During balmy evenings in the sleepy Syrian port of Tartous locals promenade along the seafront or suck on hookahs discussing the two great pillars of their society: business and family.
Politics, such as it is in the tightly controlled one-party state, rarely gets a mention, and certainly not in public. But few could fail to wonder about the foreign sailors dockside and the grey warship dominating a harbour that was once a trading hub of the Phoenician empire and is now the centre of a new projection of power, this time by Syria’s old ally Russia.
Tartous is being dredged and renovated to provide a permanent facility for the Russian navy, giving Moscow a key military foothold in the Mediterranean at a time when Russia’s invasion of Georgia has led to fears of a new Cold War.
The bolstering of military ties between Russia and Syria has also worried Israel, whose Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, was in Moscow this week seeking to persuade the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, to stop Russian arms sales to Syria and Iran. Olmert later said he had received assurances that Russia would not allow Israel’s security to be threatened, but offered no indication he won any concrete promises on Russian arms sales.
Igor Belyaev, Russia’s charge d’affaires in Damascus, recently told reporters that his country would increase its presence in the Mediterranean and that ”Russian vessels will be visiting Syria and other friendly ports more frequently”.
That announcement followed a meeting between Medvedev and the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, at the Black sea port of Sochi in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s victory over Georgian forces and its recognition of the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia — actions Assad supported.
Now, with Ukraine threatening to expel Russia’s Black Sea fleet from its base in Sebastopol, the only route for the Russian navy into the Mediterranean, military cooperation between Moscow and Damascus appears to have taken on a new zeal.
”Israel and the United States supported Georgia against Russia, and Syria thus saw a chance to capitalise on Russian anger by advancing its long-standing relations with Moscow,” said Taha Abdel Wahed, a Syrian expert on Russian affairs. ”Syria has a very important geographical position for the Russians. Relations between Damascus and Moscow may not yet be strategic, but they are advancing rapidly.”
Tartous was once a re-supplying point for the Soviet navy at a time when Moscow sold Syria billions of dollars worth of arms. ”Tartous is of great geopolitical significance considering that it is the only such Russian facility abroad,” a former Russian navy deputy commander, Igor Kasatonov, said, following a meeting on September 12 in Moscow between the naval leaders from Russia and Syria.
Syrian-Russian relations cooled after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But they have taken on a new dynamic since Assad succeeded his father in 2000. After a state visit to Russia in 2005, he persuaded Moscow to wipe three-quarters off a Â£7,6-billion debt Syria owed, mainly from arms sales.
Since then the two countries have been in talks about upgrading Syria’s missile defences with Russia’s advanced Strelets system, provoking condemnation from Israel, whose fighter jets in September 2007 flew unchallenged into north-east Syria to bomb a suspected nuclear site.
Last month Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, said Moscow would consider selling Damascus new weapons that ”have a defensive character and that do not in any way interfere with the strategic balance in the region”. Though no defence pact has been signed between the two, as it has between Syria and Iran, observers suggest the very presence of Russian warships in Tartous would bolster Damascus’s military standing in the region.
”Israel would think twice about attacking Syria again with Russian ships stationed in Tartous,” said Abdel Wahed, an analyst.
A senior Israeli colonel has also accused Russia of passing intelligence about Israel to Syria and indirectly to Hizbullah.
Describing electronic eavesdropping stations on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights believed to be operated by Russian technicians, Ram Dor, information security chief for the armed forces, told an Israeli newspaper: ”My assessment is that their facilities cover most of the state of Israel’s territory. The Syrians share the intelligence that they gather with Hizbullah, and the other way around.”
During the July 2006 war Hizbullah fighters used advanced Russian tank-buster missiles to cripple at least 40 of Israel’s Merkava tanks, a key tipping point in a war that Israel later admitted it lost.
The Russian embassy in Damascus could not be reached for comment.
Medvedev promotes pact
Russia’s President, Dmitry Medvedev, outlined plans for a new security pact to ban the use of force in Europe and defuse increasing tensions between Moscow and Nato.
Last week’s speech at the World Policy Conference in Evian, France, was intended as a bridge-building exercise after Russia’s occupation of Georgia in August, which threatened a new cold war.
Medvedev promised that by midnight on Wednesday Russian troops would leave ”security zones” in the undisputed areas of Georgian territory. However, the Georgian government claimed the withdrawal was only partial and that Russian troops showed no signs of leaving the strategic outpost of Akhalgori, near the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and outside the breakaway region of South Ossetia.–