Saturday, September 13, 2008

Russia seeks stronger ties with Syria

Associated Press , THE JERUSALEM POST
Russia announced Friday it was renovating a Syrian port for use by the Russian fleet in what signals an effort for a better foothold in the Mediterranean amid the rift with the United States over Georgia.
Syria was Moscow's strongest Middle East ally during the Cold War. The alliance largely waned after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, though Russia has continued some weapons sales to Damascus. Syrian President Bashar Assad has increasingly reached out to Russia recently, including seeking weapons and offering broader military cooperation.

Friday's announcement was the first tangible sign of any new cooperation. The Itar-Tass news agency said Friday that a vessel from Russia's Black Sea fleet had begun restoring facilities at Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus for use by the Russian military.

The two countries' naval chiefs also met in Moscow on Friday and discussed "further strengthening mutual trust and mutual understanding between the two states' fleets," a Russian naval official, Igor Dygalo, told Itar-Tass.

The Tartus renovations could signal an intention to have a long-term Russian naval presence there. In late August, Russia's ambassador to Damascus, Igor Belyev, said that Russian ships already patrol the area, but "a new development is that the Russian presence in the Mediterranean will become permanent."

The Russian navy's closest access to the Mediterranean is through the Black Sea, where they have strong naval presence. But that area has seen an increase in NATO naval activity after the Georgia conflict, prompting Russian complaints that NATO has exceeded ship numbers permitted there under international agreements.

The move comes amid heightened tensions between the US and Russia after last month's brief war in Georgia. The rift has raised concerns Moscow might start reaching out to US rivals around the world to beef up military alliances. Russian bombers this month arrived in Venezuela for training exercises and the two countries are to hold joint exercises in the Caribbean in November.

Syrian media made no mention of the Russian announcement Friday, and Syrian officials could not be reached for comment. In Syria, military activities are rarely discussed or divulged by authorities who keep a tight lid on state security matters.

Russian military experts said Tartus would be a considerable boost for operations in the Mediterranean.

"It is much more advantageous to have such a facility than to return ships patrolling the Mediterranean to their home bases," former Black Sea Fleet commander Adm. Eduard Baltin said, according to the Russian Interfax-AVN service.

The former first deputy commander the Russian Navy, Adm. Igor Kasatonov, said Tartus "is of great geopolitical significance considering that it is the only such Russian facility abroad."

The former Soviet Union had a maintenance and supply facility in Tartus under a 1971 agreement with Damascus, but the deal ended with the fall of the Communist regime in Moscow. Currently the facility at Tartus consists of three floating piers, one of which is currently operational, one floating repair shop, warehouses, barracks and other facilities, according to Russian press reports.

Security expert David Hartwell cautioned against reading too much into a connection between the Russia-Syria ties and the Georgia crisis.

"Talks about naval cooperation have been ongoing for several years. It would wrong to suggest this is a reaction to NATO's action in Georgia," said Hartwell, Middle East and North Africa editor for Jane's Country Risk in London.

The Tartus move may be as much aimed at placating Syria's appeals for greater cooperation. he said from London.

Assad made a visit to Moscow last month, and before the trip told the Russian business daily Kommersant that Syria was "ready to cooperate with Russia in any way," including discussing deploying missile defense systems on Syrian territory.

Assad also said Syria was ready to help Moscow respond to the planned US missile defense shield in Europe, although the Russians have not asked for such help, the newspaper said.

Syria's government later denied that Assad had made such an offer to host Russian missiles on Syrian land, or even discussed it with Russia - apparently wary of overly antagonizing the United States.

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