vetoed attempted U.N. condemnations of the Bashar al-Assad regime’s bloody clampdown on the opposition.
There is practically nothing the Russian warships can do to save Assad. However, the continued naval presence sends a strong signal of a new geopolitical assertiveness and support for a regime that has lost all legitimacy on the international stage.
This gunboat diplomacy is sure to aggravate the odd coalition of the U.S., the Europeans, the Gulf monarchies (including the powerful Saudi Arabia), and the Islamist forces (such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists) that are opposing the Assad regime. Perversely, Russia’s support for the Assad regime will further radicalize the Sunni Muslims in Russia, from the Northern Caucasus to Tatarstan, including radical Muslim communities called jama’ats in the Russian cities.
Together with Beijing, Russia has repeatedly torpedoed sanctions aimed at Damascus. Russia continues to arm Syria not just against its neighbors but also against a possible escalation in fighting. Since the Assad regime is broke, it appears that its friends in Tehran are picking up the tab.
With President-elect Vladimir Putin about to take power in May, Russia is clearly ignoring the reset policy pushed forward by the Obama Administration and the outgoing president, Dmitry Medvedev. As Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College and I wrote in our Issue Brief “Reset Regret: Russian Global Strategy Undermines American Interests” last year:
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.