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Monday, June 05, 2006

Russian Military Denies Seeking Mediterranean Naval Base in Syria

AFP: Russian military officials June 2 denied a report that Moscow hopes to create a permanent naval base in Syria that would give it a Mediterranean outpost and represent a major shift in the regional security balance.

Russia has begun work on deepening the Syrian port of Tartus and is also widening a channel in another Syrian port, Latakia, the Kommersant newspaper said, citing an official at Russia’s embassy in Damascus, Vladimir Zimin.

The newspaper noted that Russia is seeking alternative accommodation for the Black Sea fleet, based in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, as it may have to vacate that base when its lease expires in 2017.

”As an official at Russian naval headquarters explained, the creation in Tartus of a fully fledged naval base should help Russia redeploy the naval and supply ships leaving Sevastopol,” Kommersant said.

A base in Syria would be in addition to its expanding Black Sea military port at Novorossysk.

Tartus has hosted a supply point for the Soviet and then the Russian navies since the 1970s, the newspaper noted.

”This can’t be considered information — this is complete nonsense,” said an unnamed admiral quoted by the ITAR-TASS news agency.

”The Russian government hasn’t had and doesn’t have any plans to move the Black Sea fleet from Ukraine. Our fleet is staying in Crimea at least until 2017,” he said.

The agency quoted a “senior defense ministry” official as also denying the report: “One would have to be crazy to leave Ukraine before 2017. So why then sign an agreement?”

According to Kommersant, “For the first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia will create its own military base outside former Soviet borders, which will allow Moscow to conduct its own political game in the Middle East.”

The new Russian naval base in Syria would be protected by a long-range Russian air defense system, the S-300PMU-2 Favorit, staffed by Russian personnel, the newspaper said, citing an unnamed defense ministry official.

The system could also protect a significant portion of Syria, the paper said.

The newspaper said that a permanent base would help in Russian naval cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Russian ships are currently undergoing training to join a NATO counter-terrorism operation in the Mediterranean, Active Endeavour.

But a permanent naval base would also change “the disposition of forces in the region,” the paper noted.

”It means Russia henceforth taking the Syrian regime into its care and protection,” Kommersant said.

”Moscow’s stake in Damascus would definitely damage relations between Russia and Israel and could persuade the Iranian regime to be even less compliant in talks on the Iranian nuclear program,” the paper said.
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