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Redeployments around Idlib
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 19 - 09 - 2018

Among the many regional and international repercussions of the mounting tensions surrounding the town of Idlib in northwest Syria is the redeployment of the US and Russian fleets in the Eastern Mediterranean in anticipation of an imminent Syrian regime operation to regain control over the province and the likelihood of US strikes, such as those that occurred last May, on the grounds of the regime's use of chemical weapons.
The situation is particularly awkward for Russia, which wants to adopt a firmer stance than it did last May in the face of the anticipated US strikes.
Despite the likelihood of close US-Russian-Israeli coordination to avert direct clashes, the Russians are keen to signal their readiness to use deterrent force. They have undertaken several measures to safeguard and strengthen their flotilla in the Eastern Mediterranean, which is actually part of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
The Russians have redeployed some of their ships from the naval base at Tartus deeper into Syrian territorial or international waters as a precaution against potential terrorist attacks. They have also sent over three more ships from the North Sea to ramp up the 10 to 12 ship fleet in the Mediterranean. One of these is a command ship capable of steering naval combat operations.
Although the likelihood of a clash at sea remains remote, the deployment of a vessel of this sort is both a precaution for a worst-case scenario and a form of naval muscle-flexing.
Apart from the situation surrounding Idlib, the redeployments should be viewed in the context of Russia's larger naval strategy and its historic quest for warm-water ports. Russia currently has only one naval base outside the country in the shape of the Tartus naval facility it leases from Syria.
The Russian fleet lost all its major ports in Europe following the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the secession of Ukraine, compelling it to settle for temporary facilities in Sevastopol in Crimea. This helps to account for the Russian decision to promote the separation of Crimea from Ukraine and its annexation to Russia on linguistic and ethnic grounds.
At another level, Moscow believes that the Mediterranean should no longer remain an exclusive NATO lake dominated by the US Sixth Fleet which has access to NATO bases on its northern shores as well as Israel's modern port facilities in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In addition to its recently upgraded command ship, the Russian fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean has two or three amphibious assault/anti-submarine ships, one or two destroyers, a fuel ship and rescue ship, plus two large battlecruisers: the Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great) and the Moskva (Moscow) which are nuclear-powered battleships designed to match their counterparts in other fleets, such as large aircraft carriers.
Most of Russia's landing pieces are obsolete and scheduled for upgrading and refitting in accordance with Russian President Vladimir Putin's Project 1144 for the Russian military to be carried out from 2019 to 2021.
Meanwhile, the US Sixth Fleet, established in February 1950 as a naval assault force, is one of the US's six fleets (numbered 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 10) with its home base in Gaeta, Italy. It consists of 40 to 43 ships, 175 aircraft for its aircraft carriers, and 21,000 troops rotated every six months.
In addition to its current command ship, the USS Mount Whitney, the fleet includes two aircraft carriers, three or four Virginia-class nuclear submarines, 15 Eliston-class destroyers capable of firing Cruise missiles such as those that struck targets in Syria in 2017, a number of cruisers, several amphibious landing ships, logistics ships for rescue and maintenance operations, and surveillance and reconnaissance ships.
The Fleet also includes various types of aircraft for combat, reconnaissance and transportation purposes, including helicopters and drones. All this naval hardware is technologically advanced, and more sophisticated versions are expected to join the Fleet during the next two years.
This glimpse at the Russian-US naval balance in the Eastern Mediterranean invites an overview of Russian-US military balances (excluding nuclear weapons). The accompanying figure shows 15 military categories, including reserves, indicating that the Russians only excel in three of them: the number of reserve troops, the number of tanks, and the number of self-propelled artillery. The Americans excel in 13, especially those having to do with air and naval strength. It is also important to bear in mind the qualitative and technological superiority of the US forces.
Moreover, the discrepancy between the two militaries in terms of expenditure is enormous. The US military budget of $647 billion is 14 times as large as the Russian budget of $47 billion and reflects Russia's current economic restructuring that seeks to support higher defence budgets and an ambitious military development plan over the next few years.
The Russian defence budget falls about halfway between those of Saudi Arabia and Israel, which are $65 billion and $20 billion, respectively. And Russia's geo-strategic nature is reflected in the structure of its armed forces.
Its far-flung territory has relatively few maritime outlets, such as those on the Black Sea leading to the Mediterranean and the Baltic leading to the Atlantic. This helps explain the relatively small size of the Russian navy, even as Russia seeks to regain the former Soviet Union's status as the second superpower. For example, Russia has one aircraft carrier and one helicopter carrier compared to the US's 20 aircraft carriers, which are effectively mobile airports that offer US forces greater manoeuvrability in the event of a lack of friendly sea and air ports.
The fraught situation in Syria and in Idlib has galvanised the world's major powers into repositioning their forces in the Middle East and their naval forces in the Eastern Mediterranean. Other NATO members have also begun to prepare, as with Britain's recent decision to dispatch a nuclear submarine into the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, Israeli forces are on the alert and ready to use the escalation surrounding Idlib and probable US aerial intervention to claim the right to launch aerial and missile attacks against Iranian and Hizbullah locations in Syria on the pretext that they have overstepped the US-Russian arranged red lines in Syria.
Such scenarios are all the more reason why the international community must act quickly to solve the Syrian crisis, rather than abandoning it to Russian management in collaboration with its Iranian and Turkish allies on the ground and their bid to sideline the US in Syria.
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The writer is a Major-General Staff who is a professor of military strategy and National Security at the Higher Nasser Military Academy.


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