Monday, March 28, 2011

Uprising in Syria threatens Russian interests

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton says she doesn't expect a Libyan-style western intervention in Syria although Washington deplores bloodshed anywhere. Is this a tactical posturing or a strategic stance? Difficult to give a straight answer. These are highly volatile times when the goal post keeps shifting and umpiring is rather arbitrary. In Libya, at least, it turned out to be so. But then, what's on Clinton's mind? In one word - Russia.
Moscow has just about shifted gear in the past 2 years to accelerate the reactivation of its Soviet-era naval base in Tartus in Syria when the prospect of a regime change in that country appears on the horizon. The navies of Russia and Syria were noticeably stepping up their cooperation over the last year or two, which included Moscow modernizing naval facilities in Syria's port of Latakia and Tartous on eastern Mediterranean to accommodate Russian warships. Russian ambassador to Syria, Sergei Kirpichenko, said in April: ""I am certain that we will witness new and significant progress in our bilateral cooperation in the near future." Russian Navy's nuclear-powered missile cruiser, Pyotr Veliky visited Tartous in April in a display of Russian Navy's ambition to show the flag. Pyotr Veliky has been the flagship of Russia's Northern Fleet. (PV also visited Indian Ocean and called on Colombo in April.)
Reports indicated that Russia has modernized Tartous and deploys 50 naval officers to maintain and supply warships that operate in the Mediterranean. Moscow also offered to modernize the Syrian Navy port at Latakia. Tartous, with three berthing floats, could handle up to a dozen naval vessels. Russian Navy regards Syria as a vital base for operations in the Mediterranean and surrounding regions. The naval base in Syria significantly boosts Russia's operational capability in the region because the warships based there are capable of reaching the Red Sea through the Suez Canal and the Atlantic through the Strait of Gibraltar in a matter of days.
That brings us to an interesting point: Is it a 'colour revolution' tacitly supported by the western intelligence that is being attempted in Syria? Strangely, trouble began in the border region with Jordan, which is a staunch security ally of the US and Britain. Clinton could be expected to be 'diplomatic', as she doesn't want Russian feathers to be ruffled over Syria at a time when the Kremlin's continued cooperation in the UN is vital for the NATO's Libyan operations. But it can't be that the US is unaware that if Russia loses its bases in Syria, its Navy's capacity to operate in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean (and Indian Ocean) will be seriously impaired. In short, NATO's unassailable supremacy in the Mediterranean, Levant and the Middle East and North Africa can be established if Russian Navy can be somehow "evicted" from Syria. If the uprising spreads in Syria and the regime gets seriously threatened, Russia will be caught in a serious dilemma. It is all but certain that any successor regime in Damascus would seek closer ties with the West. In short, Syria can well become the "Ukraine of the Middle East". Did Moscow make a historic blunder by adopting a passive attitude in the UN security council over Libya in the spirit of the US-Russia reset? The coming weeks will be accentuating the struggle for influence in Syria.

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