As Russia’s lone aircraft carrier prepares to steam from the Arctic to a Russian-operated naval base in Syria, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, is on the attack, warning against outside military intervention in Syria’s slow motion civil war.
“It’s not so much the authorities, but armed groups that are provoking the unrest,” Lavrov told reporters on Tuesday. He urged all parties to pressure Syria’s political players to forego violence saying: “This has to do with what the authorities are doing, but even more, this applies to the armed groups that work in Syria and which maintain contacts with a host of Western countries and a host of Arab states. Everyone knows this.”
After being on the losing sides in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, Russia now is making a stand in Syria.
The Kremlin hopes the Arab Spring will wither into the Arab Winter.
On Monday, the day after the Arab League voted to impose sanctions on Syria, Lavrov addressed Arab ambassadors in Moscow. He stressed the Kremlin’s policy that internal problems “should be resolved peacefully through national dialogue aimed at promoting civil harmony and without outside interference.”
The meeting seemed to be a warm up for an expected veto by Russia if the Arab League asks the United Nations Security Council to approve sanctions against Syria.
Russia has a lot at stake in Syria. And, despite the talk of peace, most of these stakes are military. For over half a century, Moscow has been the main arms supplier to Syria.
The Kremlin’s stake in Syria stretches all the way back to the Suez Crisis of 1956.
That year, Moscow signed a military aid pact with Damascus.
Relations further tightened after the bloodless coup of 1970 that started the dynasty of the Assads, leaders of the nation’s Alawite minority. A few months after the coup, Moscow signed an agreement for the installation of a naval supply and maintenance base at Tartus, a port in the traditional heartland of the Alawites.
During the Soviet era, Tartus was a key base for Soviet Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet. When the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago, this fleet was disbanded and Russian naval power largely receded from the Mediterranean.
At Tartus, floating docks fell into disrepair and Russian Navy visits became infrequent. Then in 2008, when Russia was flush with oil money, Moscow started to renovate the base. The stated goal was to once again make it Russia’s window on the Mediterranean.
According to the newspaper Izvestiya, 600 Russian technicians now work in Tartus, upgrading facilities, dredging the harbor, and preparing for Russian Navy port calls. Next week, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is to start steaming from the Arctic toward Tartus. The Kuznetsov, which carries at least 10 late model Sukhoi and Mig fighter jets, is to be joined by two other Russian Navy vessels.
Russia’s show of naval force comes one week after an American naval task force, led by the USS George H.W. Bush, the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, arrived off Syria’s coast.
If gunboat diplomacy is the cards, Russia has an advantage on land. Hundreds of active duty Syrian officers have trained at Russian military academies. Russia-trained Alawite officers could attempt a palace coup, according to one scenario explored by Nour Malas in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal.
Malas quotes an Alawite officer saying from exile in Jordan: “Once they get the green light from Russia, the (Alawite officers) may well go ahead.”
But it is unlikely that Syria’s Sunni majority would accept a revolving door of Alawite minority rule.
In another scenario, Syria would disintegrate into a loose ethnic federation. In this case, the Alawites would retreat to their historical coastal stronghold, an area that was a mini-state during the French Mandate period of 1920-1946. Under this scenario, Sunnis would control Damascus and Aleppo, the nation’s two largest cities. On the Alawite-controlled coast, Russian basing rights would endure intact.
But, it is unlikely that Sunni rulers in Damascus would settle for running a landlocked, rump state.
For now, Moscow is talking peace — but is starting to brandish its big stick.
“A scenario involving military intervention in Syrian affairs is absolutely unacceptable for us,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on Friday, on the eve of the Arab League’s vote to impose sanctions.
Then, on Sunday, within hours of the Arab League vote, a Russian Navy General Staff officer briefed Izvestiya about the deployment of the aircraft carrier to Syrian waters.
As the Kremlin moves its military pieces on the strategic chessboard, at stake in Syria is one of Russia’s two remaining major Arab allies on the Mediterranean. If Syria goes, only Algeria remains from the glory years of Soviet diplomacy in the Arab world.