The Russian Navy and Syria: Supporting Regional Strategic Objectives

Russia is using the on-going Syrian Civil War as an opportunity to secure its strategic objectives through an increased maritime presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. In intervening in the Syrian Civil War on the behalf of the Assad regime, Russia has ensured that it will play an important role in the Levantine country and the region for years to come. Furthermore, the Russians have established a center of gravity for its military from which to spread its regional influence in the Eastern Mediterranean through the deployment of military assets, including a display of naval and airpower.

Image courtesy of Official Navy Page, © 2015.

Russia has been allied with the Assad family since 1970, when the Soviet Union supported the late President Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father. The Syrian regime was seen as a strategic ally for the Soviet Union in the Eastern Mediterranean, and is seen similarly today to the Russian Federation. When the Syrian Revolution began in 2011 and gradually devolved into a civil war, Russia stood by its ally and supported the Assad regime.

The on-going civil war has provided an opportunity for Russia to flex its regional political and military strength. In 2013, U.S. President Obama was on the verge of intervening after the Assad regime used chemical weapons to check opposition activists. Instead, Russia intervened diplomatically, offering to provide escort for the removal of all chemical weapons from the country. The Russian navy provided escort for the chemicals as they were removed from the country and destroyed, a demonstration of Russia’s growing maritime influence in the region.

Since the nonintervention by the United States in 2013, Russia has confidently expanded its military footprint in Syria. In late 2015, as the Assad regime looked as though it were on the verge of collapse, the Russian military intervened directly. Russia began airstrikes in support of Syrian government forces and their allied militias. This was a demonstration of Russian military power, aimed both at stabilizing a key ally and sending a message to the world that Russian strength had returned.

Through the Syrian War, Russia has gradually increased its maritime influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. In March 2013, Russia reestablished the 5th Eskadra—the Mediterranean Squadron that once represented the Soviet Union in the region—from the Black Sea Fleet as a permanent Mediterranean naval presence. To fuel the war effort, Russia has established what is informally known as the “Syria Express,” a key supply line between Russian Black Sea ports to the Syrian coast via the Turkish Straits. Warships armed with cruise missiles, Kilo-class submarines, and even the Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, have patrolled the coast of Syria. To further project Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the Eastern Mediterranean, Russia deployed guided missile frigates to the region under the guise of conducting exercises. Advanced Russian Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles have further created an exclusive zone in the sea off the Syrian coast, and advanced S-400 anti-air systems have expanded the Russia’s control of the airspace, not only over Syrian territory but over the entire Eastern Mediterranean as well.

Russia’s expanded presence in the region will continue for the foreseeable future. In January 2017, Russia and the Syrian regime reached an agreement allowing Russia to expand the Russian Port at Tartus to a permanent naval facility. The agreement continued the lease for at least forty-nine years, and the expansion will allow the facilities to support 11 ships, including nuclear-powered. Russia also has plans to expand its Khmeimim Air Base—south of the city of Latakia and near the Turkish border—into a permanent facility.

Intervention in the Syrian conflict has provided the Russians with an ample opportunity to establish itself as a major power in the Eastern Mediterranean. It has also expanded its ability to influence and pressure local states through its expansion of facilities and presence in the region. Finally, Russian intervention in Syria has made it more difficult for the West, including the United States, to engage in military action in the area, without acquiescence of the Russians or risk of provocation. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the Russians have established a permanent military foothold in the Mediterranean Sea.

Kevin Truitte is the Co-Chair of the IAA Discussion Group and former research fellow with YPFP. This article represents his own views.

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