A number of media outlets report that Syrian rebels are threatening to attack Russia’s naval facility at the Syrian city of Tartus in order to stop arms shipments to the Syrian regime. Furthermore, Russian warships and naval marines are reportedly en route to Tartus to protect Russian citizens and property. In this article we cover the importance of Tartus and the likelihood and consequence of armed conflict between Russian military forces and opposition groups in Tartus.
The city of Tartus
The Syrian coastal city of Tartus (pictured left), with a population of 105 000-150 000 (estimates vary), is an important tourist destination, fishing port, trade centre and is the second largest port in Syria after Latakia. It is well connected along the coastal north-south axis and has become increasingly important due to aid and other resources destined for Iraq which often transits through Tartus. The city is particularly important to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Both Latakia and Tartus Governorates contain over 90 percent of Syria’s Alawite religious minority, to which Assad belongs and who count as his most loyal supporters. This coastal region between Latakia and Tartus therefore forms the logical location for an Alawite national redoubt, a final defence of the regime and Alawite survival against opposition groups seeking revenge over decades of Alawite dominance and the alleged massacres against civilian populations by the Alawite militia, the Shabiha. Should the regime face final defeat these ports also provide the option of maritime retreat, possibly including refuge in Russia with passage facilitated by the Russian navy at Tartus.
Russian naval facility at Tartus
The Soviet Union established a naval supply and maintenance facility in Syria in 1971 (pictured left). At the end of the Cold War, by waiving almost 8 billion euros of Syrian debt to the Soviet Union, Russia was permitted to retain its leasing rights to Tartus and to expand the port to enable the docking of nuclear warships. Russia has since expanded its facilities, which retains only a relatively small permanent staff, by dredging the port to enable larger naval vessels to visit. Nevertheless, the facility remains restricted to a small barracks (50 personnel onshore plus 190 accommodated on floating platforms), pier, fuel tanks and small support buildings. Nevertheless, the base has an important role in the resupply and refueling of Russian naval vessels, enabling their extended stay in the Mediterranean and avoiding the long voyage back to the Black Sea Fleet’s home base from leased facilities in the Ukraine. It enables force projection of Russian naval capabilities into the Mediterranean, influencing Europe and the Middle East, whilst giving more aggressive options through gunboat diplomacy. Although not covered by the international media, it is also likely that Russia runs important intelligence operations from Tartus, possibly including electronic warfare capabilities on vessels docked at the port. Tartus is also the port through which Russia provides its lucrative arms shipments to Syria and has recently become more important as a counter to NATO’s ballistic missile defence system, which includes the integration of naval vessels which Russia may hope to undermine through its own maritime capabilities in the Mediterranean.
Syrian rebels threaten Russia
According to various media reports, a number of Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers have threatened to attack the Russian naval facility in Tartus:
‘We have a warning for the Russian forces: if they will send any more weapons that kill our families and the Syrian people we will hit them hard inside Syria…We don’t want to attack the port, we are not terrorists, but if they keep acting like this we will have no choice‘ – attributed to Louay al-Mokdad, a logistical coordinator for the FSA.
‘Many of our men used to work in the port of Tartous (sic) and they know it well…We are watching very closely the movements of the Russians‘ – attributed to Captain Walid, former officer in the Syrian Navy.
’We can easily destroy the port. If we hit the weapons’ stores with anti-tank missiles or another weapon it would trigger a devastating explosion…Or we can attack the ships directly‘ – reported comments by unidentified member of the FSA.
These comments may be the rhetoric of unsanctioned members of the FSA, noting the lack of effective centralised control within the organisation, or form part of a deliberate Information Operations effort to influence Russian policy and cease arms shipments to Syria. In this scenario, the rebels are probably aware that Russia has little appetite to militarily engage rebel forces, given the international attention that would receive, the escalation of tensions between Russia and the West (and United Nations) and the possible reaction of the US military in response (such as establishing unilateral no-fly zones in Syria).
Russian response to rebel threats
The Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Victor Tchirkov (pictured left), has made clear Russia’s resolve to maintain its presence at Tartus, whilst probably exploring alternative options in Cyprus as we recently reported. The skeleton staff at Tartus would be unable to prevent significant damage to the facility, which probably accounts for reports of large numbers of naval marines en route to the region. Several hundred marines would certainly prove sufficient to repel a rebel attack, however, would still find it difficult to prevent potentially devastating damage caused by indirect fire on Russian naval vessels or fuel dumps. Russian counter-fire is made problematic not only by obvious political repercussions, but also by the complex urban terrain around likely firing points and the risk of civilian casualties by any response. If Russia did undertake military action that resulted in civilian casualties, large scale civil unrest including protests would create an immediate security dilemma and damage Russia’s reputation even further. Despite these risks which makes Russian military action unlikely, its display of force is probably designed to dissuade the FSA and the West from any military action that is contrary to Russian interests in the port.
The presence of Russian warships, including the flagship of the Russian Navy, the Admiral Kuznetsov (pictured left) and transport ships capable of carrying up to 300 naval marines also provides some specific options for Russia. First it would be necessary to secure the port in the event of a non-permissive evacuation of Russian citizens, military personnel and equipment. Some equipment may be expensive, or include sensitive communications and intelligence infrastructure, and Russia would want to secure those prior to damage or loss. Second the augmentation of military personnel at Tartus may facilitate the evacuation of Syrian leadership in the event a defeated Assad is provided refuge by Russia. If the FSA is ultimately successful, by no means assured, a military bridgehead provides immediate protection to Russian interests in the event of a breakdown in law and order whilst also serving as a bargaining chip to retain an ongoing presence in Tartus.
Nordic Intel Analysis
A deliberate and coordinated attack on the Russian naval base in Tartus by the FSA, or any other opposition group, is unlikely due to the following:
- Russian military forces, including naval marines and probably special forces already in location, supported by combined naval and air power currently off the coast of Syria, would repel any attack on its facilities, causing significant casualties on any attacker and possibly civilians, given the complex urban terrain surrounding the base.
- An attack would give Russia the pretext and mandate to militarily support Assad at levels much more significant than current arms shipments. Whilst this would almost certainly not include personnel conducting tactical operations against rebels, it would probably involve further military aid and economic support.
- Therefore, given the risk of military and civilian casualties, and increased Russian support to Assad, the FSA are unlikely to risk a direct attack on Russian personnel for the sake of stopping arms shipments.
Instead, any attack on Russian personnel would more likely result from an uprising within Tartus, or an operation to clear the city during any endgame scenario, that inadvertently involves Russian military forces through mistaken identify, cross-fire or the unsanctioned operations of local armed groups.
In this scenario, Russia will likely defend Tartus in the short-term in order to provide immediate protection to its vessels and onshore facilities, to facilitate evacuation of its personnel and Russian nationals and to save face. Russia could repel an uncoordinated rebel attack, through its air and naval firepower currently in location and its well-trained and equipped naval marines and special forces which outmatch even a numerically superior rebel force.
In the unlikely event local groups conduct a sustained and deliberate operation against the Russian naval facility the situation becomes much more difficult for Russia. The installation is easily isolated, vulnerable to indirect fire and Russian forces would sustain casualties to sniper fire and improvised explosive devices if they attempted to expand their security perimeter to obtain some form of defensible depth. Unless Russia’s political will extends to militarily intervening in Syria, an extended rebel operation against its facility in Tartus would force it to withdrawal from the port, mostly due to the vulnerability of its vessels, buildings and personnel given the lack of depth and the proximity of complex terrain that would create unsustainable damage and casualties.
Regardless of whether Russia will become militarily involved in Syria, Russia has manoeuvered itself into a very difficult position. It clearly supports the Assad regime, due to long-standing ties with the country and Russian economic interests in Syria including oil and arms. Furthermore, Syria is Russia’s only remaining ally to achieve influence in the Middle East, and its naval presence in Tartus supports its wider strategy for countering the US and NATO, including ballistic missile defence. Russian tactics to delay or undermine international military intervention or tougher sanctions against Syria, and its continued arms shipments, are part of its strategy to support Assad, however, may not be enough to prevent his eventual downfall. Noting the likelihood of Assad’s removal is beyond the scope of this article (request a product if you would like further analysis), Russia has potentially backed the losing side in this conflict, to whom it provides little tangible military support, whilst damaging its reputation in the international community and making it almost impossible to maintain its base at Tartus if the FSA defeats Assad.