Russian warships: Why are they sailing toward Syria?

Russian warships – at least three of them – are on their way to the eastern Mediterranean waters off Syria. A Russian official says they are a means for Russian civilians to escape Syria in the event of US airstrikes. But the ships can do oh so much more.

A sailor looks at the Russian missile cruiser Moskva moored in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol, May 10, 2013. Russia is sending two warships to the eastern Mediterranean waters off Syria.

Russian warships are gathering in the waters off Syria. According to AFP, three ships from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet sailed through Turkey’s Bosphorus Strait on Thursday: the SSV-201 intelligence-gathering ship Priazovye, and the landing ships Minsk and Novocherkassk.

More might be on the way. A frigate and another landing ship are ready to head to the eastern Mediterranean from the Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol, according to CBS News.

Why is Moscow ordering so much sea power to the region?

The Kremlin’s chief of staff says it’s to evacuate Russians from Syria if a looming US air attack makes that necessary. The presence of the ships is to “primarily” provide a means for Russian civilians to escape, Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said Thursday.

Notice the word “primarily.” It’s almost certain that the ships are also supposed to keep an eye on the five US Arleigh Burke-class destroyers cruising off Syrian shores.

As the Institute for the Study of War notes on its Syria blog, the Priazovye carries both active (radar) and passive (sonar) sensors that would enable it to possibly determine the location of the US ships.

The Russian spy ship and its supporting cast could easily detect any US cruise missile launch if they’re in the general area of the American destroyers. Tomahawk cruise missiles fire vertically out of Navy ships, powered by rockets. Several hundred feet up, their wings unfold, their turbofans ignite, and they turn to cruise toward land.

It’s very unlikely the Russians would do anything to physically interfere with this process. But the presence of a Russian fleet might enable Moscow to give Syria’s Bashar al-Assad a few minutes' warning of an imminent attack.

US and Russian warships are not the only military assets now gathering in the region.

American and allied aircraft are assembling at bases near – or on the way to – Syria, as well. US cargo aircraft are flying into Incirlik in southern Turkey, according to the plane-tracking blog "The Aviationist."

France has moved two Atlantique reconnaissance and signal intelligence aircraft to a base on Cyprus. In late August, a US WC-135C atmospheric collection aircraft was spotted flying east south of Great Britain. Generally considered a radiation monitoring asset, the WC-135C might be able to detect release of chemical weapons.

Given the delay as the US Congress debates whether to authorize limited Syrian action, the Pentagon has been refining its target set. Bombers as well as cruise missiles may now be needed to carry out US plans.

If that’s so, tanker aircraft will also have to preposition along attack routes. A B-2 stealth bomber would require five refuelings to reach Syria from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.

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