The Russian defense ministry has dispatched a group of ships to the Mediterranean. Among their destinations is the Syrian port of Tartus. The vessels include at least three amphibious landing craft, capable of transporting armored vehicles and dozens of marines. If the force actually reaches Syria, it will represent a significant increase in Moscow’s involvement there beyond delivering arms (whether new or refurbished) to the beleaguered Assad regime. The Kremlin clearly wants America and others to understand that maintaining its presence in Tartus is a very high priority for Moscow. But far from ensuring continued Russian influence in Syria and the region, this move may serve to undermine it instead.
It is not hard to understand why Moscow would want to retain this port, which its navy has been using since 1971. Russia cannot rapidly deploy its Black Sea fleet into the Mediterranean and beyond because of international agreements that limit the number and timing of naval vessels transiting the bottleneck of the Turkish Straits. Russia’s other main ports — in the Baltic, the Arctic Sea, and the Pacific — are far away. Thus, for Moscow to be able to rapidly bring to bear its forces in the eastern Mediterranean and vicinity, it must be able to maintain a naval presence outside of the Black Sea. And to do that, it needs access to port facilities. Tartus is currently the only naval base that Russia has outside of the former Soviet Union. (Russia has reportedly taken steps to acquire naval access to Venezuela, but it is not clear whether Moscow can actually sustain one so far away from its own shores.) Hence the vital importance of Tartus to Moscow.
Had the Russian government been more evenhanded about the uprising against the Assad regime that broke out in early 2011, it might have had at least a chance of persuading a successor Syrian government to let it retain access to Tartus. A Syrian National Council official who participated in talks with the Russian government said that the SNC made this offer to Moscow last year. But because the Kremlin has so firmly backed the Assad regime in the latter’s efforts to crush its opponents, it is highly likely that the regime coming to power after the downfall of Assad will expel the Russians from Tartus. While Moscow certainly has other motives for continuing to back Assad, one of the most important is the need to secure access to Tartus.
In conversation, Russian international affairs specialists say that they see Washington’s objections to Russian support for the Assad regime as yet another example of the U.S. applying one standard to Russia and another to itself. While the U.S. acquiesced to (or more actively worked for) the downfall of longstanding authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, Russian observers note that Washington did nothing to prevent Saudi forces from crushing the Shia majority opposition movement calling for the reform (and not the downfall) of the Sunni minority regime in Bahrain, where the U.S. 5th Fleet is based.