Russia has deployed several warships to Syria from Black Sea and Arctic naval bases. Though Russia claims these are scheduled exercises, it is more likely a show of support for President Basher Assad’s regime, a deterrent to any Turkish or NATO action and/or a task force to evacuate Russian military and civilian personnel should Assad’s regime collapse.
From the Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol the Russian destroyer ‘Smetlivy’, will transit the Turkish Straits before entering the Aegean Sea en route to Syria. Turkey’s coast guard has also confirmed passage yesterday of the Russian amphibious assault ships ‘Nikolai Filchenkov’, ‘Caesar Kunikov’ and 2 smaller vessels. The passage of all nations warships through the Turkish Straits up to a certain size is in accordance with the 1936 Montreux Convention. Turkey is obligated to let them pass.
From the Arctic naval base at Severomorsk the Russian destroyer ‘Admiral Chabanenko’ along with the amphibious assault ships ‘Alexander Otravsky’, ‘Kondopoga’ and ‘Saint George’ set sail for Syria. These ships will rendezvous with the Russian frigate ‘Yaroslav Mudry’ and a fleet tug before continuing on to Syria.
The Russian destroyers and frigate provide anti-surface, anti-air and anti-submarine capabilities. However, the amphibious assault ships provide the answer to the intent of this naval deployment. If the ships are mostly empty with a light ground assault force, then Russia is anticipating having to evacuate Syria. If however, the ships arrive loaded with Russian troops, then Putin obviously intends to hold a presence in Syria and or directly assist Assad.
One hint may be that Russia has canceled the sale of Yak-130 ground attack planes and other arms sales to Syria have been cancelled after canceling the sale of S-300 surface to air missiles (SAM) last month. These cancellations are likely not a coincidence. Putin or his generals may be concerned the aircraft and missiles would fall into rebel hands, or the need for them would be nullified by the presence of actual Russian forces in Syria.
The deployment comes on the heels of a large Syrian naval exercise with the aim of training to deter a seaborne assault, an obvious ‘message’ to NATO specifically to Turkey. Though there was no parallel ground force exercise.
Were NATO to intervene in Syria, there would be no need to do so via an amphibious assault on the Syrian coast. It is more likely the intervention would come directly out of Turkey with possible deployment of a NATO force in Lebanon to deter incursions by the Syrian Army or the rebels. Lebanon has already deployed troops to the border in response to incidents of Syrian rebels using Lebanese territory as a passage followed by Syrian artillery barrages reaching as far as 12 miles into Lebanon and causing several deaths of Lebanese.
On the diplomatic side, Turkey has offered to compare data with Syria on the shoot down of a Turkish RF-4E last month. Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan is also to make a one day visit to Moscow next week and meet with President Putin to discuss Syria and the shoot down of the RF-4E. UN & Arab League Special envoy Kofi Annan has already traveled to Syria and met with President Assad. Annan described the talks as constructive and that he is in agreement with Assad on a new ‘approach’ which he will propose when he meets with Syrian opposition leaders. However, Mr. Annan has acknowledged that his peace initiative has thus far failed. The deployment of Russian ships to Syria would seem to suggest that this last effort may also have failed.