Moscow cannily prepared the ground for the arrival of the largest naval task force Russia has deployed to the Mediterranean in five years, by notching up anti-US war fever around Syria. The Russian Defense Minister spokesman Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov on Monday, Aug. 27 accused the US of a buildup in the Middle East for a possible strike on Syrian government forces. He was quoted as saying that the guided missile destroyer the USS Ross had entered the Mediterranean on Aug. 25, armed with 28 Tomahawk cruise missiles capable of hitting any point in Syria.
Three days earlier, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated: All foreign forces staying here without an invitation from the Syrian government must eventually withdraw.” This was his answer to US National Adviser John Bolton, who had threatened to strike Syrian government forces if they used chemical weapons in the Idlib attack.
On the night of Monday, Aug. 27, acting on a warning from the Russian Khmeimim Air Base, Syria declared its highest alert at all air defense facilities across the country. The Mezzeh military air base in Damascus was ordered to prepare for a US attack on and near the capital and air defense batteries armed ready to counter the threat.
It wasn’t the first time that Moscow has manipulated Damascus or Tehran into ringing alarm bells to attain its objectives. But the difference this time was that the alert was accompanied by an extraordinary buildup of Russian naval strength in the Mediterranean Sea, the types of warships taking part and their positions opposite the Syrian coast. The armada, self-proclaimed by Moscow as the largest task force it has ever deployed in the region, consists of a cruiser, a destroyer, four frigates and corvettes – all armed with guided missiles, as well as two large landing craft, the two largest minesweepers in the Russian navy and two submarines carrying cruise missiles.
DEBKA Weekly lists the 15 warships Moscow has sent to the Mediterranean in the last ten days. Another 10 vessels are on the way.
CG Marshal Ustinov – a cruise missiles cruiser
DDG Severomorsk – a guided missiles destroyer
DDG Yaroslav Mudry – a guided missiles frigate
FFG Admiral Grigorovich – a guided missiles frigate especially built for the Black Sea Fleet
FFG Admiral Essen – a guided missiles frigate
FFL Pytlivy – an M-class guided missiles frigate
FSG Vyshniy Volochek – a Buyan-class corvette – one of the latest acquisitions of the Russian Navy
FSG Grad Sviyazhsk – a Buyan-class corvette designed to engage surface warships
FSG Veliky Ustyug – a guided missiles corvette
LST Orsk – a landing ship NATO codenamed Alligator
LST Nikolay Filchenkov – a landing ship under the same NATO codename
MS Turbinist – an ocean-going minesweeper
MS Valentin Pikul – an ocean-going minesweeper
SS Kolpino – a naval diesel-electric attack submarine, armed with 18 torpedoes and eight surface-to-air missiles
SS Velikiy Novgorod – a naval diesel-electric attack submarine.
The densely-packed armada of Russian warships, all bristling with Kalibr-NK cruise missiles and anti-air weaponry, in the narrow confines of offshore Syrian waters, is highly significant, according to DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence experts:
- It forms a barrier against US, British, French and Israeli warships coming close to the Syrian coast for firing missiles, including cruise missiles, against Syrian targets on land. To circumvent the Russian barrier, hostile ships will have to pull back from their Syrian targets to a long distance, a maneuver that will raise the cost of such an operation and achieve much less accuracy in execution.
- Because the Russian warships are crowded so closely together, any US or Israeli missile attack on Syria might accidentally swipe at a Russian vessel.
- The high air defense alert declared by Russian and Syria forces was aimed mainly at protecting the Russian armada rather than warding off the US attack which Moscow pretended was coming.
- The presence of ocean-going minesweepers is puzzling. Russian intelligence apparently suspects that the Syrian rebel Hayat al Tahrir militia, which rules Idlib, is plotting to send out speedboats for scattering mines around the Russian warships in the eastern Mediterranean – that may have been supplied by some hostile party. The Russians are holding negotiations with the group in the hope of averting the need for a major operation for the recovery of the province to the Assad regime.
5. The placement of this Russian fleet opposite Syria indicates it is there for a long stay – maybe several months, even though it must weigh heavily on Russia’s defense budget. This betokens Putin’s determination to see his strategic partnership with Iran and Syria against the US and Israel through to the end, whatever the cost.