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The Syrian Port of Tartus By Robin Michelle Barnett
Comprehensive Information on Complex Crises

Excerpted from 22 January 2013

This document provides the ‘In Focus’ excerpt from the MB Weekly 15 — 21 January 2013. The ‘In Focus’ section of the weekly gives our readership a more detailed reporting of an event or topic of particular relevance in the Mediterranean Basin and other regions of interest. ‘In Focus’ pieces provide hyperlinks to source material highlighted and underlined in the text. For more information on the topics below or other issues pertaining to the region, please contact the members of the Med Basin Team, or visit our website at www.cimicweb.org.

Humanitarian Crisis In its largest appeal ever, the United Nations (UN) requested USD 1.5 billion in December 2012 to help the millions of Syrians suffering from what it called a “dramatically deteriorating humanitarian situation”. Four million people in the country require urgent humanitarian aid, including an estimated two million displaced from their homes by sectarian violence. UN figures show the number of registered Syrian refugees has leapt from 500,000 to nearly 600,000 in the past month. Deliveries of food are delayed by insecurity, and ships must now use the Lebanese port of Beirut instead of the Syrian Port of Tartus. “There are really no more safe areas where people can flee”, stated the UN Regional Coordinator for Syria, adding “The magnitude of this humanitarian crisis is undisputable”. The World Food Program (WFP) used the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) in the past however these efforts were being hampered by a “lack of capacity” as well as escalating violence between the government and rebels, stated WFP executive director Ertharin Cousin. As a result of the insecurity, the WFP has temporarily pulled its staff out of its offices in the Syrian cities of Homs, Aleppo, Tartus and Kurdish-run Qamishli. To add further complication, the lack of security has prevented WFP from delivering aid to Syria via the port of Tartus, a “key conduit”. However, on 16 January the WFP announced that the Syrian government would ease restrictions and allow WFP to expand its area of operations and work with 110 designated non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to distribute dire food assistance throughout the war-torn country. WFP has selected 44 NGOs of the 110 permitted to work as implementing partners and carry out food distribution, , thus enabling the WFP operation to feed upwards of one million people. At this time it is not known whether WFP and its 44 partners will be allowed to distribute food through the strategic Port of Tartus or whether the port will be restricted to Russian and Syrian military operations. Russia and its Vested Interest Russia has maintained its naval base at Tartus since 1971. The base serves as a naval supply and maintenance facility and a winter hub for its Black Sea fleet. At the end of the Cold War, Russia retained its leasing rights to the Syrian Port of Tartus by waiving nearly EUR 8 billion in Syrian debt to the Soviet Union. Since then, Russia has expanded its facilities to enable the docking of nuclear warships. The facility remains restricted to a small barracks (50 personnel onshore plus 190 accommodated on floating platforms), pier, fuel tanks and small support buildings. The Syrian Port of Tartus is the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean and the only base existing outside of the Soviet Union; the Soviet-era naval base at Vietnam‟s Cam Ranh Bay and “a spy base in Lourdes in Cuba” were both closed in the early 2000s during President Vladimir Putin‟s first term. The port plays an important role in the resupply and refuelling of Russian naval vessels,

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enabling an extended stay in the Mediterranean thus avoiding the long voyage back to the Black Sea Fleet‟s home base from leased facilities in Ukraine.1 According to the Russian Navy, the naval base in Syria significantly boosts Russia‟s operational capability in the region, as warships based from Tartus are capable of reaching the Red Sea through the Suez Canal and the Atlantic through the Strait of Gibraltar in a matter of days, reports the Moscow-based RIA Novosti news agency. “Tartus is the only site where Russian ships can dock for refuelling and repairs and allow their crews to rest a little”, said Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, President of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems. “Strictly speaking, the Tartus station is not a naval base. We [Russia] only have a floating repair dock there. The port is not equipped to be a base, but potential changes are possible. If we maintain our presence there, modernization will be needed.” While Tartus is acknowledged as a “small and limited facility” lacking permanent repair capabilities, the base does enable Russia to conduct repair and replenishment since the Russian fleet, unlike the US Navy, is unable to resupply at sea. Ruslan Aliev, the head of information at the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) in Moscow, likewise asserted that Tartus is not a definitive naval base; however, it does enable force protection of Russian naval capabilities into the Mediterranean, potentially influencing Europe and Middle East whilst giving more aggressive options through „gunboat diplomacy‟. Tartus is also the port through which Russia provides its lucrative arms shipments to Syria and has recently become more significant as a “counter to NATO‟s ballistic missile defence system, which includes the integration of naval vessels which Russia may hope to undermine through its own maritime capabilities in the Mediterranean”, according to Nordic Intel. Russian Naval Build-up On 20 January, the largest Russian war games since the Cold War commenced in what has been described as a flexing of military muscle and underlining Russian interests in Syria and the Port of Tartus. Task forces from Russia‟s Black Sea, Northern and Baltic fleets, strategic bombers, tactical aircraft, air defence units, paratroopers and navy are taking part in the manoeuvres in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, according to the Russian defence ministry. Andrei Frolov, a naval expert at the Moscow military thinktank CAST, said the drill may be intended to remind the West of Russia‟s links to Syria, where it has repeatedly argued against outside intervention. According to RIA Novosti, the exercise is in line with the Russian Armed Forces‟ 2013 combat training plan and will aim to “practice the issues of establishing a multiservice grouping of forces (troops) outside Russia, planning its use and conducting joint actions as part of a united naval grouping based on a common plan”. Further, naval exercises are not uncommon, particularly in light of the latest Russian strategic plan which calls for a 2016 “replenishment of the combat strength of the Russian Navy with eighteen surface warships of various ranks and designation, thirty special-purpose and counter-subversion vessels and a plan to put six multi-purpose and strategic submarines into operation”, according to the Russian defence ministry. Michael Weiss, co-chair of the London-based foreign policy think tank Russian Studies Center believes that the presence of Russian navy ships in Syria is serving three distinct and different purposes: “to run weapons and material into Syria, take Russian nationals out of the country, and send a signal to the United States that it still backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad”. Furthermore, the military build-up may also serve as a reminder that for Russia “remaining empty-handed in the developments in Syria is Moscow‟s red line”, iterated by a member of the parliament‟s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission and Russia Expert Mehdi Sanayee. Many observers surmise that the Russian naval build-up and placement of three hundred marines on the Tartus base is simply a preparation 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”. On 24 January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the situation in Syria was “causing utmost concern” but not enough to warrant a “mass evacuation of Russian citizens living there”. Although Russia did transport by air 77 of its citizens fleeing the violence to Moscow early 23 January, it did not signal the start of a broader evacuation. “Of course we have no interest in the Mediterranean region becoming even more destabilised, and the presence of our fleet there is undoubtedly a stabilising factor,” Lavrov said. Chemical Weapons According to Russia‟s foreign minister, as of 23 December, Syria had consolidated its chemical weapons into one of two locations from its usual places scattered across the country, reports CNN. “As of right now... the [Syrian] government is doing all it can to safeguard those weapons2”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, according to Russia‟s RIA Novosti news agency.
1

However recent reports have indicated that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has all the components to produce chemical weapons and have the knowledge to put them to use. The media linked the announcement to Major-General Adnan Sillu, a regime defector who formerly led the army‟s chemical weapons training programme.
2

On April 28, 2010, The Ukrainian parliament ratified an agreement to extend Russia‟s‟ lease of Crimean base facilities to 2042 with an option for five more years, through 2047.

22 January 2013

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has assured Israel that “Syria chemical weapons stores will not get into the hands of any element outside the country, including Hezbollah”, according to the Lebanese newspaper A-Nahar. Fear that Syria could also use chemical weapons against its neighbours was cited by Turkey as one reason the country requested six Patriot missiles from NATO to be stationed on its border with Syria; the alliance approved the deployment. Furthermore, there is some speculation that the chemical weapons have been moved to Tartus, which is one of the country‟s few Alawite majority enclaves. Jordan‟s King Abdullah suggested in August that Assad may try to create a “mini-state” in the area should he lose control of Damascus3.

3

Alawites account for twelve per cent of Syria's population, or just under three million people, and yet have been in tight control of a Sunni-majority country, for more than 40 years.

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