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Russian Naval Base at Tartus / Tartous

Russian Naval Facility at TartusOn 10 July 2012 it was reported that qarships from three Russian fleets had left their home ports for exercises in the Mediterranean Sea. The ships from the Northern, Baltic, and Black Sea fleets were all to make calls at the Russian naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus. The Soviet-era facility is operated under a 1971 agreement by Russian personnel. Since 1992 the port has been in disrepair, with only one of its three floating piers operational. The Navy maintenance site near Tartus is the only Russian foothold in the Mediterranean. Russian navy commanders have long been calling for the expansion and modernization of the Tartus base. According to the Russian Navy, the naval base in Syria significantly boosts Russia's operational capability in the region because the warships based there are capable of reaching the Red Sea through the Suez Canal and the Atlantic through the Strait of Gibraltar in a matter of days.

The antisubmarine destroyer "Admiral Chabanenko" and three amphibious landing ships left the Barents Sea port of Severomorsk on July 10, while the same day the destroyer "Smetlivy" left the Black Sea Fleet's home port in Sevastopol, Ukraine. The frigate "Yaroslavl Mudry" will also participate in the exercises from the Baltic Fleet. Interfax quoted an unnamed Russian Navy source as saying the deployments were part of the military's readiness program and had no connection with the ongoing crisis in Syria.

A Russian-owned ship reportedly carrying weapons to Syria docked in Tartus despite assurances it would change destination, Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News reported 12 January 2012. “The Turkish navy has learned that the Russian ship MV Chariot docked at the Syrian port today,” the paper said, citing Turkish Foreign Ministry official Selcuk Unal. The cargo ship MV Chariot, flying the St. Vincent and Grenadines flag, was en route from St. Petersburg to the Syrian port of Latakia carrying from 35 to 60 tons of ammunition and explosives meant for the Syrian Defense Ministry.

Russian warships were sent to the military base in Syria in December 2011. The fleet was led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. Included also are a patrol vessel and other vessels. The Russian government announced that from December 2011, a flotilla of warships will be sent to the naval base that it has in Syria. The authorities affirmed that the fleet will be led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and also have a patrol vessel, an anti-submarine ship, and other vessels. "The sending of the Russian ships to Tartus should not be seen as a reaction to what is happening in Syria (...) This was already planned from 2010, when there were no such events existing there. It has not been an active preparation, and there is no need to cancel or postpone it," insisted the spokesman, who explained that the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov also visited Beirut, Genoa and Cyprus. At that time, the Tartus base housed 600 soldiers and technical staff of the Russian Ministry of Defense, and it was being restored so that Russian cruisers and aircraft carriers can dock.

The Russian Navy will expand and modernize its Soviet-era naval maintenance site near Tartus in Syria to support anti-piracy operations off the Somali coast, a high-ranking navy source said 20 July 2009. About 50 naval personnel and three berthing floats were deployed at the Tartus site, which can accommodate up to a dozen warships. Two tug boats from the Black Sea Fleet will deliver a new berthing float to Tartus. Following modernization, the Russian naval maintenance site in Tartus will become fully-operational. The base in Tartus will provide all necessary support for the Russian warships which will be engaged in protecting commercial shipping around the Horn of Africa.

Russia's naval supply and maintenance site near Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus will be modernized to accommodate heavy warships after 2012, the Russian Navy chief said 02 August 2008. "Tartus will be developed as a naval base. The first stage of development and modernization will be completed in 2012," Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky said, adding it could then serve as a base for guided-missile cruisers and even aircraft carriers. According to Navy experts, the facility is being renovated to serve as a foothold for a permanent Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in November 2009 Russia would increase its naval presence in the world's oceans. Moscow announced in 2007 that its Navy had resumed and would build up a constant presence throughout the world's oceans. Once one the world's most powerful forces, the Russian Navy now has few ships regularly deployed on the open seas.

The Russian media went overboard speculating about whether Al-Assad's 2008 visit would further the idea of stationing ships of the Black Sea Fleet in the Syrian port of Tartus. Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that when the fleet has to be repositioned from Crimea to the Russian port of Novorossiysk in 2017, the new location will be too small and some ships may be based in Tartus. The port was already used for logistics support for Russian ships and, the paper reported, piers were being extended to accommodate larger vessels. This would allow Russian ships to "go on combat alert in the Mediterranean, which is seething with American ships." But the Black Sea Fleet's ability to conduct regular patrols of the Mediterranean was limited. Russian intelligence gathering ships used the port. If a larger naval vessel was stationed in Tartus, it would likely be only temporary as the port would need significant modification to become a permanent berth.

Tartus was not only an important base for the Syrian Navy, it also became the primary base for maintaining and replenishing Soviet/Russian submarines in the Mediterranean. Facilities include pier, fuel tanks, some barracks, and an 80,000-ton floating dock. Syria's submarine and two frigates are based there, as are the country's amphibious and mine warfare forces. Also based at Tartus are fast attack craft (missile) and coastal patrol craft.

From the 1960s, the Soviets made military and political gains in most regions of the world. In the Middle East, one of the USSR's top priority areas, the Soviets continued a close relationship with Syria through military weapons transfers. Moscow used Syrian facilities at Tartus and Latakia for reconnaissance flights and conducted several joint naval exercises with the Syrians. The facilities themselves provided only a modest naval maintenance and support facility for the Soviet naval units of the Mediterranean squadron.

Syria's intervention in the Lebanese Civil War against leftist Muslim forces in 1976 led to a strain in Soviet Syrian relations. For more than a year, the Soviets suspended deliveries of military materiel, while Syria retaliated by reducing its Soviet military presence and halting training for its military in the Soviet Union. The Syrian threat in early 1977 to deny facilities at Tartus to Soviet naval ships may have been a demonstration of President Asad's unhappiness over Moscow's heavy—handed tactics during the fighting in Lebanon. He may have wanted to remind the Soviets that Syria is Moscow's only client among the respectable Arab states, and that good relations are important to both sides. Asad, who had cautiously but steadily reduced the Soviet economic presence in Syria over the previous year, may have decided that this was an appropriate time to signal a move against the Soviet military presence as well. Since the Lebanese cease—fire, he had been seeking better relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and these countries had been advising a reduction in the Soviet presence. Unlike the Egyptians, however, the Syrians had never been interested in an open break with Moscow and did not want to jeopardize their military relations with the Soviets.

The coastal city of Tartous and surrounding areas are rich in economic and natural resources, its development is well behind its potential. The area boasts two of Syria's three major ports, is widely known for its agricultural production, and is rich in natural beauty and archaeological sites well-suited for tourism. Nevertheless, much of this potential is stifled by poor urban planning, corruption, and bureaucratic hurdles that hinder investment.

The second most important Syrian seaport on the Mediterranean (90 km to the south of Latakia). It was called Antaradus by the Pheonicians and Tortusa by the Byzantines. Tortusa was to become one of supply ports for theCrusaders and a military base of considerable importance. It was held by the Templars, but recovered by Saladin in 1188. The arches, wall-towers and narrow lanes in Tartus evoke what the town must have been like in medieval times. A jewel of Romanesque art is the cathedral of Tartus, which is now a museum containing relics from various Syrian civilizations.

The city of Tartous is the capital of the Tartous governate, 140 miles northwest of Damascus and just north of Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast. It has a population of 874,000, most of whom are Sunni Muslims, although inhabitants in the neighboring hills are from the Alawite minority. There are also a few thousand Iraqi refugees now in Tartous, with a majority working in shipping and customs clearance. Tartous hosts two of Syria's major ports, as well as the Banyas Refinery and Power Plant and the Tartous Cement Plant. It is also widely known for its agricultural production - including citrus fruits, tobacco leaf, and olives.

Tartous has historically been known as a fairly secular city. There are far fewer women wearing head coverings (the Hijab) than in Damascus and few mosques are near the business district. The regime's presence, however, in everyday life was clearly evident. The Ba'ath party headquarters and other security service buildings appeared to be better maintained than many other buildings in Tartous, and there were numerous depictions of President Asad - although some were likely leftover from the late June 2007 presidential referendum. Compared to other Syrian cities there was also an unusual number of photos and memorabilia of Asad's dead brother, Basel, as well as a large memorial park dedicated in his honor - likely related to Tartous's proximity to the nearby Alawite heartland.

Tartous and the surrounding areas are also rich in archaeological sites, and the natural beauty of the coastline and local flora is obvious even to the untrained eye. Despite its potential attractions, however, Tartous continues to be woefully underdeveloped for the tourism market. While the city's shelves are well-stocked with local produce and there are several internet cafes, there is a clear deficit of decent hotels, cafes, and other tourist facilities. As a result, while the Syrian government has been hyping Tartous as an international tourist destination, most visitors appear to be from local Syrian cities.

In recent years Tartous has attracted investor interest in the tourism sector, but the problems currently facing these projects underscore the long-term challenges for the Syrian tourism industry. In 2003, the Syrian government announced a nearly USD 500 million project to redevelop the Tartous corniche, including the development of hotels, villas, a commercial center, restaurants, and a marina. This large-scale tourism project - one of the first in Syria - is a joint investment between the local municipality and Syrian and British investors. The project was not slated for completion until 2009, but by 2007 was running well behind schedule, with business contacts assigning blame to the myriad of bureaucratic hurdles necessary for new developments in Syria. By early 2007 the project had not yet reached the building phase. Despite the slow pace of the corniche project, investors are continuing to show interest in the area.

In March 2007 Starwood Hotels signed a USD 25 million contract with the Syrian Danial Industries Company to manage a hotel under its "Four Points by Sheraton" brand. Nevertheless, even if this project was completed on time in 2011, there were more extensive problems challenging the development of tourism in Tartous. These include a local public infrastructure ill-suited to international travelers, numerous abandoned and crumbling buildings located on prime coastal real estate, and persistent electricity and water shortages.

The Tartous governate also plays a strategic economic role by hosting two of Syria's three major ports, Tartous and Banyas (the third is located in Lattakia). Syria's ports have reached maximum operating capacity over the past few years - in part due to Syria's increasing role as a major transit point for goods traveling to Iraq.

Tartous Port - the largest Syrian port - is undergoing a major expansion and development project with the help of a US$68 million loan from the European Investment Bank. Banyas Port is mainly linked to the import/export of petroleum and petroleum byproducts. Emboffs observed significant activity at the ports during their visit and noted that many of the trucks leaving the port gates were transporting new foreign automobiles - not surprising given the increasing number of Syrians buying imported cars in the past few years due to relaxed Syrian government import restrictions. In general, business contacts assert that the Syrian government's ability to maximize capacity at the ports, which they believe is not progressing quickly enough to respond to demand, is essential to the Syrian government's interest in positioning itself as a key trade transit point to Iraq and the Gulf. They also note that ongoing corruption both at the ports and the related customs offices is damaging the reputation of Syria's shipping facilities.

The Arab Syrian coast suffers more than other countries from pollution dueto the existence of three oil terminals directly on the coast. They are the Latikiyyah terminal, limited activity; the Banyas terminal, high annual activity; the Tartus terminal, medium activity. These terminals are a major source of pollution for the Arab Syrian Coast. Dangers also lie in accidents that could occur such as pipe explosions or a leak in one of the pipes. Until the damage is repaired, huge quantities of oil could leak into the sea, causing pollution.

The unrealized promise in Tartous highlights the Syrian government's continuing inability to effectively manage its economic and natural resources. As a result, the Syrian government is undermining its self-proclaimed economic goals of stimulating tourism development to help balance declining loss of oil production and positioning Syria as a strategic trade transit point between the West and the rest of the Middle East. The lack of political will to push for necessary economic reforms in the short to mid-term could have serious implications for Syria's ability to compete in the long-term with other countries in the region in both sectors.

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