According to Haaretz, Russian naval vessels will enter Syrian territorial waters shortly, as a show of support for Syrian dictator Bashir Assad, who is mired in a bloody and protracted battle with anti-regime protesters. While thousands of demonstrators have been killed by police and security forces since the late spring, the resistance shows now sign of flagging, while Assad's position continues to weaken.
If the naval operations follows the pattern of past deployments, the vessels may dock at the Syrian port of Tartus, which has hosted Russian naval units since the early 1970s. In February of last year, Moscow announced plans to upgrade and modernize its naval supply and maintenance facility in Tartus, allowing it to accommodate "heavy" warships, including aircraft carriers.
The Tartus complex, once a symbol of the Soviet naval presence in the Middle East, fell into disrepair in the 1990s, as the Russian fleet suffered dramatic cutbacks and sent fewer vessels to sea. Reportedly, only one of the three floating piers at Tartus is now operational. That factor, along with the limited number of vessels in Russia's Black Sea fleet, would limit the scope of its naval deployment to Syria.
Still, the Russians could send a guided missile cruiser like the Pyotr Velikiy to the eastern Mediterranean. The Pyotr Velikiy, the only Kirov-class battlecruiser currently in service with the Russian fleet, paid a visit to Syria last year. Equipped with the naval version of the S-300 surface-to-air missile system (which has a maximum range of 100 NM), the Pyotr Velikiy could protect targets across much of northern Syria, if Moscow decided to press its luck in defending Assad.
But even if Russia remains neutral--as most observers expect--NATO planners would still have to respect the vessel's air defense capabilities in providing air support to Syrian rebels. Operating in coastal waters near Tartus, the Pyotr Velikiy's air defenses could provide coverage of key locations, including the city of Homs, which has been the scene of vicious battles between Assad's security forces and the opposition.
Obviously, the Russian naval deployment is largely symbolic, and there is no indication that Moscow wants to mix it up with NATO. Indeed, even a powerful platform like a Kirov cruiser would be no match for American naval forces and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (and his puppet master, Vladimir Putin) have no desire to lose one of their most important capital ships. But with this deployment, the Russian leaders are signaling their displeasure over a prospective alliance between NATO and Syrian rebels.
From Moscow's perspective, Syria will not become another Libya, where the U.S. and its western partners operated with impunity, rescuing rebel forces and (eventually) sealing the fate of Mommar Qadhafi. Fortunately for Mr. Assad, he has more powerful friends in places like Russia and Iran, and for now, they appear determined to keep him in power.
ADDENDUM: We should also note that Russia's naval deployment to Syria might serve another purpose. If Assad's regime crumbles, the ships could be useful in evacuating Russian nationals from Syria. We're guessing that Moscow's contractors and advisers in Syria (symbols of long-time security ties between the two countries) wouldn't be very popular--or safe--in a post-Assad environment.