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A place under the sun
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 09 - 2008

Will Tartus be the first Russian military base in the Mediterranean or just a service and repair station? Bassel Oudat writes from Damascus
Three weeks after President Bashar Al-Assad visited Moscow, Russia said that its ships will start using the seaport of Tartus once the latter is properly remodelled. Syrian and Russian navy chiefs, Taleb Al-Bari and Vladimir Vsotskiy, have already met in Moscow to discuss ways to "reinforce trust and understanding" between their countries. A Russian navy ship is currently involved in updating the facilities in Tartus.
Western media saw the Russian move as a symptom of the rising tensions between Russia and the West, a sequel of sorts to the Georgia crisis. But Syrian experts disagree. A Syrian Foreign Ministry source said that Damascus and Moscow were simply implementing previous military cooperation agreements. Tartus has been a common destination for Russian navy ships since the 1970s, and the current arrangements are in keeping with an agreement signed by Damascus and the Soviet Union back in 1971, according to the same source. The Syrian seaport, currently not equipped for receiving big ships, is expected to serve as a temporary station for small Russian ships and frigates.
Moscow's desire for a long-term navy presence in the region is in no doubt. The facilities in Tartus would give the Russian navy certain manoeuvrability and thus compensate for the loss of Romanian and Bulgarian ports to NATO. What makes the Syrian seaport even more significant is the quarrels Russia and Ukraine have been having about the Russian use of the Black Sea port of Sevastopol.
Edward Baltin, a former Russian admiral, said that a permanent seaport in the Mediterranean would mean that Russian ships patrolling the Mediterranean no longer need to travel back to the Black Sea for rest and servicing. Former first deputy commander of the Russian Navy Admiral Igor Kuznetsov agreed. Tartus, he said, has a geopolitical value for the Russians.
According to Jane 's Middle East editor David Hartwell, talks between Syria and Russia over the updating of the Tartus seaport have been ongoing for years, and cannot therefore be linked to the crisis in Georgia.
General Leonid Ivashov, a former senior official in the Russian Defence Ministry, said that the importance of Tartus must not be exaggerated. "The Syrian port has only one workshop for repairing military ships, and therefore it would be difficult to station ships there."
But the Russians are pleased to have a toehold in the Mediterranean. "From now on, there will be a permanent presence for the Russian navy in the Mediterranean," Igor Belyev, Russian ambassador to Damascus, said.
How far would the Syrians go in accommodating Russia's needs? For now, the Syrians deny any intention to deploy a Russian Iskander missile shield on their land. Damascus has a long-term policy of avoiding the creation of foreign military bases on its soil. It is also careful not to ruffle feathers in Europe and the US.
The Tartus seaport has been affiliated with the Russian fleet since Soviet times. It also contains a workshop and a dock set aside for Russian vessels. Some 50 Russian experts currently work in the harbour of Tartus, which has three docks, only one of which is in use. The harbour also has a dockyard for repairs, several warehouses and billeting quarters. It is believed that Damascus and Moscow are about to rehabilitate one of the docks to make it capable of receiving big Russian ships.
According to the independent Russian newspaper Nezavisimaia, Russia wishes to deploy strategic weapons in flashpoints around the world, just as the Soviet Union did in the past. What holds it back is that it has binding agreements with Washington preventing it from deploying such weapons abroad. Also, Syria doesn't want to host Russian military bases on its territory.
Cooperation between Syria and the Soviet Union started in the mid-1950s and developed steadily over the next few decades. The Soviet Union provided Syria with political and military support in its confrontation with Israel. The Syrians accumulated over $13 billion of debt because of their military imports from Russia. Moscow forgave 73 per cent of the debts in 2005. And the Syrians plan to pay the remainder, about $2.11 billion, through further cooperation.
Moscow denies that it offered to deploy Iskander missiles in Syria in reaction to the US deployment of a missile shield in eastern Europe. The most Moscow is willing to do, Russian sources say, is provide Syria with tactical anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons and update its current missile system.
Last year, the US started enforcing a ban on the sale of weapons to Syria. However, the Russian Instrument Design Bureau sold Syria anti-aircraft guns worth $1 billion, which were financed in full by Iran. Last year, the US slammed a two-year trading ban on three Russian companies that exported weapons to Syria, including Ros-Orboron-Export, the Instrument Design Bureau, and the Kolomensky Heavy Engineering Bureau.
In return for the toehold they are giving the Russians in Tartus, the Syrians hope to get Russian backing in the UN and other international forums, as well as some weapons. But Damascus is hardly likely to turn the facilities in Tartus into a full-fledged Russian military base. Fearful of antagonising the West, the Syrians are keeping their cooperation with the Russians within well-defined boundaries.

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