Monday, 24 December 2012

Russia and Syria: Putin prepares pull out

[UPDATED] Vladimir Putin has sent more Russian warships to the eastern Mediterranean than ever before in support of Russia's strategic interests in Syria. It's a huge show by Russian standards: 16 warships converging on the waters off Syria as of the first week in January, including five landing ships, three fleet oilers, one cruiser and several frigates and destroyers.

Previous shows of force have aimed at helping Moscow's ally, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, cling to power, by deterring Nato from intervening in the country's civil war, which has so far killed over 60,000 people. But this time the Syrian situation is much changed: collapse could be imminent for Syria's embattled Assad; and a strategic defeat and evacuation looms large for Russia. It seems Moscow might have backed a bad horse.

Russia has sent by far its largest display of naval force yet to the waters off Syria. Within days of units sailing in December, reports have grown more detailed: from deploying for a possible evacuation and replacing other vessels on station since November; to reports of military plans set for an imminent total evacuation by land, sea and airMost sources suggest that 20-30,000 Russian civilians might need evacuating from Syria. 

Syria bound: Ropucha-class, Russian landing ship 
The Russian navy has many rusting ships nominally operational, but most would be classed as in reserve by Western standards: lacking full crews with sufficient training or sea time. In reality Russia can probably call on fewer warships at short notice than either France or Britain, while few ships are anything like up to modern Nato standards. The majority of them are in the waters off Syria, or will arrive there soon.

Russia has a small naval base at Tartus. Defeat for Assad would imperil this presence. The base itself is small, lacking investment, reportedly only partly operable, and suitable only for servicing small craft. Visiting ships tend to help sustain the base, as much as the other way around.

Russia may soon have to evacuate this Tartus base. The installation has symbolic value as Russia's last military base outside of the old Soviet Union. Putin is a bullying strongman who likes to project Russia's decayed power, posturing strength to disguise weaker realities. Retreat from Tartus would be a blow to Russian prestige, small in material scale but symbolically akin to events such as Soviet withdrawals at the end of the Cold War. Historically, losing its foothold in the Mediterranean bottles up Russia's Black Sea fleet, shutting it off at the Bosphorus.

Neustrashimyy-class, Russian frigate
Two Ropucha-class landing ships, Kaliningrad and Alexander Shabalin, are reported to be headed to the area from the Baltic (departed Baltiysk mid-December), escorted by the Neustrashimyy-class frigate Yaroslav Mudri, fleet tanker Lena, and the large tug/rescue vessel SB-921. Taking the tankers implies they will not be relying on Tartus as a supply base and that the operation is a lengthy one.
Russian guided missile cruiser Moskva (ex-Slava)

[UPDATE: A third Ropucha-class landing ship, the Azov, and the large landing ship  Nikolay Filchenkov were reported to left have departed Russia's Black Sea port of Novorossiisk on Christmas Eve, passing through the Dardanelles on 27/12/2012, headed towards Syria. They were reportedly carrying marines aboard and set to meet up with another Black Sea Fleet task group, comprising the powerful Slava-class guided missile cruiser Moskva, large Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivy, oiler Ivan Bubnov and fleet tug SB-406, exercising off Greece in the eastern Med. This task group had earlier been detailed for an anti-piracy mission east of Suez, but has reportedly been re-tasked rather vaguely for "exercises in the Med".  Then yet another Ropucha-class ship, the Novocherkassk, was reported (30/12/12) to have also left Novorossiisk, also headed for the eastern Med. Her sister ship Saratov also sailed recently, and is in the Med or the Black Sea.]

Another force of three ships left Russia's Arctic Northern Fleet base at Severomorsk in the Barents Sea on 19/12/2012 for the long journey south: the Udaloy-class destroyer Severomorsk, accompanied by fleet tanker Dubna and a tug/rescue vessel Altai. They  departed for an anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden, but must pass through the eastern Med before Suez and could easily be re-tasked, like the Moskva's group, for a Syrian operation.

This naval armada on its own would struggle to evacuate more than a fraction of the perhaps 30,000 civilians without making several trips. Alternatively, it could conduct a smaller scale evacuation of staff and materials from the Tartus base itself.

It seems a large evacuation has been planned. According to Russian broadsheet newspaper Izvestia, Russian diplomats believe Damascus airport is no longer safe for an evacuation, and using Aleppo is impossible. The paper cites the Russian Embassy in Syria as reporting that only two relatively safe evacuation routes remain: one via the Damascus-Beirut highway; and the other from Tartus and Latakia (home of a Russian intelligence listening post) by sea. Deploying Russian troops and sailors to either location for a large-scale evacuation could be incendiary.

The Russian government is reportedly planning to use four small-to-medium passenger ferries for an evacuation: the Apollonia (250 passengers capacity); the Ant-1 (90 capacity); the Ant-2 (68 capacity); and the Nikolai Konarev (75 capacity). The ferries are spread between the Red, Mediterranean and Black seas. It seems bold but not enough, and potentially calamitous. Even combined with the warships, they would struggle to evacuate more than a few thousand in one go, potentially requiring several return trips. Cyprus is cited as the initial destination, with emergency flights getting citizens back to Russia.

Thousands of Assad loyalists have also been reportedly flocking to Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus, fleeing from the advancing rebels of the ragtag Free Syrian Army (FSA). If Damascus does soon fall to the rebels and Assad and his retinue are cornered with their backs to the sea, they will doubtless seek succour from Assad's only major overseas ally: Moscow. Whether such reports are just slick rebel propaganda, or, if true, whether there's room in the boats, who knows?

Shows of force

Russia has sent successive naval task forces to the Mediterranean to try to maintain some influence throughout Syria's civil war. Russia's capabilities are small-fry in a real shooting war, compared to West's naval assets in the area. The region's seas teem with Nato firepower. Ships from the navies of the US, UK and France are engaged in the West's own rival power projection against Iran and Syria (and Russia).

Nato has not overtly intervened in Syria's conflict as it did in Libya in 2011. Western aid for the rebels has remained covert and by proxy through Saudi Arabia: providing the rebels with intelligence, funding, weapons and training.

While Putin has peddled official neutrality, he has blocked three UN Security Council resolutions aimed at ramping up the sanctions pressure on Assad's regime. Russia has also been Assad's primary arms supplier and sought to keep the weapons flowingRussia's limited naval forces have aimed to deter Nato directly intervening against its Syrian ally. However, if the Saudi/Western-armed rebels can win anyway, Russia's efforts will have been in vain.

Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov
In December 2011, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov from Russia's Northern Fleet, set off to show the flag off Syria, embarking on a controversial cruise. The 55,000-ton carrier, with the escorting Udaloy-class destroyer Admiral Chabanenko, skirted the coast of Scotland, reportedly "fly-tipping" rubbish into the Firth of Forth, before passing into the Med and anchoring off Tartus on January 8. The ship's visit was touted as "honourable" support for the Assad regime by Syrian defence minister, general Dawood Rajiha (since assassinated by the rebels in their July 18 Damascus bombing of Assad's National Security HQ).

In July the rebels had threatened Damascus, reaching the capital's outskirts, but were thrown back by a Syrian government counter-offensive. This fraught period for Assad seemingly rattled decision-makers in the Kremlin. 

Evacuation of the Tartus base was first discussed publicly in the summer. “If an emergency happens, we will remove the base’s personnel,” Vice-Adm. Viktor Chirkov told the Echo Moscow radio station on July 28, when asked what Russia's military would do if Tartus came under attack.

Warships from Russia's Northern fleet visited the eastern Med in July. Three Ropucha-class amphibious assault ships (Aleksandr OtrakovskiyGeorgiy Pobedonosets and Kondopoga) steamed south that month, bound for waters off Syria in August.

Once the threat to Damascus had diminished, they headed for Russia's Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. Russian sources had been contradictory or non-commital about whether any of the vessels would call at Tartus on the trip, why, or for how long. In any case, the 112.5m-long amphibious landing warships would scarcely fit into its one or two operational 100-m long piers. Several news sources reported unnamed sources as saying the three landing ships each had 120 marines aboard

Amphibious landing vessels and their marines are useful for an evacuation, but each Ropucha-class ship only has capacity for a few hundred evacuated civilians crammed in like sardines: not enough for a full evacuation. However, it seems that two of these landing vessels might again play a role in the present round of naval deployments, this time for evacuation in earnest.

Moscow has been sent more mixed messages on Syria of late, as its faith in Assad's ability to hold out has begun to wane. Russia's Foreign Ministry was pressured into confirming on December 14 that Russia's policy on Syria would "never change", following a defeatist statement about its Assad alliance, made the previous day.

"Unfortunately, it is impossible to exclude a victory of the Syrian opposition,” said Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said on December 13. "We must look squarely at the facts, and the trend now suggests that the regime and the government in Syria are losing control over more and more territory,” said Bogdanov.

After Assad?

Assad has increasingly good reason to suspect that Moscow now believes his regime is a lost cause. In November, some Russia-friendly moderate representatives of the Syrian opposition travelled to Moscow to meet with Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. "The National Coordination Committee" cannot represent more than a tame fragment of the broader opposition and FSA rebels, but Moscow is clearly keen to fudge a continued presence in Syria after Assad.

"We think that Russia has a right to stay there even when Syria becomes a real democracy," said the committee's head, Hassan Abdel-Azim, in a conciliatory interview with Russian state-owned news site The Voice of Russia. "The talks made us feel that we are trusted, as we had always opposed foreign interference in Syrian affairs and backed maintaining close ties with our former partners."

With palpable schadenfreude, The US commended Russia for "waking up to the reality" of the Syrian situation. An end to Syria's bloodshed is of course desirable, while Assad's fall could cause retreat and humiliation for Russia.

Despite crowing at Russia's embarrassment, the Americans may also regret what comes after Assad's downfall. The democratic governments that have surfaced after Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia and Egypt point to a democratising Middle East, but the killing of  US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three others in Benghazi in September warned of the risk of extremism and terrorist forces unleashed if a power vacuum remains once the autocrats are removed.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

As seen in The Chap

Flashman of Waterloo, as photographed on page 66 of the latest issue of The Chap magazine (Issue 66; December/January 2013). Job done, that is all.