Turkey, US seek countering Russian naval dominance in east Med

Source: Sunday’s Zaman

“Seems like we are heading towards the largest concentration of Russian navy ships in the eastern Mediterranean in decades. Purpose?” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt asked in his Twitter feed last Friday as a sign of growing concern among Western diplomats over Russian naval dominance in Turkey’s southern neighborhood.

The amassing of Russian navy ships in the eastern Mediterranean might not be Moscow’s newly found intention, but as the hostilities in Syria roll unabated, the crisis there provides Russia with a more diverse array of options to maintain its influence in the eastern Mediterranean.

Sixteen months into an uprising that has grown increasingly chaotic over the course of this year, the possibility of a political solution to the crisis in the offing seems more grim than ever. In the background of the ongoing drama in this key Middle Eastern country, looms the shadow of escalating naval tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, which has been relatively calm in recent decades.

As was the case in Libya, major powers could have orchestrated a certain kind of military intervention to topple Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad, but Russia’s insistence that the Western countries should view the Syrian crisis as a domestic affair, and with a neutral look, prolonged the stalemate in the conflict. The West and its Turkish and Arab allies are demanding concessions from Russia on its position in Syria, concessions which Moscow finds far too lopsided.

Russia and China wielded their third veto on Thursday on a Syria resolution which Russia fears could be interpreted as an authorization for military action. Moscow wants to hold on to political negotiations and is groping for ways to keep the dialogue on Syria alive. In the meantime, it is strengthening its naval power in the region.

And without a quick solution, the Syrian crisis could boil over into a naval face-off that could destabilize the Middle East and pose a potential security threat for Turkey.

Syria’s Tartous port is home to Russia’s small naval maintenance and repair facility and Moscow would be loath to lose its only military base outside the former Soviet Union countries.

A collapse of Assad’s friendly government would be a potentially stinging blow to Moscow, which is already seeking ways to rescue its only Middle Eastern naval foothold. The Syrian opposition failed to urge Moscow to alter its position on Syria in exchange for maintaining good relations with Syria’s chief arms supplier in the post-Assad period. That failure, coupled with increasing calls by various sides to intervene in Syria, pushed Moscow to deploy nearly a dozen warships into the eastern Mediterranean.

Ruslan Aliev, a defense expert at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), which is a Moscow-based defense think-tank, downplayed the possible naval confrontation in the region and said it is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future, but he said he believes Russian strategy in the eastern Mediterranean seems to be very contradictory.

Russia dispatched a destroyer-class warship to Syria last Tuesday, while four more Russian ships were en route to the country. The other ships include three landing ships and an anti-submarine destroyer from Russia’s Northern fleet, all are headed for Tartous. Late last year, Russia also sent a flotilla of warships to waters off Syria including the flagship aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov.

In a sign of the complicated nature of Russia’s naval policies, Aliev said the main idea of the Russian approach towards the naval aspects of what is happening around Syria “is not clear to me.”

With all of these ships in the area, Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the US Naval War College, said it will be critical to ensure open lines of communication between the various military establishments. Russia in particular he said needs to be very transparent about its actions and intentions, in order to decrease the possibility of an accidental encounter.

Assessing American capability to set off the balance against the Russian naval dominance in Turkey’s neighborhood, Gvosdev said the US certainly has enough capability to deal with any contingency, but at a time when attention is focusing on the planned “pivot to Asia”–and particularly in coping with the problems of the East and South China Seas, Washington would prefer that the Eastern Mediterranean not become a new source of conflict.

To show its defiance, Syria’s navy conducted a military exercise aimed at demonstrating its ability to “defend Syria’s shores against any possible aggression” according to the state media. Earlier this week, the Pentagon said it is sending two warships to the eastern Mediterranean earlier than it planned. Earlier this month the Turkish, Israeli and British navies conducted three separate military war games in the south of Cyprus. In addition, NATO Maritime Group 2, with Turkish, French and German frigates, conducted another military drill in the eastern Mediterranean.

This week, large American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln docked at Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Antalya.

The American and Turkish naval presence is increasing in the eastern Mediterranean but if Russia’s naval supremacy prevails in the region, it will signal a fundamental eclipse of American and Turkish influence in areas that are so vital in terms of energy.

For stability in its neighborhood, Turkey must make sure that no single country dominates in the eastern Mediterranean. The head of the Middle East consultancy firm Maplecroft, Anthony Skinner, said Turkey wants to ensure that it is not undermined and to project itself as a formidable regional power while dismissing the fact that the situation in Syria is likely to result in a face-off between major powers.

But in the case of Syria, he added, Ankara has enough reasons not to deploy militarily. These include concerns over potential mission creep, concerns over the financial, human and military cost of deployment, and concerns over Arab memories of the Ottoman Empire.

An increasingly militarized landscape in the eastern Mediterranean remains both a source of possible military confrontation and a cause of concern. Russian dominance in the region adds an element of danger to the situation but an American and Turkish counter-balance could maintain short-term stability, but it will, no doubt, almost make it virtually impossible to conduct military operation in Syria.

Gvosdev said he doesn’t foresee a deliberate clash between the major powers in the eastern Mediterranean, but there should be concerns about the possibility of an accidental clash that then spirals out of control.

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