On June 12, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised U.S.-Russian tensions over the crisis in Syria by publicly accusing Russia of providing MI-25 attack helicopters to the Assad regime. Clinton detected, “We are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria.”
Accusations that Russia is supplying the Assad regime with weapons to attack civilians mark a significant hastening of tensions between the two countries caused by America’s frustration over the letdown of the UN peace plan for Syria. To nobody’s surprise, the accusations are currently being received with rage by the Putin administration in the short term, but there is a good chance that they could advance U.S. policy goals over the long term.
U.S. Policy on Syria has toughened over the last few days to include measures to impede the transfer of Russian military hardware, including attack helicopters, to the Syrian regime.
The public remarks expanded the pressure on Russia and gathered a strong rebuff from Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who called any military transfer “defensive” in nature.
A statement by the Russian foreign ministry claimed: “industry cooperation with Syria is limited to a transfer of defensive arms.” The statement also asserted that Russia was simply refurbishing Syrian helicopters under an existing contract, explaining that the shipments actually were “previously planned repairs of military equipment delivered to Syria many years ago.”
All the same, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland refuted: “Whether they are new or they are refurbished, the concern remains that they will be used for the exact same purpose that the current helicopters in Syria are being used, and that is to kill civilians.”
In addition to providing the Syrian regime with the MI-25 helicopter gunships, nicknamed “flying tanks,” Russia has transferred to Syria the Buk-M2 air defense system, the Bastion anti-ship missile systems, and Yak-130 combat jets, according to the Associated Press and the Guardian News.
Significance of the Tartus Port
More than its weapons sales to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s greatest strategic and geopolitical interest in Syria is the use of a deep-water port at Tartus.
Let’s take a look at a focal history of Russian presence on the Tartus port: The Soviet Navy began using Syria’s deep-water port at Tartus for submarines and surface vessels under a 1971 agreement with Damascus. The Soviet Union was Syria’s main arms supplier and Tartus was used to receive Soviet weapons bought by Damascus.The Soviet Fifth Mediterranean Squadron also used the docks at the base to load its own fuel and supplies.
The Soviet Navy had similar support points in Egypt, but the Soviets evacuated the Egyptian bases in the late 1970s, sending ships and equipment to Tartus instead.
That transformed Tartus into the Soviet 229th Naval and Estuary Vessel Support Division. In the mid 1980s, Tartus was upgraded to become the 720th Logistics Support Point for the Soviet Navy. The Russian Navy continued using Tartus after the Soviet broke up in 1991.
Even a semi-permanent base at Tartus allows the Russian Navy to expand its presence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Russia’s largest and most important military base in a foreign country is the Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol, Ukraine.
To deploy beyond the Black Sea, Russian warships based at Sevastopol must pass through the Bosporus Strait, which has been militarized by NATO-member Turkey.
Under the 1936 Montreux Convention, the Bosporus was deemed an international shipping lane with military restrictions. Under a 1982 amendment, Turkey now retains the right to close the Strait at its discretion in peacetime as well as during wartime.
As Russia’s only Mediterranean base, that makes Tartus a vital strategic asset beyond the Bosporus.
As a deep water port, it can also dock nuclear submarines.
As of today, Russia does not appear to be backing down from support of Syria even in the face of new U.S. and British pressure. Recently, the Russian news agency stated that Russian naval officials are preparing to send Russian Marines and tanks to Syria.
The Obama administration’s attempt to indirectly stop Russian ships from transporting arms to Syria by canceling their insurance and public criticism of Moscow over these transfers reflects the extreme frustration by the United States and its allies over the crisis in Syria and the role Russia has been playing in supporting up the Assad regime. With the UN observer force in Syria suspending operations, the UN peace plan essentially dead, and Russia (together with China) continuing to block any significant action on the Syria situation in the UN Security Council, Obama officials probably feel they have nothing to lose by publicly berating Russia for arming the Assad regime and trying to interfere with Russian arms shipments to Syria.