Once again, Ambrose Bierce was correct: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” In the current instance regarding the Syrian Civil War, hawkish pronouncements may also be a way of inserting a bit of history into the discussion. Those laboring under the simplistic delusion that Vladimir Putin is merely being Petulant Puty on the subject are missing some of the back-story. Syria has a major port. The city of Tartus has been occupied since the 2nd millennium BC, first as the Phoenician colony of Aradus, including Antaradus (modern Tartus.) Crusaders called the place Tortosa, and the Templars constructed their military headquarters there in 1158 including a castle, a keep, and double concentric thick walls. This was insufficient to prevent Saladin from recapturing the city in 1188 and the Templars moved to Cyprus. Russia has a major warm water port at Sevastopol, on the Black Sea.
No alarming amount of map reading skills are required to figure out that for the Russian fleet to move into the Mediterranean they must pass through the Turkish Straits. In order to refuel and maintain ships in the area the Russians established a naval base in Tartus in 1971. This naval installation is part of a very long, very contentious, history of Russian interests in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean.
The Modern History
Follow the sequence of treaties regarding Russian access to warm water ports allowing their warships to reach the Mediterranean:
The London Straits Convention (1841) including Russia, the UK, France, Austria and Prussia declared the Turkish Straits under the domain of the Ottoman Empire and barred warships except those of the sultan during war-time. The British had access to the Mediterranean, the Russians were blocked. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is confined to the Black Sea. This is highly advantageous to the British and the French, and the Russians are essentially blocked from operating freely in the Mediterranean.
The Treaty of Paris (1856) settled the Crimean War between the Russian Empire and a coalition of the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, the 2nd French Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia. The Black Sea became neutral territory, closed to all warships, fortifications and armaments were prohibited on its shores. The Russians were blocked from access to the Mediterranean Sea. The Russians lost territory previously granted at the mouth of the Danube, they were forced to abandon claims of “protecting” the Christians in the Ottoman Empire (in favor of France), and they lost influence in the Romanian principalities and Serbia. The Russians later renounced the treaty. So, the Crimean War gave us Florence Nightingale (the Lady with the Lamp) the Charge of the Light Brigade, and a policy which left the Russians without a warm water port for their warships anywhere near the Mediterranean Sea, and not even in the Black Sea. Little wonder the treaty was renounced, the British and French navies were free to maneuver in the Mediterranean, the Russians were blocked.
World War I: The Russians and Ottoman Empire forces engage in several encounters in the Black Sea, the Russians controlled the Black Sea until the collapse of the Romanov government in late 1917. By the end of World War I there is no Russian Empire, and there is no Ottoman Empire. There is, however, an attempt by the allied powers after World War I to partition the old elements of the Ottoman Empire. Their occupation of Constantinople and Smyrna led to the Turkish nationalist movement under Kemal, and the Turks expelled the occupying forces in September 1922. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne gives Turkey diplomatic recognition as an independent nation. Turkey now controls the Turkish Straits. It will be official in 1936.
The Montreux Convention of 1936 granted the Republic of Turkey control over warships entering the Turkish Straits, but guarantees free passage for civilian vessels in peace time. This is still the controlling convention. Now the Russian fleet will have access to the Mediterranean — IF the Turks agree. The agreement becomes more difficult in the aftermath of World War II and the cold war formation of NATO.
Turkey joins the NATO in 1952, placing the Bosporus Strait in the Western Sphere of Influence. Now, how does the Russian southern fleet get access to the Mediterranean?
The USSR leases a naval supply and maintenance base in Tartus in 1971 staffed by Russian naval personnel. Tartus is the last Russian military base outside the former Soviet Union, and the only Mediterranean fueling spot — meaning that Russian warships can refuel on the trip back to Black Sea bases through the Turkish Straits (NATO territory.)
Why does all this matter on September 2, 2013? It matters because the Russians have been trying to secure warm water ports and access to the Mediterranean since the early 19th century, and to expect them to quietly acquiesce to western demands that they act against those interests is naive at best and foolish at worst. If the repulsive Assad regime is the “partner” who will guarantee Russian access to the Mediterranean, then “you dance with them that brung you.”
The major issue concerning Mediterranean navigation is complicated further by Russian military, armaments, and economic factors:
“First, strategic interests are at stake. In Tartus, Syria hosts the sole remaining Russian naval base on the Mediterranean, currently being refurbished by 600 Russian technicians after long disuse. To have to give up this Middle Eastern beachhead would be a shame, as far as the Russians are concerned.”
Not only would it be a shame, it would be contrary to Russian policy since the early 19th century — a policy of securing and maintaining naval operations in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. If they are now dependent on the cooperation of a NATO member (Turkey) to move the southern fleet through the Turkish Straits, then a port of their own is the obvious option.
Much has been made of Russian commercial and economic interests in Syria, which looks like a client state if viewed through cold war lenses.
Second, although limited, Russia has real commercial interests in Syria. Contracts to sell arms to Damascus — both those signed and under negotiation — total $5 billion. Having lost $13 billion due to international sanctions on Iran and $4.5 billion in canceled contracts to Libya, Russia’s defense industry is already reeling. Besides arms exports, Russian companies have major investments in Syria’s infrastructure, energy and tourism sectors, worth $19.4 billion in 2009.” [UCLA Treisman ]
Before we become too enamored of the “commercial/economic” component to the current controversies between the U.S. and Russia over actions against the Assad regime, those elements are important but the Russian GDP in 2012 was some $2014.80 billion. [TradingEcon] Russian armament deals are important, and $5 billion in arms deals is significant, but they represent .20% of the Russian economy.
The issues are further complicated by geo-political issues which place the Russians at odds with Middle Eastern power players. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the Russians labored to secure warm water ports, access to the Mediterranean, and influence in the Balkans, in tenuous negotiations and confrontations with the Ottoman Empire — now they are facing opposition from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis see a Sunni majority oppressed by a minority, and perceive the fall of the Assad regime as in their interests.
The post assumes that the Putin government is primarily focused on security, and that this analysis is on target: ” Putin’s mission was to return Russia to stability and security — a massive undertaking for the leader of a country that not only is the world’s largest but also is internally diverse and surrounded by potentially hostile powers.” [EuroDialog] Going a step further, the situation has changed for the Russian leader as “Russian-friendly” governments in Europe have gone down to electoral defeat in recent years. Thus, a change in foreign policy both in terms of tactics and strategy:
“Russia’s main goal regarding Europe is to keep European powers divided while extracting what Moscow wants financially and technologically. The days have passed when Putin could call a friend in Europe to help with NATO or with technological deficiencies. Russia has to design a new strategy to deal with a very different Europe and adhere to its deeper imperatives rather than rely on personal and political relationships, which are fleeting compared to the forces of geopolitics.” [EuroDialog]
Note the portion of the analysis which spotlights “help with NATO.” Remember, Turkey is a NATO member, it has controlled the Straits since after the Ottoman Era, and it continues to do so under the provisions of the Montreux Convention. If we offer the argument that Putin is primarily concerned with Russian security issues, then we could discuss arms deals, infrastructure investments, tourism, and oil pipelines endlessly without approaching the core of Russian concerns for its sovereign security. — Access to the Mediterranean, once controlled by the Crusaders and abetted by their progeny the Templars from Antaradus (Tortosa), later controlled by the Ottoman Empire, impeded by French and British naval interests in the Age of Empires, and now threatened by the overthrow of an ally in the form of the Assad Regime in Syria.
This is not to argue that the Russian support for the reprehensible regime is warranted, merely that it is historically comprehensible.
There are some references not cited in the post, but which were extremely helpful in understanding the current situation with regard to Russian interests in Syria. A few have been selected as recommended reading: “Guided History,” Boston University (Babcock) “Russian Mediterranean Sea Interests before World War One.” — this is a compilation of excellent reference sources for pre-war international policy. “Billions at Stake as Russia Backs Syria”, CNN, February 10, 2012. “Dangerous Scenario for Syria, Oil and War with Russia,” Forbes, May 28, 2013. “Saudi Arabia seeks compromise with Russia amid Middle East upheaval,” Global Insider, August 22, 2013. “Why Russia, China, and Iran are standing by the regime (Syria), CNN, August 29, 2013. “Reported Saudi-Russia Deal Could Impact EU Gas Prices,” EUObserver, August 28, 2013. “Saudis Urge Action On Syria,” Wall Street Journal, September 1, 2013. “A Skeptic’s Guide to the Syria Mess,” Talking Points Memo, September 1, 2013.