Peace in our time: Russian naval force in the Mediterranean

Interesting times.

What’s going on in the Mediterranean right now is actually more normal than the odd hiatus we have inhabited for the last 20 years. Historically, nations have vied for influence around the Med, bringing ships and ground troops to bear on a regular basis. The Eastern Med has been a crossroads between East and West for a good 3,000 years, hosting land and sea operations by the Persian, Roman, Abbasid, Umayyad, Holy Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, British, Napoleonic, and Russian Empires.  The Eastern Med was a nexus of dispute between the Soviet-led East and the US-led free West in the Cold War.  A relatively pacified Eastern Med, like the one we have enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is a historical oddity. And it’s coming to an end.

As the Assad regime in Syria launches an assault on the major city of Aleppo, a Russian naval task force has assembled in the Med.  Along with a Northern Fleet destroyer and a Baltic Fleet frigate, the Black Sea Fleet destroyer Smetlivy – our buddy with the smokestack – is back in the Med.  In company with these combatants are three Ropucha-class landing ships (LSTs) from the Northern Fleet, which are reported to be carrying a detachment of Russian naval infantry (i.e., marines).

If Russia sought to have the option of a forcible entry into Syria, she would want – among other things – more landing ships.  And in mid-June, two amphibious ships of the Black Sea Fleet, a Ropucha and a newer Alligator-class ship, were ordered to be ready to deploy with a brigade of naval infantry.  The five landing ships combined would, with the naval infantry brigade, make a full amphibious task force.

The Russians have said repeatedly that this naval deployment is not related to Syria.  Russia will conduct exercise Kavkaz 2012 in the Caucasus in September, and the assembled ships are to participate in it.  It being late July at the moment, they have arrived very early for an exercise that won’t take place for another six weeks.  But if nothing occurs to forestall the exercise, the ships will take part.  The most likely place for an exercise landing is the short Russian coastline in the Black Sea, very possibly spilling across the border to the coastline of Abkhazia, Georgia’s “break-away” republic, which Russia has recognized since 2008 as a separate nation.

Syria; CIA map

That said, the situation in Syria is coming to a major decision point.  If Assad can’t assume control of Aleppo, he can’t regain control of Syria, at least not without a major regrouping and an infusion of outside assistance.  The battle for Aleppo is a must-win for him.  Let me emphasize that I do not think Russia intends to project naval force into this battle.  Aleppo is about 80 miles inland, and Turkish territory lies between Aleppo and the sea to the west.  The path to Aleppo is inconvenient, and affecting a battle there from the sea is not reasonably within Russia’s naval capabilities.

But what Russia could do with the force she has in the Med now is protect a resupply route for Assad from the sea, protect areas of the coast (e.g., Tartus), and even land a force – under the right conditions – and move it to Damascus.  For the latter two missions, the Russians would want to have air support, which they would presumably deploy to Syria if it were needed.  (I doubt they would rely on the Syrians for air support.)

If the Russians had to fight a rearguard action between Damascus and the Syrian coast, they might ask Cyprus for permission to stage aircraft.  The Black Sea Fleet destroyer Smetlivy conducted the first Russian naval port visit ever in Cyprus in mid-July.  A Russian request for air access would create problems for Cyprus, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union right now.  The EU wouldn’t like it.  But in July of 2012, it’s not nearly as unlikely as it was a year ago that Cyprus might say yes.

The Russians don’t want to have to do any of these things.  But at each juncture in the Syrian crisis they have responded consistently with statements of determination and increased levels of force.  Moscow hasn’t signed up to lose this one. Russia’s concerns are deep-seated and defensive:  Russia is even more worried about Syria turning radically Islamist than about losing her base at Tartus.

As it stands today, if Russian military forces get involved, they will be fighting poorly organized rebels with uncertain resources.  They wouldn’t be fighting Western militaries.  The Russians are fully capable of prevailing over a ragtag rebel army.  The strategic issue for them is that they have no interest in occupying and pacifying Syria; what they want is a viable, non-Islamist client regime there.

Turkey and Iraq certainly think Syria may be about to blow.  Turkey closed her border with Syria on the 25th and has moved surface-to-air missile batteries and a chemical-defense unit to the border.  (Aleppo is very close to the Turkish border.)  Iraq is accepting thousands of Syrian refugees, and while she has not closed the border, she has reportedly moved a brigade to the border (presumably an infantry brigade) to beef up security.  Syria’s neighbors expect the fighting to be intense and bloody; Lebanon already hosts some 47,000 Syrian refugees, and a key fear is that chaos will rule across Syrian territory and spill out over her borders, with Assad losing his grip and no serious political centralization in the rebel ranks.

NATO, of course, must consider the possibility that Turkey will invoke the mutual-defense charter if the Syrian conflict does spill out.  Turkey’s armed forces are capable of containing the potential spillover, but Erdogan may deem it prudent at some point, for geopolitical purposes, to leverage the involvement of NATO.  This decision is likely to depend on Russia’s level of involvement and her apparent intentions.

Meanwhile, the competition for leadership in the Middle East – currently focused on winning the political battle for Syria – is heating up and becoming more explicit.  A senior Iranian military official issued a warning on Tuesday to the “hated Arabs” (also translated as “outcast Arabs”) that Iran would strike out at them if they intervened in Syria.  Arab media have been pounding the theme that Iran “senses defeat” in Syria, even the relatively staid The National of Abu Dhabi suggesting that Iran is hedging her bets.  This is more a “push” theme than it is analysis; Arab opinion-makers want it to be true.  The “Race to Jerusalem” continues to take shape.

USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) left Antalya, Turkey on 22 July after a four-day port visit and is headed to Virginia for a major overhaul.  She is not remaining in the Med, nor will we be deploying a carrier there for some time.  There is no US amphibious group in the Med or the African theater.

The UK, on the other hand, will be sending a naval task force to the Med after the Olympics.  The task force has been scheduled to deploy for exercises for some time; it is not deploying in response to the Syrian situation.  But it will be able to provide evacuation support if necessary.  The Royal Navy’s former aircraft carrier, HMS Illustrious, will be in the task force operating as a helicopter carrier.

A French carrier task force with FS Charles de Gaulle will participate in the naval exercises with the Royal Navy.  The two navies are conducting a joint deployment under the bilateral defense pact signed by Britain and France in November 2010.

So, to summarize: the US isn’t there in force.  The Russians are, and Britain and France soon will be, but no one is fessing up to wanting to have military power in the same vicinity as Syria.  That means a complete absence of political leadership or initiative.  Hey, forces are just going where they’re scheduled to, dude.

Our NATO allies are operating together but not under the NATO aegis.  Contrast this with NATO’s comparative unity of purpose in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and Afghanistan in the 2000s.  The mood and sense of a common understanding of threats to the alliance have shifted significantly.  A healthy NATO could not possibly be unconcerned about Syria – to the point of inertia – given the implications of a Syrian blow-up for the Mediterranean, Suez Canal, Southeast Europe, and the Middle East.  But NATO isn’t so healthy now.

For the last 20-odd years, the US has made things happen (or prevented them) by showing up with overwhelming force.  But we’re not doing that today.  No one with force in or near the Syrian situation has overwhelming force. There’s just a lot of non-overwhelming force converging on Syria.

That isn’t a recipe for peace, stability, or quick resolutions – but then, you knew that.  I am happy to report that cyberspace is getting a warfare workout in the Syrian crisis.  The Assad regime, reportedly with Iran’s help, has been phishing rebels’ emails queues.  Not all the rebels are particularly knowledgeable, it turns out.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

Note for new commenters:  Welcome!  There is a one-time “approval” process that keeps down the spam.  There may be a delay in the posting if your first comment, but once you’re “approved,” you can join the fray at will.

14 thoughts on “Peace in our time: Russian naval force in the Mediterranean”

  1. I’ll make a bit of a peripheral comment, and stick my neck out a little Turkey won’t invoke NATO anything… and NATO won’t do anything either. Turkey will do nothing, regardless of the upcoming massive slaughter of Libyan mercenaries (amongst others) sent to Aleppo from her borders. All Turkey’s competent heavy infantry and armored units are in Eastern Thrace facing NATO ally Greece. The trouble the Kurds will unleash in south east Turkey, (if Ankara directly intervenes), weighs heavily on Ankara’s mind. Many would like nothing more than for Turkey to make the mistake of sticking her foot directly/unilaterally into the Syrian quagmire. It is estimated that at least forty of her F-16’s will be downed by Syrian air defense in the first 72hrs while trying to support a ground incursion by incompetent, ill maintained/supplied second line Turkish units. A loss of @40 fighters totally destroys the balance of air forces in the Aegean to Greece’s favor. The heart of the Turkish regime is in Thrace and on the Aegean coast. They know what lies in store for them politically and diplomatically if they lose parity with Greece on their western front. Bankrupt or not, Greece has held an inordinately large number of continuous military exercises, including river crossings in Thrace, the Israelis also took an Aegean cruise vacation recently along with a little target practice…Although, Israelis and Turks are recently making some attempts to patch things up, at least superficially.

    One historical fact about Aleppo/Beroia. It is the northern gateway to the Anatolian hinterland and simultaneously the southern gateway to the Arabian peninsula. Control of Aleppo/Beroia means control of much more than Syria.

    The Russians are, well, just being Russian. It is becoming obvious to most that they understand the dynamics of the issue better than the West.

    Instigating a spillover into neighboring states by a desperate (losing) party to the conflict is now one of the paramount threats in the Syrian issue..

    This Syrian thing has gotta a lotta legs.

    Thanks for the laugh about the “rebels” . Keep it up Optcon 🙂

  2. It’s just that we dare not risk confronting the Russian navy, especially as all is already lost in Syria. Events are moving completely against us. Bashir Assad is totally in control of the country, has a epic amount of good press in the world, and he’s so far from weakened that it’s likely that he be dictator for life and then get re-elected to a second term.

    Why bother when we’re losing so totally? I’m sure that the Secretary of the Navy and all the naval brass are telling Obama that our navy is unable to come close to matching Russia’s naval might and that the Russian’s superior forces, equipment, overwhelming superiority in number of carrier groups, prowess and experience of the Russian sailors, are indisputable and indisputably the product of the fact that Russia has long spent 10 times as much on their navy as has the US.

  3. Once again, I ask, if Russia fears the rise of Islamism so much…then why is it the primary facilitator of Iran’s drive for nuclear capability? The assertion that Putin is so naive as to believe Iranian assurances of its peaceful intentions is ludicrous. Nor is it credible to suggest that Putin might believe Iran to be less radical than the Muslim Brotherhood. Putin has to know that once Iran gains nuclear weapons capability, nuclear proliferation will explode across the region.

    Russia’s behavior is at odds with the assertion that it fears Islamic radicalism.

    Clearly, Russia prefers a client state ruled by a pragmatic, secular dictator, even one that supports Islamic terrorism. It will do what it can to assist his continued rule but military intervention risks drawing the West into the conflict.

    I continue to believe that the historical dynamics support the Muslim Brotherhood attaining dominance in Syria and through much of the M.E.

    1. Nuncle Geoffrey, Iran is not a client state of Russia and that assertion of indicative of your preference for sticking your square pegs up any old hole and calling it a perfect fit for your misshapen maunderings.

      1. I was referring to Syria as a client state, not Iran fuster. You might consider asking for clarity before placing the square peg of your assumptions up the round hole from which your pretensions extend.

    2. I completely agree with Geoffrey. Russia has been burning both ends of the Arab/Iranian candle and it seems we are arriving at the point where they start to get burned. I never understood why it would be in their long term interests to arm a neighbor with nuclear weapons. They did so, it seems, out of opportunism to twit the West and now it’s catching up with them. Maybe they’ll realize that the enemy of their enemy is not their friend.

  4. Staying on peripheral Syrian conflict issues, it will be interesting to see if Nicosia and Damascus make a push to delimit their respective EEZs while Assad is still in power. It would be a an additional poke in Turkey’s eye, the other being letting the Kurds loose.
    We shouldn’t forget the hydrocarbon dimension in all this. The Syrian coastal ports are slated to load oil and gas from new ME pipelines and there are potentially large hydrocarbon deposits off the Syrian coast – future Christian and Alawi territory…

  5. Is it wrong to root for Assad’s death because I have Assad in my death pool?

    1. Rooting for Assad’s death is voting for Islamic radicalism. Which concerns you more? The dictator willing to employ brutality to maintain his power or the radicalism of expansionist Islamic theology?

      1. Hey there GB. I am only making a semi-serious statement when I say the above – without thought for any geopolitical consequences.

        If I were to assess seriously though, and given the “either/or” option, I still feel like I’d prefer to see Assad go. That’s not because I’m oblivious to the threat of (Sunni) Islamic radicalism though. It seems to me that the most immediate problem is *Shia* Islamic radicalism, in the form of Iran. If Assad falling can weaken Iran and perhaps its proxies and maybe even lead eventually to the mullahs going down (and neutering the threat of their nuclear program – at least for the time being), then that takes precedence over the longer term problem over Sunni Islamic radicalism in my view.

        Also, even though Assad is a secular thug dictator, is there that much difference between him and some Islamic radical thug dictator? He supports Hezbollah, murders Hariri types, funneled terrorists into Iraq, has threatened to use chemical weapons and is a staunch ally of the mullahs in Iran.

        In short, there is no good outcome here, just a bad one and a less bad one. But I think the less bad one for the time being is to see Assad go down – with the desired ripple effects to Hezbollah and Tehran.. Hopefully in a well deserved very unpleasant way for him. After that, we’ll have to face the problem of the Islamic radicals presumably. There would hopefully be more time to to sort out what to do there. Or maybe if we’re lucky, the “Arab Street” will rise up and again to toss out their new oppressors..

        I assume you saw Andrew McCarthy’s article from about 6 weeks ago. He makes a pretty compelling case in support of your viewpoint. You/he could well be right.

  6. The Guardian reports Chinese naval vessels crossed the Suez canal into the EASTMED but I can’t confirm it. It also seems as if two Russian Landing ships (source Bosporus Naval News) plus two tugs returned to the Black Sea. It is unknown whether the troops are still on board or if they disembarked somewhere in the EASTMED. BosporusNN places two Chinese Naval vessels (frigates) in the Marmara Sea bound for Istanbul and then an undisclosed Black Sea port..

    Seems like someone will have to consider installing traffic lights in the EASTMED., it’s getting crowded.

  7. Thought you all would be interested in this.

    Unconfirmed report . “Bandar Bush” has been eliminated in retaliation for operation “Damascus Volcano”.

    This (if confirmed) will produce a degree of turmoil in the KSA I’d say.

  8. Unconfirmed report. Al Arabiya (our local friendly, objective, neighborhood new network) reports Iranian diplomat assassinated in Damascus.

    Well, in a way, I guess that unconfirmed report, confirms that “Bandar Bush” was taken out.

    Boys will be boys…

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: