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By John Helmer, Moscow

Calliforida, the common blow-fly, has an exceptional talent – it has the ability to smell a corpse at a distance of up to 16 kilometres. Forensic investigators use the blow-fly’s eggs deposited in the flesh as a measure of how much time has elapsed since death, more reliable than the dead flesh itself.

Syria isn’t in rigor mortis, but the credibility of the international community of its wellwishers is deader than Muammar Qaddafi. The purported no-fly zone which the allies pushed through the United Nations Security Council on March 17 – with help from President Dmitry Medvedev, China, India, Germany and Brazil — was a fake. UK submarines were already in position in the southern Mediterranean with secret orders to fire their Tomahawk missiles at Libya’s air defences and electronic command-and-control systems before the UN resolution was tabled and the votes counted; war had been declared against Libya weeks, if not months earlier.

Regime change of the type the US, UK and French governments have pursued in Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya is far from a demonstrable improvement for the Arabs who have survived it, as can be seen from the snapping point right now in Cairo. Announcements from the former imperial overseers of Syrian territory – Turkey, UK and France – that they aim to oust President Bashar Assad from office imply force, but for the moment that lacks legitimacy.

Technical warmaking without legality is a war crime, expensive, risky. Even for politicians desperate for cheap, Qatari and Saudi-paid wars to help their re-election chances – e.g., Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy – it’s proving much more difficult to mobilize the outrage of down-home voters whose preoccupation now and for the next year is their own economic survival.

Russia’s announcement of a major deployment of naval vessels to Tartus, on Syria’s central coastline, is designed to prevent another attempt at manufacturing cover for an invasion, or lighter warmaking, such as an embargo on arms and ammunition, jamming of military communications, or sabotage. The blow flies this time are being sent in to sniff and snuff out the prospects, before Assad and his men are corpses. The blow-fly zone is a Russian military trip-wire — the first such strategic move outside the borders of the old Soviet Union for more than 20 years.

The squadron on its way comprises the aircraft and missile cruiser,
Admiral Kuznetsov; the anti-submarine destroyer, Admiral Chabanenko;
and the missile-firing frigate Ladny.

It isn’t known whether (but it can be expected that) they will be supported under the Mediterranean by hunter-killer submarines to add uncertainty and nervousness for the British and US submarines around the US surface squadron, already in position in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the days when Greece was governed by Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, the availability of Souda Bay in Crete for supply and armament of the US and NATO fleet would have been in doubt if the target was Syria.

The only Russian military announcements have been modest. “Of course,” according to former chief of the Russian naval staff, Admiral Victor Kravchenko, “the Russian naval forces in the Mediterranean will be incommensurate with those of the US 6th Fleet, which includes one or two aircraft carriers and several escort ships. But today, no one talks about possible military clashes, since an attack on any Russian ship would be regarded as a declaration of war with all the consequences.”

Army General Nikolai Makarov, chief of the general staff, has been quoted by Russian news agencies as saying the deployment of the squadron to Tartus is “unrelated” to the sanctions and threat campaign being mounted against Assad.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned against a one-sided arms embargo intended to foster civil war in Syria. “Groups, including those formed from citizens who penetrated to Syria from other states, have been actively supplied with arms,” he said. “That is why proposals to introduce a ban on any arms supplies to Syria are quite unfair…We know how the arms embargo was applied in Libya. The opposition was receiving arms, with such countries as France and Qatar publicly stating that they have supplied those arms.”

To Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Institute of the Middle East in Moscow, the Russian naval move, with its accompanying electronic warfare and intelligence elements, is a soft deterrent. “Russian policy in the Middle East is not always reacting to that of the USA, 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.”

Western media claims that Russia is doing no more than protect commercial interests in Syria are missing the point. Trade turnover between the two countries is small and dwindling – in 2008 it 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 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 said in August of 2010 that by 2012, the Tartus naval base will be able to accommodate cruisers and aircraft carriers for as long as the Kremlin wants to leave them there.

According to Korotchenko, “to speak plainly, modern shipborne air defenses cannot intercept such missiles.” To speak even more plainly, Syria under Assad isn’t Libya under Qaddafi or Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milosevic.

Among the major Russia-Syria arms contracts already delivered are 36 Panzir-1S air defense missile systems and upgrades of the Syrian Army T-72 tanks. Still to come are 24 MiG-29M/M2 fighters and 8 battalions of Buk M2E air defense systems. This makes Syria the front-line for an inventory of Russia-made weapons on which Russia itself depends for defence. A challenge to these arms in Syria would have been an indirect threat to the Russian defence establishment; now with the Tartus deployment, the threat is direct and strategic.

Boris Dolgov, a senior research scientist at the Center of Arab Studies of the Oriental Studies Institute in Moscow plays down the strategic implications, so long as there is no pushback: “Tartus has long been a Soviet and then a Russian military base. The staff was dramatically reduced, but the Russian navy has recently seen a revival of activity, so in this context you can say that Russia is regaining its former influence in the region. However, in the foreseeable future there won’t be a return to a full-scale Soviet-like military presence, as the world in general, and Russia in particular, have changed, and there has been an improvement of relations between Russia and the West. Russia is more likely to use political mechanisms to pursue its goals rather than those military. We don’t expect a cold war climate to set in.”

So that there can be mistaking what Russia means by the blow-fly zone and the risk of attempting a swat, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin spoke plainly, at his meeting in Paris with French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, on November 18: “You said that France today is not ready for military action in Syria. It is very good. And thanks for that. But we believe that generally [we] do not need to use force in matters of this kind. The situation is not simple, including in this country [France]. We are ready to work with the international community and will do it. But the call [is] for restraint and caution. This will be, so I imagine, our [common] position on this issue. But in any case we are not going to shy away from cooperating. [We will not] ignore the opinion of our partners. We will work together.”

As for the outgoing president, Dmitry Medvedev, there has been a message for the interventionist powers to stick to human rights, not military intervention. In August, before Qaddafi’s death, Medvedev said: “In Syria, the situation there is, unfortunately, quite dramatic. Qaddafi at one time gave strict instructions to destroy the opposition. The current President of Syria gave no such instructions. Unfortunately, there are people dying in large numbers. This is our great concern.”

In September Medvedev said: “We are ready to support a variety of approaches, but they should not be based on one-sided condemnation of the actions of the government and President Bashar al-Assad. Not everyone who cries out in this country anti-government slogans genuinely supports democracy like the one that exists in Europe. Among them there are different people, including extremists. Some may even call them terrorists.”

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