NATO and Russia now face-off in Syrian waters
There are currently eight Russian warships massed off of Syria confronting seven NATO ships, according to Turkish military sources. In a written response to the Hürriyet Daily News, Turkish General Staff sources gave a breakdown of the types of ship in the face-off.
Three of the Russian ships are major landing ships also used to supply arms and military support to the Russian presence in Syria through the Russian naval base in Tartus, a Mediterranean coastal town. There is also one cruiser (not confirmed by Turkish sources, but reportedly Russian missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet), one coast patrol ship, two logistical support ships, and a tanker.
On the NATO side, the Turkish navy has the largest presence with four warships near the Syrian coast, two corvettes, one patrol ship and one submarine. That is followed by the U.S. navy with a missile cruiser and a tanker, and there is also one French frigate.
The numbers might change on a daily basis as the military buildup in and around Syria changes, but the numbers indicate that the ongoing confrontation between the Russian military and Western defense organization NATO is not limited to the air.
The 26 cruise missiles reportedly launched from four Russian warships in the Caspian Sea on Oct. 7 against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Syria has opened a new dimension of the four-year-old Syrian civil war. The Caspian example showed that in order to understand what Russia is prepared to do in support of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, it is not enough to consider only the military massing around Syria. Russian capabilities go beyond that and President Vladimir Putin is not easily going to paddle back from his support to al-Assad.
The capabilities of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL were already enhanced when Turkey agreed to open up its strategic İncirlik air base to coalition flights and fully committed itself to the campaign. Now there are U.S. (and French, despite not officially being confirmed yet) war planes, in addition to Turkish ones, operating from İncirlık against ISIL. Last week, Turkey also opened its Diyarbakır base in southeastern Anatolia to U.S. aircraft for search and rescue operations.
Russian planes then started to arrive in Syria mostly using Caspian Sea-Iran-Iraq airspace route (like the cruise missiles) in order to reinforce Syrian air defense, which is already based on Russian planes, radars and missile systems. In an accelerated effort, the Latakia air base near the Russian naval base in Tartus has been expanded to host a total of (at least) 34 planes: Su-30s, Su-24s, Su25s and Su-34s, from interceptors and bombers to ground support planes.
The ground support from outside for al-Assad mainly comes from Iran. The commander of the military forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, General Qasem Suleimani, has redeployed his headquarters from Baghdad to Damascus, according to international media reports. Hezbollah in Lebanon reportedly has at least 2,500 elite troops fighting in Syria for al-Assad against anti-Assad forces.
Meanwhile there are, of course, two U.K. military bases, Akrotiri and Dikelia, in the Greek sector of Cyprus. EU-member Greek Cyprus also harbors Russian war ships, including ships from the Russian Pacific Fleet, according to a special agreement with Moscow. And there is Israel too, as one of the major air powers in the East Mediterranean and the Middle East. There are reports that six Russian Su-30 fighters intercepted four Israeli F-15s on Oct. 1 while on their way to infiltrate Latakia coastal positions approaching from the Mediterranean Sea.
Reports about Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning (formerly Varyag during Soviet times) joining the Russian navy off Syria have yet to be confirmed by official sources.
Overall, this military buildup in and around Syria is fueling concerns about the growing potential for a larger Russian-NATO confrontation in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Turkey’s southern neighborhood is therefore further heating up, in addition to the Russian-Ukraine crisis to its north.