Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Warning Update: Russia Expanding Facilities at Tartus Naval Base

By Christopher Kozak with Hugo Spaulding and Daniel Urchick

Recent indicators suggest that Russia intends to upgrade its naval facility in the Port of Tartus along the Syrian Coast in tandem with its ongoing air operations based out of Bassel al-Assad International Airport in neighboring Latakia Province.  On September 28, Russian media sources reported the deployment of at least two repair and supply vessels to Tartus with an onboard escort of “anti-terror group” Naval Infantry personnel. The deployment of these vessels comes in ostensible support of recently-announced naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean Sea involving several warships from the Russian Black Sea Fleet, including the guided missile cruiser Moskva, the destroyer Smetlivy, and the tank landing ship Saratov. Nonetheless, the two repair vessels are designed to equip military ports by installing mooring buoys, breakwaters, and floating landing stages or docks – making them valuable assets in efforts to modernize the base at Tartus.

The timing of this mobilization coincides with a report in the leading Russian business newspaper Kommersant on September 21 reporting that the naval installation at Tartus currently hosts 1700 Russian military “specialists” and security personnel working to “equip and secure” the base and “rebuild the dock.” If confirmed, these numbers would reflect a major increase in activity at the facility after it had reportedly been largely abandoned by Russian forces in 2013. A source from the Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed ongoing work to modernize the Russian facility in order to hold destroyers and large landing ships but claimed that this effort had no connection to a “prepared military intervention” in Syria. However, the start of Russian air operations in northwestern Syria on September 30 belies this statement as likely disinformation. The naval facility at Tartus has served as a historic logistical hub for Russian military equipment and personnel entering Syria, and received several tank landing ships and cargo vessels over the past month transporting vehicles and supplies destined for the Bassel al-Assad International Airport.

The expansion of the naval facility at Tartus bears several implications for future Russian military activity in Syria. The base constitutes the only Russian naval base outside of the former Soviet Union and provides Russia with strategic access to the Mediterranean, although its capacity to host large, modern vessels remains limited. Russian officials have discussed potential upgrades to the base for several years without significant action, although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stated in March 2015 that Syria would welcome “any widening of the Russian presence” in Tartus. The decision to undertake this modernization program at this time suggests a decision by Russian leadership to prepare for further support over the long-term to the Syrian regime by allowing the provision of further military equipment or the deployment of a full contingent of troops by sea. The expansion of the naval facility at Tartus also reflects Russian intent to secure permanent strategic basing in Syria in line with its establishment of an airbase at Bassel al-Assad International Airport. At minimum, recent Russian activity in Tartus indicates that Russia views its military intervention in Syria as a long-term commitment rather than a short-term limited operation.

Additional background on the Russian naval facility in Tartus from ISW senior naval analyst Christopher Harmer can be found here.

Sources consulted include: Western news outlets including AP and Reuters as well as Russian news agencies such as TASS, Interfax, Lenta, and Kommersant.