Why Russia evacuated its naval base in Syria

Now that Russian ships can stop in Cyprus, having personnel in Syria isn't worth the risk.

Pavlos Vrionides/AP/File
In this May 17, 2013 file photo, Russian sailors are seen aboard the Admiral Panteleyev Russian war ship moored at the Cypriot port of Limassol. Russia’s Defense Ministry said Thursday it had replaced all its military personnel with civilian workers at the naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, the only such outpost Russia has outside the former Soviet Union.

In a surprise move, Russia has pulled all its military and nondiplomatic civilian personnel out of Syria. That includes a complete evacuation of the naval supply station in the Mediterranean port of Tartus, which is often discussed as one of Russia's key reasons for its long and stubborn support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. 

"We have neither servicemen nor civilians in Syria anymore. Or Russian military instructors assigned to units of the Syrian regular Army, for that matter," a Russian defense ministry spokesperson is quoted as telling the Moscow business daily Vedomosti yesterday. 

The Tartus naval supply station, Russia's only military base outside the former USSR, has been effectively closed, Russian deputy foreign minister and special Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov confirmed in an interview with a Turkish newspaper. He insisted that the base, which housed about 70 fulltime military technicians to service visiting Russian warships, was of no strategic importance to Russia. 

"It's just a technical facility for maintaining ships sailing in the Mediterranean," he said. 

That answer seems a trifle inadequate. The obvious question is: Why abandon Tartus now, given that the Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean has never been so large

Earlier this month Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia will maintain a permanent naval flotilla in the region for the first time since the collapse of the USSR more than 20 years ago. "This is a strategically important region and we have tasks to carry out there to provide for the national security of the Russian Federation," he said. 

The Russian Navy has been holding almost nonstop maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean for more than a year, and currently has a 16-warship task force in the area. 

"The first and likeliest reason for the closure is that Russia doesn't want to risk the lives of 70 military personnel stationed at Tartus," says Vladimir Sotnikov, expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. 

"Now that the battlefield initiative in Syria's civil war is in the hands of the Assad regime, Russia might fear some [rebel] provocations against our people. Another possible reason may be to help promote the Geneva-2 talks. We have information that Russia, the United Nations and the US have agreed to a format for the talks. So, perhaps Russia wants to dispel impression that its position is based on some desire to hold on to this station," Mr. Sotnikov says. 

"In any case, Russian ships have the opportunity to go to Cyprus for supplies and maintenance, and it's safer for them to do so right now," he adds. 

Russia has also been steadily evacuating the estimated 30,000 Russian citizens living in Syria since early this year, and yesterday the Ministry of Emergency Services reported that it had extracted another 130 Russians from Latakia in northwest Syria and flown them back to Russia. 

Other Russian analysts agree that, whatever the reasons for Russia's personnel pullout, it probably doesn't signal any change of the hard, pro-Assad position that Mr. Putin most recently reiterated at last week's G8 summit in Northern Ireland. 

"Russia's position hasn't changed. In fact it's getting tougher," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant. 

"The reasons behind this evacuation probably come down to security. That base's importance has been greatly overrated in Western reporting. It just isn't that big a deal. So, I guess the thinking is, why risk some major incident that the rebels might stage by attacking Russians at this sensitive moment when all the hopes are pinned on a new Geneva peace conference?" 

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