Moscow Holds onto Syria, Its Last Military Outpost in the Middle East
It was announced in Moscow on Tuesday, Nov. 29, that Russia's envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin will pay visits to China and Iran in mid-January to discuss the US-backed global missile defense network.
" We are planning to visit both Beijing and Tehran soon under the Russian President’s directive, to discuss the planned deployment of a global missile defense network," Rogozin said during a roundtable meeting at the lower house of the Russian parliament.
The diplomat added he would meet with Foreign Ministry and General Staff officials in China, and hold talks with the head of the Supreme National Security Council and diplomats in Iran.
That same day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had this to say on the Syrian question: “It’s not so much the (Syrian) authorities, but armed groups that are provoking the unrest."
He urged all parties to pressure Syria’s political players to forgo violence, saying: “This has to do with what the authorities are doing, but even more, this applies to the armed groups that work in Syria and which maintain contacts with a host of Western countries and a host of Arab states. Everyone knows this.”
Lavrov was referring to the information reported exclusively by debkafile and DEBKA-Net-Weekly in mid-November, and confirmed in this issue, that military and intelligence officers from the US, Turkey, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan are coordinating and directing Free Syrian Army anti-Assad operations inside Syria.
Moscow blurs the size of the armada gathering opposite Syria
The Syrian question was the subject of a comment by the Russian foreign minister a day earlier too.
In reference to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the Arab League Lavrov stressed Monday before Arab ambassadors in Moscow that it was Russian policy to resolve internal problems “peacefully through national dialogue aimed at promoting civil harmony and without outside interference.”
This sounded like a warm-up for a Russia veto should the Arab League table an anti-Syria sanctions resolution at the United Nations Security Council.
Then Wednesday, Nov. 30, a high-ranking Russian Defense Ministry official told the Interfax news agency that a Russian battle group, consisting of three vessels led by the heavy aircraft-carrying missile cruiser Admiral Kuznetzov, would embark on a two-month Mediterranean voyage on December 6.
The number of Russian ships massing in the Mediterranean was left deliberately vague.
On Oct. 17, the Syrian news agency Sana reported Russian naval ships (no number) were due to arrive. Monday, Nov. 22, the presidential palace in Damascus disclosed that three Russian warships had entered Syrian waters opposite the port of Tartus.
No details were offered about the type of warship or their further movements, so that it is impossible to say for sure how many Russian vessels will be present in Syrian waters after the arrival of Admiral Kuznetsov group – five, six or more?
Medvedev and Putin strive to avoid another fiasco after Libya
There was plenty of diplomatic and military hustle and bustle in Moscow this week, from which DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Russian sources drew certain pointed conclusions:
1. The duo of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, who are due to change places after the next election, sat down and studied the lessons of their failure in Libya.
In the third week of August, Presidential Middle East Envoy Mikhail Margelov met Muammar Qaddafi's representatives on the Tunisian island of Djerba, after Washington had agreed to employ Moscow's services as honest broker for cutting short the Libyan conflict.
Margelov then waited in vain for two days for rebel TNC representatives to arrive on the island. They never turned up. Instead, the Kremlin was chagrined to discover that British, French, Qatari and Jordanian special forces had spearheaded a lightning rebel push into Tripoli.
Moscow's promised role of broker fell flat.
Since then, the Russian duo has vowed not be led by the nose again – either in Damascus or Tehran.
2. Russia's diplomatic whiz kid Margelov looked this week as though he had been sidelined from his key role in the Arab Spring and left with scrappy missions on the fringes. His place has been taken by none other than Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov, who submits his reports directly to Medvedev and Putin.
Russia views Syria as a vital strategic partner
3. Russia's top intelligence, military and munitions industries' officials hold the President and Prime Minister personally responsible for Qaddafi's fall and Moscow's resulting strategic fiasco. To avert another such setback, hectic conferences on Syria and Iran take place behind closed doors in the Kremlin every two or three days. Ways and means are discussed for forestalling Western military intervention for Bashar Assad's ouster.
They are attended by Medvedev, Putin and Lavrov – or at least two of the three – as well as intelligence and military chiefs.
Assad's Syria is regarded as a vital strategic partner on three grounds: a) His regime is seen as a key link in the anti-Western Middle East axis. Pro-Russian Damascus is held up as a counterweight to pro-American Ankara; b) It is Moscow's main channel for influence in Hizballah, the Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami and the Palestinian Authority; c) Syria has granted Russia its last remaining military stronghold in the region at its Mediterranean ports.
The military relationship is longstanding and multifaceted.
For half a century Moscow has been Syria's foremost arms supplier. In 2008, Russian began renovation work on Tartus military port long after its floating docks had fallen into disrepair, with a view to re-establishing a Russian presence on the Mediterranean. The Russian paper Izvestia reports that 600 technicians are at work upgrading the Tartus facilities, dredging the harbor and outfitting it for port calls by the Russian Navy.
Moscow seeks to prevent a pro-Westerner succeeding Assad
Hundreds of active duty Syrian officers are graduates of Russian military academies. This gives Moscow good insights into the Syrian Army's ways. If the high command mounted a coup to overthrow the Assad regime, (See the separate item about Western-Arab intervention in Syria), Moscow's ties with top Syrian officers would guarantee that a new military ruler in Damascus would not be anti-Russian, as in the case of Libya.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Moscow report that Medvedev and Putin are far from sure they can save Assad and prevent his regime from falling.
For this reason, the Kremlin is investing heavily in public rhetoric and diplomacy. The regime in Damascus has been strongly urged to eschew excessive violence against its opponents while, at another level, Russian diplomats have been in close touch with Syrian opposition leaders.
The Kremlin appears to be getting used to the notion that Bashar Assad a losing horse. But this does not necessarily mean that Syria is about to fall completely into the lap of the West.
Russian strategists are taking the long view and working overtime to prevent this happening.