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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Forget Crimea And The Black Sea...What About Russian Naval Bases In The Mediterranean?

Link: A. Russian Naval Plans In The Mediterranean
          B. Yes Virginia, There Is A Syrian Navy

I spend so much time reading and thinking about the conflict in Syria, I have allowed myself to fall into a two-dimensional trap.  The United States and allies are conducting an air campaign in Syria in an attempt to diminish the fighting capacity of certain Islamic terrorist groups.  Concurrently, efforts are underway to train and equip the "Free Syrian Army", which will serve as the closest thing to a ground element that the United States and her allies have.  I have heard rumors that we've already trained non-U.S. ground units who are now already in combat.  This would make sense, given that the Free Syrian Army has orders to only engage the enemy from a defensive posture.  Another rumor is making the rounds of various U.S. military bases and facilities around the world, and this one dwarfs anything we have heard to date (no, they are not bringing back Little House On the Prairie).  Allegedly, the Administration has accepted the need for U.S. ground forces in Iraq in order to prevent the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL or IS) from eventually occupying
both Baghdad and the vital oil refinery at Baiji.  I have been hearing this rumor for some time, and it is evolving into a whispered roar.  As far as I am concerned, there is not a shred of truth to the rumor.  However, the small person I had hired to hide up Biden's ass and take discreet notes during Cabinet meetings, was discovered and promoted to the new Ebola Czar.  So your guess is as good as mine.  To be honest, I can't imagine the Administration engaging in such an obvious about-face.  But hey, politics is bizarre.  President Obama may get kudos for allowing his policy to evolve.  With regard to the Syrian campaign, I believed that the conflict was permanently limited to a ground and air conflict.  I realize Syria has a small coast (193 kilometers) which includes two decent sized cities, Tartus and Latakia.  It's my
understanding that the area around Tartus and Latakia is littered with ruins from the days of ancient Sparta, Athens and Troy.  Soon the tourists may hear a new language be spoken among the sightseers: Russian.

Let me clarify an important point: I do not expect the Syrian conflict to become a three-dimensional with an attack on Tartus by the three pedalos that make up the IS Navy.
But I needed a smooth avenue on which to introduce the subject of Russian interest in Mediterranean ports.  We have spent some time commenting on the Russian desire to turn the Black Sea into Lake Putin, but the specter of Russian warships with a home on the Mediterranean is much closer to reality.    In fact, the Russians have already started to use the reasonably modern facilities at Tartus.  I have opined that one of the handful of reasons why Putin will not allow Bashir al-Assad to fall from power is the Russian's need for an ally with a port large enough for expansion.  Tartus certainly fits the bill, although other locations have been mentioned as well.  Occasionally someone will mention the possibility of a Russian naval facility in Libya, but who knows when the camel traders, with AK-47s under one arm and Qurans under the other, will grow tired of creating martyrs.  Alexandria, in Egypt, was looking like a promising destination before Mohamed Morsi was whisked away to jail.  For many years I waited, expecting the Algerian military (Algeria's true boss) to fall totally into the lap of Russia (the Algerians have traditionally purchased Russian-made military equipment).  I was being very naïve.  The Algerian government has contracts with half the oil companies in Europe and the United States, and lately has actually started purchasing more U.S. military equipment.  Malta might as well be a Channel Island, alongside Jersey and the Isle of Man, and the rest are non-starters: Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, France, Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Hercegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel.  Most of the countries on the preceding
list have very little love for Russia, and the others do not have the right harbor for what the Russian Navy requires.  Cyprus though, is a bit of a mystery.  Until recently Cypriot banks were awash with laundered Russian cash, and the Russians really seem to enjoy the little island full of Greeks and Turks who really, REALLY hate each other.  Cyprus has a number of locations that would suit the Russian navy to a tee, but it is unlikely that the UK, who for some reason continues to act as stepfather to the Cypriots, would allow Russian submarines in Larnaka.

I never second-guess Putin's ingenuity (or his ability to blackmail and bribe), and he very well might negotiate himself into a naval port facility in one of the above-named locations.  But for the moment, it isn't necessary.  Assad has given the Russians the keys to the port of Tartus.  The modest, but well-maintained, Syrian Navy keeps its few Russian-made frigates, missile craft and patrol boats at Tartus, which provide an invaluable opportunity for the Syrian naval personnel to work together with the Russians (watch out, Syrian naval commanders: the last time the Russians showed up wearing smiles, the entire Ukrainian navy was swallowed up overnight).  If Assad manages to keep his job (or another Ba'athist butthole takes it), the Russian Navy should have a free hand to construct a modern naval port facility at Tartus, complete with both Marines and a land-based naval air detachment.  Although the Russians have had friends all over the middle east for more than the past half-century, this is the first time that I can recall the Russians openly stating their intention to make full naval use of Tartus.  The presence of all those Russian nuclear submarines does not sit well with me, and you can only imagine the hissy fit being thrown by the Green Party political representatives throughout EU countries.  However, a full-blown Russian fleet in the Levant will accomplish something positive for us over here in the West:  Whoever takes the White House in 2016 won't be able to ignore the reconstituting of the Russian war machine.

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