MOSCOW: The Russian naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, its only such facility outside the ex-USSR, is a symbol of Moscow’s lingering influence in the Middle East even if its military significance is small.
Russia’s unwillingness to abandon the facility has long been seen by analysts as one reason why it has defied Western calls to turn against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad despite the escalating conflict in Syria.
Yet the base itself is a relatively modest affair, staffed by just a handful of Russian personnel, its harbour too shallow for large vessels to dock directly and visited only occasionally by the Russian navy who anchor offshore.
Some analysts say the term “base” is something of a misnomer and the Russian military prefers to call the facility simply a “point of military-technical supply of the Russian Navy”.
Yet the symbolism of Russia still maintaining any kind of military facility on the Mediterranean coast — deep in the Middle East well beyond its own borders — cannot be underestimated.
The Russian defence ministry this week raised eyebrows by announcing that 11 Russian naval vessels will shortly be entering the Mediterranean for a major deployment in a clear display of force to the West.
According to the Interfax news agency, at least seven of these including the anti-submarine destroyer the Admiral Chabanenko will be visiting Tartus for refuelling and taking on new supplies.
“Tartus is important as a symbol and from the technical and tactical point of view,” said Alexander Shumilin of the centre for analysis of Middle Eastern problems at the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow.
“It is Russia’s only point in the Mediterranean Sea and this presence of the Russian flag is important from a political point of view. But it is not a real base. And there is no perspective of changing it into a base.”
Alexander Filonyuk of the Middle East centre of the Russian Academy of Sciences described Tartus as “not a base but a technical point for servicing ships.” “It is a small area on the coast with an anchorage where boats can refuel and if possible take on goods. Of course it is a better to have such a point than not to have it. But losing it would not be strategic.”
The Tartus facility is a relic of Moscow’s close ties with the regime of late Syrian president and staunch Kremlin ally Hafez al-Assad in Soviet times when the USSR was a key player in a generally pro-Russian and secular Arab world. Russia still operates military bases dotted throughout the former Soviet Union from Azerbaijan to Tajikistan to Ukraine but the Tartus facility is a reminder of the time when Moscow’s ambitions were global in scale.
The Tartus base was created as result of an agreement in 1971 when the Soviet fleet boasted a Mediterranean Squadron, which ceased to exist after the fall of the Soviet Union. However Moscow kept the Tartus facility. “The relationship with Syria is important in itself. Russia is historically linked to this country. Syria was our partner and ally in the Middle East. We want to preserve this position,” Filonyuk said.
The base, 220-km northwest of Damascus, is staffed by just 50 Russian sailors, according to official Russian media. It has floating docks, a welding ship for repairs, storage and barracks. A recent report by state TV news channel Vesti 24 which gained rare access showed that facilities were even more basic after cutbacks. Gym equipment is improvised and staff grow vegetables in gardens to supplement meagre rations.
“Whole families used to live in these barracks. Now it is quiet in corridors,” said the reporter in the eerily quiet building. But some Western commentators believe Tartus also serves as a hub for Russian espionage in the Middle East.
In 2010, a senior agent from Russia’s military secret service the GRU, General Yuri Ivanov, died in Syria after visiting Tartus. His body was washed up on a Turkish beach and the official version of a swimming accident has never been properly explained.