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Russia flexes muscle in Syrian waters

The docking of Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s aircraft carrier, at the Syrian port of Tartus is a pivotal moment both for Russian geostrategy in the post-Cold War era as well as for the great game in Syria. The aircraft carrier is accompanied by four other ships including a destroyer and a frigate. Damascus promptly described the Russian move as a “show of solidarity with the Syrian people.” A Russian official affirmed that “The port call is aimed at bringing the two countries closer together and strengthening their ties of friendship.” 

The geopolitical significance can be seen from the the prominent Iranian and Chinese media coverage.The government-owned China Daily  reported that Syrian defence minister Dawoud Rajha visited Kuznetsov. Debka, the Israeli intelligence’s media outfit, added that Russians laid out a full guard of honour of marines for Rajha under a flyover of Russian Su-33 and Su-25 fighter bombers. Debka noted, “This was taken as a signal of Moscow’s willingness to back the Assad regime up against any Western military intervention as well as a gesture of support for cooperation between Syria and Iran in their operational plans.” 
China Daily was a bit cautious, though, noting that “The [Russian] move is seen by many observers as an apparent show of of support” for Assad. The quintessence could be lying somewhere between the Israeli and Chinese comments. 
Surely, Russia is not preparing for a war with the west over Syria. But Russia can frustrate to a great extent the western plans of intervention in Syria and make it politically very costly — and militarily, more dangerous. Meanwhile, the Russian-Chinese common stance in the UN Security Council is helping Russian diplomacy. 
Moscow’s intention is to systematically dampen the west’s enthusiasm for a Libya-type intervention in Syria, while on a parallel diplomatic track it works to ensure that a political dialogue somehow gets started in Syria despite the west’s robust efforts to prevent the Syrian opposition from entering into a dialogue. 
Of course, it is too much to expect the Arab League mission to facilitate a dialogue anytime soon since the regional body comes heavily under the influence of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are moving in tandem with the west with regard to harnessing the Arab Spring. Nonetheless, Russia keeps pecking at it and would ideally like to see a genuine Arab League initiative gaining traction
The Syrian opposition is far from united and there is a substantial body of opinion which disfavours any outside intervention. The western media propaganda obfuscates the ground reality that the regime in Damascus is not a pushover or that the country is up in arms against it.  
But the clincher for the present could be that Turkish politics has become extremely volatile and Ankara needs to play a lead role in any western intervention in Syria. The morale of the Turkish armed forces is at a low point with the unprecedented arrest of a former chief of general staff Ilker Basbug last weekend on charges of attempting to overthrow the elected government. 
The historic schism between Islamism and Kemalism also surges into view and Turkey’s own democratic credentials are coming into question, with Islamists pitted as anti-democratic “revanchists”. The fallout of ethnic, sectarian strife in Syria can be quite serious for Turkey, too, which has a substantial Alevi community. Turkey’s Shi’ites claim to form a quarter of the country’s population. 
Indeed, Turkey will also closely weigh the crisis brewing in Iraq, which has grave implications for its security. Over and above, Turkey is obsessed with its own Kurdish problem, which has a Syrian (and Iranian and Iraqi) chapter, too. 
All these elements are playing into the Syrian cauldron. The focus of the mission by the US deputy secretary of state William Burns to Ankara on Monday appears to have been on Iran rather than Syria.Burns surely tapped into the talks last week by the Turkish FM Ahmet Davitoglu in Tehran with the Iranian leadership. 
Thus, on the whole, Kuznetsov docked at Tartus in a climate of easing tensions over Syria. Without doubt, a regime change in Syria and the loss of the Soviet-era naval base of Tartus will seriously debilitate Russia’s role as a mediterranean power. For China, too, it amounts to an exclusion from yet another part of the Middle East. For Iran, it would be a catastrophe. 

Posted in Diplomacy, Military, Politics.

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