Israel is closely tracking Russian naval movements in the Mediterranean Sea amid reports that several ships are heading to Syria to secure the Tartus Port and possibly military assets Moscow maintains in the country.
On Friday, Russian news agencies quoted a top military source as saying that Russia was sending three naval vessels and up to 360 marines to Syria. The reports claimed that the vessels, which are already in the Mediterranean, will arrive in Tartus this week or early next week with supplies for Russia’s only permanent port outside the former Soviet Union.
Russia’s Defense Ministry however later issued a statement denying the warships would go to Tartus but left open the possibility they would do so if they remained at sea longer than expected.
For Israel, Moscow is something of a weather vane for gauging what is happening in Syria. A similar situation happened on the eve of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 when Russia pulled its diplomats and military advisers out of Egypt shortly before the war.
“Russia has a better feel for what is happening in Syria, and by following what it does it is possible to better gauge when President Bashar Assad might fall,” a defense official explained.
According to a report published last week by the Washington- based Institute for the Study of War, the Tartus Port is being used as a “as a political lever, both to affect the outcome of the Syrian civil war and to maintain legitimate access to a strategically located facility nested in the Arab world.”
The report also suggested that if Assad decided to withdraw from Damascus and fall back to a more defensible position in the Alawite coastal basin including Latakia and Tartus, Russia would be able to maintain its naval presence there. If, however, Assad’s regime completely collapses, it is unlikely that a new Sunni regime would allow Russia to continue docking in Tartus.
Russia’s Interfax news agency said on Friday that the loss of Tartus would be a strategic blow to Russia.
“Tartus is of extreme military- strategic importance for the Russian Navy, as the backup for the task forces in the Mediterranean. Therefore, its loss would entail deep negative consequences and the actual loss of influence in this key region,” Interfax quoted a militarydiplomatic source as saying.
Reuters contributed to the report.