By John Helmer, Moscow
In the Kremlin corridors under the new management, it is generally acknowledged that one of the stupidest things former President Dmitry Medvedev ever did was to order Russia’s representative on the UN Security Council to abstain from the vote and veto of the no-fly zone resolution aimed at the Muammar Qaddafi regime in Libya. That was on March 17, 2010. The Russian intelligence services already knew that US and British submarines were in place under the surface of the Mediterranean, ready to fire missiles to start a war that was intended to end in Qaddafi’s death. It did.
A year later in 2011, when the campaign for Russia’s parliamentary elections and the presidential succession was under way, that abstention almost ended in the death of Medvedev’s chances to stay under President Vladimir Putin’s protection. He didn’t get the nod for a second term as president, but as prime minister he has survived in more lively shape than Qaddafi. However, Russian officials are now unanimous that the ill-fated effort by a Russian leader to allow a war of military intervention and regime change by the US and the NATO alliance, funded by the Arab sheikhdoms, would never be repeated. No matter what Syria’s president Bashar Assad does, Russian policy is not so much to protect him, his family, the Alawite community, or his army, as to prevent rival European and Arab powers, plus Turkey, from overthrowing the Syrian regime under camouflage of a humanitarian crusade.
Accordingly, Russian sand-bagging is protecting the maritime traffic moving civil and military cargoes into the Syrian ports. But at the Ministry of Transport in Moscow, as well as among sources in the Black and Azov Sea ports loading vessels bound for Syria, there is reluctance to discuss the shipping movements, as well as refusal publicly to acknowledge efforts by the Turks and the Syrian opposition to intercept the Russian cargoes at sea.
The case of the Atlantic Cruiser indicates how closely the Turks are working with western intelligence agencies to harass Syria-bound ship movements. The German owned, Antigua-flagged vessel was reported as having been intercepted on April 18 by Turkish Navy vessels off the port of Iskenderun, possibly in Cypriot, Syrian or international waters.It was then escorted into Iskenderun, where the cargo hatches were opened and inspected. The publicity that followed claimed Syrian opposition groups had detected Iranian arms being loaded aboard the Atlantic Cruiser in Djibouti. This remarkable piece of detection was not substantiated by the Turkish inspectors. Instead, according to the Saudi andTurkish press reports, they found general cargo, including explosives consigned to Turkish coal-mining companies, and Indian-made parts for a Syrian electricity plant.
To Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the academic Institute of the Middle East in Moscow, Kremlin strategy is not knee-jerk reaction. “Russian policy in the Middle East is not always reacting to that of the US, while Syria does not necessarily face an American threat. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are more likely to intervene. However, despite all the difficulty of Bashar Assad’s relationship with the people of Syria, everyone should just leave it as it is, for the safety of the whole region. Israel is really skeptical of Assad, but it doesn’t want to destabilize the situation by toppling his government, as it realizes the possible outcome. Nobody wants another Al-Qaeda-like outrage. Russia should not perform any military activities there, unlike the USSR, which wasted dozens of billions of dollars and still had to withdraw. It’s good that today’s Russia, run by businessmen, is clear of ideology, and it is pragmatic about its expenditures.”
The latest Russian Customs data on Moscow’s trade with Damascus indicate that the biggest Russian exports are diesel, gas oil, and other petroleum products, followed by grain. Most of these cargoes are loaded at Novorossiysk or Tuapse ports on the Black Sea. A source at Tuapse told Fairplay: “if there are any restrictions, they are not in the port.”
US and European Union sanctions now prevent Syria from buying fuel from many of the neighbouring states for domestic heating and for operating motorized military equipment. That still leaves Russia, Iraq and Iran to supply Syria with what it needs. Western media claims that Russia is doing no more than protecting commercial interests in Syria are missing the point. Trade turnover between the two countries is small, and was dwindling before the recent troubles began. In 2008 Russia’s two-way turnover amounted to $1.94 billion; in 2009, $1.14 billion; in 2010, $1.12 billion. In order of magnitude, exporters to Syria start with Saudi Arabia, with 12% of the market; China with 9%; Russia with 7.5%; and Italy, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates with around 5% each. But these numbers don’t include the arms and defence trade.
During the Soviet period, Syria ran up a debt to Moscow for arms of more than $13 billion. In 2005, $10 billion of that was written off on condition Damascus kept buying new arms from Moscow. The current arms order-book is generally reported as worth about $3.5 billion. With enemies of long standing on each one of Syria’s land borders, it is perfectly obvious that Syria must now depend on the sea for its lifeline. It is obvious too that the Kremlin intends to remind everyone that it should stay open.
Promised deliveries from Russia include the Bastion coastal missile system equipped with the Yakhont supersonic cruise missile for attacking ships as large as aircraft carriers. The range of the Yakhont is 300 kilometres.
According to a presentation a year ago by Igor Korotchenko, editor of National Defense magazine in Moscow, one of the operational purposes of the Bastion system is to protect the Russian Navy squadron at Tartus, the base itself, and the coastline 300 kilometres to north and south – that’s the entire Syrian waterfront. Russia’s naval commander Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky said in August of 2010 that by this year the Tartus naval base will be able to accommodate cruisers and aircraft carriers for as long as the Kremlin wants to deploy them there. According to Korotchenko, “to speak plainly, modern shipborne air defenses cannot intercept such missiles.”
The Russian Association of Shipowners declines to comment on what they know of interference by the Turks or others with Russian cargoes bound for Syria. Novorossiysk Commercial Seaport Company also prefers to stay mum.
Georgy Polyakov, spokesman for the Russian-Syrian Business Council, told Fairplay: “taking into account the current situation in Syria, more detailed information on the bilateral Russian-Syrian relations should be given by the Ministry of Economic Development of Russia, as the responsible agency.”" The ministry refuses to respond to questions.
Satanovsky, the leading academic expert on Syria in Moscow, calls the situation in the country “senseless. Russian-Syrian relations are the prerogative of the Russian leadership. Any pressure [on them] is perceived as interference in internal affairs. Russia is resisting very hard. All this is at the level of conversations and press reports, to which the Russian side pays no attention. But that’s like the bear who pays no attention to the hamster trying to attack him, unless he bites the bear’s sensitive parts. Remember what happened to [Georgian president Mikheil] Saakashvili.”