The Russian defense ministry has dispatched a group of ships to the Mediterranean. Among their destinations is the Syrian port of Tartus. The vessels include at least three amphibious landing craft, capable of transporting armored vehicles and dozens of marines. If the force actually reaches Syria, it will represent a significant increase in Moscow's involvement there beyond delivering arms (whether new or refurbished) to the beleaguered Assad regime. The Kremlin clearly wants America and others to understand that maintaining its presence in Tartus is a very high priority for Moscow. But far from ensuring continued Russian influence in Syria and the region, this move may serve to undermine it instead.
It is not hard to understand why Moscow would want to retain this port, which its navy has been using since 1971. Russia cannot rapidly deploy its Black Sea fleet into the Mediterranean and beyond because of international agreements that limit the number and timing of naval vessels transiting the bottleneck of the Turkish Straits. Russia's other main ports -- in the Baltic, the Arctic Sea, and the Pacific -- are far away. Thus, for Moscow to be able to rapidly bring to bear its forces in the eastern Mediterranean and vicinity, it must be able to maintain a naval presence outside of the Black Sea. And to do that, it needs access to port facilities. Tartus is currently the only naval base that Russia has outside of the former Soviet Union. (Russia has reportedly taken steps to acquire naval access to Venezuela, but it is not clear whether Moscow can actually sustain one so far away from its own shores.) Hence the vital importance of Tartus to Moscow.
Had the Russian government been more evenhanded about the uprising against the Assad regime that broke out in early 2011, it might have had at least a chance of persuading a successor Syrian government to let it retain access to Tartus. A Syrian National Council official who participated in talks with the Russian government said that the SNC made this offer to Moscow last year. But because the Kremlin has so firmly backed the Assad regime in the latter's efforts to crush its opponents, it is highly likely that the regime coming to power after the downfall of Assad will expel the Russians from Tartus. While Moscow certainly has other motives for continuing to back Assad, one of the most important is the need to secure access to Tartus.
In conversation, Russian international affairs specialists say that they see Washington's objections to Russian support for the Assad regime as yet another example of the U.S. applying one standard to Russia and another to itself. While the U.S. acquiesced to (or more actively worked for) the downfall of longstanding authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, Russian observers note that Washington did nothing to prevent Saudi forces from crushing the Shia majority opposition movement calling for the reform (and not the downfall) of the Sunni minority regime in Bahrain, where the U.S. 5th Fleet is based.
Moscow, of course, saw tacit American support for the crushing of the democratic opposition movement in Bahrain as motivated by Washington's desire to retain its naval base there. Nor did Moscow object to this. Washington, then, should reciprocate by not objecting to Russian support (which Moscow claims is limited) for the crushing of the Syrian opposition movement (which Moscow insists is less than democratic) so that Russia can retain its naval base in Syria. The fact that Washington isn't doing this suggests to Moscow that while the U.S. seeks to preserve its naval presence in the Middle East, it also seeks to eliminate Russia's.
Whether Moscow accurately understands American intentions is a matter of debate. Of more immediate importance to Western and Middle Eastern observers is the question of what Moscow might hope to achieve by deploying Russian marines to Tartus. Last month, when sources in the Russian navy told the Russian Interfax news service that a deployment to the Eastern Mediterannean might be in the offing, the aim of the mission was to protect Russians in Syria and, if necessary, to remove equipment from the port. Moscow might also hope that deploying its marines there will bolster the Assad regime's efforts to crush its opponents or preserve Russian access to Tartus if these efforts fail.
Whether Moscow can achieve these broader goals, though, is highly uncertain. If the Assad regime falls, the presence of a few hundred marines will not enable Moscow to retain access to Tartus if the new Syrian regime insists that the Russians leave. It is far more likely, of course, that the Assad regime will remain in power -- at least in the near term. But this could result in a problem for Moscow that is also far more likely to occur.
Even if the Kremlin's deployment of marines to Tartus has the limited aim of protecting Russian citizens and evacuating Russian equipment, Syrian opposition groups are likely to see this as a sign of increasing Russian support for the Assad regime's efforts to crush them. It would not be surprising, then, if they responded by attacking these marines as well as other Russian personnel in Syria. Such a move would certainly be popular in Syria and the Arab world as a whole, where there is growing resentment toward Russia over its support to the Assad regime. If the Syrian opposition were more unified, its leadership might well conclude that it has an interest in good working relations with Moscow should it achieve power, and thus would not condone such attacks. But given that Syrian opposition forces are divided and that the power struggle among them may well increase if the Assad regime falls (or appears likely to fall), one or more of these groups may well see attacking Russian forces in Syria as an excellent means of bolstering their popularity and legitimacy vis-à-vis the others.
Such an outcome is far from certain. But if Russian personnel in Tartus are attacked, Moscow will face a dilemma. Does it respond by withdrawing the marines, and thus risk not only appearing weak but also undermining the Assad regime by demonstrating how limited Russian support for it is? Or does Moscow respond by sending even more forces to protect the ones already there, and thus risk providing the Syrian opposition with even more targets as well as getting Russian forces bogged down in Syria? Either choice could prove extremely damaging to Putin's standing both internationally and domestically.
If Syrian opposition forces wanted to attack Russian targets in Syria, they would not need to wait for the arrival of these marines in Tartus. There are plenty of Russians present in Syria even now -- including those already at the naval base. Up to now, though, the Syrian opposition has not focused on them. However, the arrival of armed Russian marines -- who can, and will, be portrayed as there to help Assad continue to oppress the Syrian people -- may well prove too tempting a target for the Syrian opposition to resist. If so, Putin's decision to send them to Tartus may not serve to protect Russian naval access to this port as he undoubtedly intends. It could, instead, end up creating more problems for Moscow in Syria than he can afford.