The coast of Syria is getting crowded. Russia has retained a naval support infrastructure there since the end of the Cold War, resuming warship visits in 2008. The Russians reportedly will make improvements to the port of Tartus this year, with the intention of using it as a base for naval operations by 2012-13.
The Iranian ships that came through the Suez Canal last week are in Latakia, Syria, where high-level visits and official celebrations attended their arrival. Iran bills the ship deployment as a peace-and-friendship outreach – a message somewhat undercut by the musings of the Syrian defense minister, who reportedly says the presence of the warships “cripples Israel.” (It doesn’t; and it looks like the Iranian ships are heading home now anyway.) Iran and Syria signed a naval cooperation pact on 25 February, which DEBKAfile says includes an agreement to base Iranian forces at Latakia.
That’s certainly possible – in fact, likely – although at this point not independently confirmed. What is confirmed, however, is that Russia reasserted last week her determination to provide the P-800 Yakhont (SS-N-26) anti-ship cruise missile to Syria. Assuming the missile does come to Syria, it will mark the first deployment of any missile of this kind in a Mediterranean nation.
The Yakhont is a supersonic (up to 2.5 Mach) cruise missile, a variety in which Russia has paced the world. None of the NATO navies deploys a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM). Russia and China have supersonic ASCMs in their active forces; Iran has the older SS-N-22 Sunburn, acquired in the last decade. (The Iranian frigate in the Med is not equipped with the Sunburn, however.) India tested a supersonic BrahMos missile, developed jointly with Russia, in March 2010.
Asia has thus seen much more active and urgent development of supersonic cruise missile technology than Europe or North America. The Yakhont is also a relatively long-range ASCM, capable of reaching targets up to 185 statute miles (300km) away using a high-altitude approach. With the stealthier low-altitude, sea-skimming approach, the Yakhont’s range is around 75 miles, or 120km. (In seafaring terms, the ranges are between 60 and 180 nautical miles.) In all cases, the Yakhont can be launched well beyond line of sight.
(For comparison, the U.S. Harpoon’s range is about 80 miles (125km/67nm) and the Exocet missile’s is between 45 and 110 miles (70-180km/38-95nm), depending on variant. Both of these missiles are, again, subsonic.)
Syria has no ships that could deploy the Yakhont, and in any case, the variant reportedly to be supplied by Russia is the land-launched coastal missile. The missiles will therefore be confined to use from the coast, from variable positions since the system is mobile. A concern for Israel, which has objected to the missile transfer, is of course that the missiles might end up in the hands of Hezbollah. During the 2006 conflict in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah used Chinese-made ASCMs to attack an Israeli warship and a merchant freighter off the coast of the Levant; it’s not at all out of the question for Hezbollah to obtain and use the Yakhont if it comes to Syria.
But that’s not the only reason to be concerned. Supersonic missiles are a difficult defense problem; even the most advanced US Aegis ships would not be sanguine about facing them, especially alone. NATO hasn’t focused on allied tactical defense scenarios against them. They were introduced in Russia’s force in the last days of the Cold War, and have not been a looming problem for naval combat in the European theater over the last two decades. It is no overstatement to say that NATO is not prepared for this development, in the sense of being able to take it in stride or neutralize it.
There are, as usual, some mitigating factors. One is that the threat area these missiles will create – from Syria, at least – is well east of the most heavily traveled commercial shipping lanes. Ships going to and from the Suez Canal or the Aegean transit routes will not have to enter the threat area in the normal course of transit. Only if ships are calling in Syria, or in Lebanon, Israel, Cyprus, or southern Turkey, will they have to transit the threat area. Although this describes the life of a number of ferries, small freighters, and cruise ships, the geographic reality will still serve to minimize the population of innocent third-party shipping that might be menaced from the Syrian coast.
Putting the missiles in Hezbollah’s hands would expand the potential threat range somewhat to the south; from the most extreme southern point on Lebanon’s coast, the missiles would graze the approaches to the Suez Canal.
It’s a worthwhile question why Russia wants to do this badly enough to go through with it, given these limitations on the Yakhont’s effectiveness for regional power projection. One reason might be protection for the Russian assets in Tartus, although it’s not clear who would threaten them from warships offshore. Air defense missile batteries would seem better suited to the kind of threat that might – however remote the possibility – someday develop. (Russia is selling short-range air defense missiles to Syria, but if the Russians are trying to fortify their naval infrastructure in Tartus against foreign attack, a longer-range system like an S-300 variant would be necessary as well.)
Why Russia would want to strengthen Syria’s maritime hand at this particular moment may be better explained by recent developments in offshore oil and gas exploration and Israeli diplomacy. The oil and gas picture off the coast of the Levant has not been much on the minds of North American newshounds, but it’s big news in the Eastern hemisphere. Israelis would like to redress their foreign fuel dependency (and make some money to boot) by developing the deposits they can lay claim to – and to serve that end, in December, they concluded their first-ever exclusive economic zone (EEZ) accord, with Cyprus.
The map shows the location of recoverable oil and gas deposits in the Levant Basin Province, reported out by the US Geological Survey in early 2010 (potential area outlined in yellow, surveyed deposits indicated by red and green dots). Obviously, any work done to explore and exploit the offshore deposits would be done by ships and floating platforms; the Chinese, on the other side of Asia, have pioneered the art of holding commercial exploration assets at risk, and there may be an element of that in the calculations of Russia and Syria. The red ring is the threat range for the Yakhont, if deployed on Syria’s southernmost coast. If the Yakhont were deployed from Syria’s inland territory east of Lebanon, but far enough north that Israel would have no way of intercepting a missile in early flight, its range would be extended southward as indicated by the green ring. (The blue ring shows the threat range for a Yakhont launched from southern Lebanon.)
These are the realities of geography and geometry; they define physical limits, not explicit motives. Two factors may make Syria and Russia especially eager to hold a latent threat over the heads of Israel and those who cooperate with her. One is Russia’s longstanding cooperation with Syria in oil and gas production and her interest in the oilfields off Lebanon and Cyprus. Russia’s predatory approach to the oil and gas industry has only intensified over the last decade. A comparison of the two maps here – the first showing Israel’s offshore resources, the second showing Neftegaz’s conception of the unexplored and proven deposit areas between Lebanon and Cyprus – is instructive. The discovery off Israel is awfully close to the area featured in the Neftegaz report; if nothing else, Russia will want to beat her competitors to any newly explored deposits.
The other, related factor is the EEZ agreement Israel has concluded with Cyprus. Turkey was angered by it, complaining that Israel had made the agreement without any reference to the (wholly unrecognized) government of Northern Cyprus. But the more basic issue is that Israel has newly discovered oil and gas deposits which will improve her economic and strategic position, and has achieved a milestone in routine diplomacy, affirming her status as a regular nation with the important perquisites of sovereignty. If disputes over Levantine Basin resources arise, Israel can invoke her EEZ delineation with Cyprus. The standard dividing line halfway between their coasts would, moreover, cut right through the areas in Neftegaz’s boresight.
Oil and gas are not the only reasons Russia and Syria would have a common interest in holding a hammer, in the form of supersonic ASCMs, over the Eastern Med. But they constitute a proximate justification for a move that serves multiple purposes. What is most important about this is the mere fact that Russia is doing it. As a putative great power interested in the status quo, Russia has been reticent about making such moves in the last 20 years. The Mediterranean, in particular, has been NATO’s “pond”; post-Cold War Russia has not sought to upset the status quo there, until now.
The turmoil in the Middle East is likely to obscure the significance of this move, but in itself, it is of a different order, arising from separate and long-term motives. If the Yakhont does go to Syria, it will be a signal that Russian actions – and by extension Syrian actions, and others’ – will no longer be constrained by acceptance of the US/NATO-guarded status quo. With the US apparently inert on the Yakhont matter, we may see the nations of Western Europe, freshly energized by their initiatives in Libya, taking diplomatic action on their own in the coming days.