London Sunday Times
Five Russian landing ships carrying hundreds of marines and military vehicles are gathering in the eastern Mediterranean in a show of force said by one Russian diplomat to be aimed at deterring western intervention in Syria’s civil war.
Accompanied by combat vessels from the Black Sea and Baltic fleets, the ships are converging on the Syrian port of Tartus, where Russia maintains a military base regarded as an evacuation route for its nationals in Syria.
It is the largest Russian force in the area for 40 years. A Russian diplomatic source said that as well as protecting the country’s interests in Syria, the presence of at least 300 marines was intended to discourage western countries from putting special forces on the ground in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Officially the Russian navy says the ships are preparing for an exercise to “improve the management, maintenance and testing of the interaction of naval forces”.
The diplomatic source said that “Russia should be prepared for any developments, as it believes the situation in Syria might reach its peak before Easter”.
Russia has maintained the base at Tartus, in the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect, since 1971. It is the winter hub of the Black Sea fleet. Some observers believe the marines may be ready to set up a sterile zone around the port to protect its facilities and rescue some of the 30,000 Russian nationals believed to be in Syria.
One Israeli source said: “If necessary, I can envisage a Russian ground force stepping in to defend the Alawite corridor stretched between the Lebanese border in the south and the Turkish border in the north.”
An official of the Russian general staff told the Interfax news agency a naval infantry unit had joined the landing ship Novocherkassk at the Black Sea base of Novorossiysk last week.
The other principal vessels are the Nikolai Filchenkov and Azov from the Black Sea fleet and Kaliningrad and Aleksandr Shabalin from the Baltic fleet.
All are capable of amphibious operations and can carry 1,000 marines and scores of tanks and armoured personnel carriers. They are accompanied by guided missile destroyers and at least one cruiser.
The recent deployment of Nato Patriot anti-missile batteries to Turkey has increased Russia’s concern about its only stronghold in the Middle East.
It has also been reported that western special forces are preparing for ground operations to prevent Assad’s chemical weapons from falling into the hands of Islamist elements of the rebel movement.
President Barack Obama authorised clandestine CIA support for the Free Syrian Army last year and America is understood to have given approval for weapons to be supplied indirectly through allied nations in the Middle East. The US and Britain have had special forces and intelligence officers on the ground to help the Free Syrian Army with logistics, communications and humanitarian aid.
“The Russians will not tolerate western ground intervention and stay idle,” said an Israeli defence source. “Syria is too important for Russia. It has invested billions through the years and if Syria disintegrates, the Alawite coastal region will be the place for the Russians to put their feet in.”
Reflecting the growing concern in Moscow, a report in the official Rossiskaya Gazeta on December 29 quoted Russian diplomatic sources as saying a Nato attack on Syria was highly likely early this year.
In recent months, a Russian signal intelligence unit has been moved from Dara’a in southern Syria to Tartus, where it is said to be co-operating with Syrian intelligence.
The Russians will not be alone in the eastern Mediterranean. The US sixth fleet keeps an aircraft carrier there, and Israeli warships, including a submarine carrying nuclear missiles, make regular patrols.
Russian officials have dismissed speculation that their military could intervene to bolster the Assad government, but they will keep a close eye on their own interests.
The family of James Foley, a 39-year-old American journalist kidnapped in Syria in November, have said they will keep their Christmas lights on until he returns to celebrate the holiday he missed.