The Russian daily, Kommersant, revealed a rumour in 2006 that Russia is planning to re-erect a naval base on Syria's Mediterranean coast in Tartus and Latakia. At the time, Russian officials denied the rumour, but they have a habit of denying most things that are in fact true.
The news was swept under the carpet for a period, but has now resurfaced as Israeli online media Ynet.com confirmed the report a few days ago. Russia has now officially announced it is rebuilding its abandoned Soviet naval base in Syria as part of a major weapons deal signed last year between the two countries.
The base will become Russia's first outside a neighbouring country, and ensure a permanent presence in the Mediterranean to shoulder the US' Sixth Fleet. Such a move will have major implications for the struggle for Middle East supremacy. At a time when the United States' status as the regional powerhouse is diminishing, in come the Russians attempting to put their foot directly in the midst of the conflict.
Ynet asserts that any Russian presence on the Syrian coast will prevent Israel from behaving unilaterally in combat against its neighbours in Lebanon and Syria. It will no longer have the luxury of freely using the Lebanese and Syrian coasts to bombard land positions, and any ambition of attacking Syria directly will be put into serious doubt. The Russian juggernaut is back, and the Israelis will be forced to consider its potent presence in the region.
However, the Ynet article proposed that a Russian presence in the region might be the stabilising force required to prevent future reckless warfare between Israel and Syria or Iran. As the Americans are struggling to juggle the Middle Eastern conflict, the protagonists of the regional conflict may look to Moscow to keep the calm.
Indeed, it would be a great showcase for the Kremlin if it is able to stabilise a region the Americans and Europeans have long failed to tame. No doubt its military presence will have to be backed up with a serious diplomatic initiative for the region. One can't simply waltz into the Middle East with a force and not get dragged into its chaotic vortex.
Although we probably can't predict what benefits, if any, a Russian presence will bring to the region, we are certain that any Mid East policy would be directly reactionary to any move the Americans make. It can be wisely assumed that the US is the main reason why Russia has made the move back to the Middle East. Moscow is still seething over American plans to build parts of it missile defence shield in what Russia considers its 'sphere of influence' in Poland and the Czech Republic. Perhaps this is Russia's retaliation of striking at the region that has been at the heart of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War ... the Middle East.
I would not be as optimistic as Ynet in assuming that the Russians are here to make things rosy. After all, Moscow's anger at the US has prompted it to build Iran its nuclear facilities and sell both it and Syria advanced weapon systems. The naval base in Syria is only the next phase at intensifying the relationship, making the Baath regime Russia's closest ally in the region. At a time when Damascus appeared cornered and isolated, the Russians have thrown them a tangible lifeline.
It was only a few years ago that talk was high of a possible US/Israeli invasion of Syria. The hope of crushing the Syrians now appears further from reality than ever before, and much of that can be owed to Russia. If a Russian military presence is going to have any restraining effect in the region, it will be the restraint of Israeli and American military action.
Of course, the Russians are keen not to see its only trusted ally in the region collapse as a result of American and Israeli pressure. Moscow has a key interest in keeping Assad afloat. There is a one-way street in regaining Russian influence in the Middle East, and its through Damascus.
Syria and Iran hope the Russian naval base will put an end to Israeli/American military arrogance in the Middle East. As far as Syria is concerned, it may be the extra card required to get Israel back on the negotiating table. Israel has been rejecting overtures from Damascus for some years, and Syria has been struggling to force Israel to talk. The Syrians will be hoping a Russian military presence on its doorstep will be enough to twist Olmert's arm and sit him on the table.
Undoubtedly, Syria will become more confident and confronting in its dealings with Israel and the US, knowing full well that a possible military strike on the country will be shelved with the Russians planted in force on their soil. Whether that translates into a more aggressive policy in Lebanon is still unknown, but the fear lingers. The Russian base will give the Syrians a great sense of security it has not felt in decades. The Israelis, as demonstrated by Ynet, would hope that the Russians will use their military presence to restrain Syria, but there are no guarantees. Any move Syria makes in the region will harm US interests, and harming American interests is exactly what Russia aims to do. It is highly plausible that Russia intends to secure Syria with its naval base to enable the Syrians to aggressively pursue its anti-American agenda in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq.
The Russians enjoy their current alliance with Iran no doubt, but both Moscow and Damascus discreetly share common reservations of Iran's emerging religious power. Both Russia and Syria have a harsh distaste for Islamic fanaticism, a key export of Tehran. Syria is indeed Russia's preferred choice of ally, and its shared interests run deep. The Russians obviously are not reluctant in giving Damascus a freer hand in its struggle in the Middle East. The navy base might just deliver the free hand Syria have long sought.
Link to Ynet article