Russia, Iran Use Navies to Bolster Syria
Backing for the Assad regime in strife-torn Syria hinges on a centuries-old Russian ambition. From the Crimean War to “the great game” of the 1800s, the lack of a deep, warm-water port has cramped Russia’s global desires.
Syria, a Cold War ally of the Soviet Union, has provided a solution, by offering its eastern Mediterranean ports of Lafakia and Tartus for Russian naval visits and logistics supplies. A few years ago, this offer turned into virtual control by the Russian navy, which built full-scale naval facilities to create a strategic asset in the eastern Mediterranean.
The importance of Tartus may not be as great as it was during Soviet times, but unfettered access to the high seas remains a goal of Russian strategy. Most of Russia’s main naval ports—Severomorsk and Murmansk on the Barents Sea, and Vladivostok on the Pacific—are ice-locked some of the year. The Black Sea base at Sevastopol is locked by the Bosphorous, controlled by NATO member Turkey, and Russia’s lease expires in 2017.
That’s why Tartus, which has already started supporting Moscow’s growing Mediterranean fleet, is worth defending for the Kremlin. To bolster its strategic interest, and at the same time signal support to embattled Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Russia launched its aircraft carrier group, led by the Admiral Kuznetsov, to anchor off Tartus.