DAMASCUS, Syria, July 21 (UPI) -- The Russian navy is reported to be moving ahead with plans to upgrade its Soviet-era naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus in the eastern Mediterranean.
Ria Novosti Monday quoted a senior Russian navy source as saying that "following modernization, the naval maintenance site at Tartus will become fully operational."
The source said the base, established during the Cold War but little used since, would support Russia's anti-piracy operations off Somalia.
However, Moscow will be able to use it, and possibly a separate facility at Latakia, Syria's other main port, to reassert its influence in the Mediterranean and the Arab world.
Moscow has also been seeking to establish naval bases in Libya, at the western end of the Mediterranean, and in Yemen on the Red Sea.
This is causing some consternation in the region. Israel in particular is showing signs of alarm at the prospect of Russian military and intelligence support for Syria, possibly including the deployment of advanced air-defense systems around Tartus and Latakia on its doorstep.
If the Russians complete the upgrade of the Tartus facility, Russia's only foothold in the Mediterranean, it would mark the first military presence Moscow has established outside the borders of the former Soviet Union since it collapsed in 1991.
Still, many questions remain about the value to Moscow of making such a strategic leap at this time as relations with the United States remain in flux.
First, these days Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which would provide the ships for a Mediterranean squadron, is a pale shadow of what it was during the Cold War.
"We have almost no ships left in the Black Sea," commented Konstantin Makienko of Moscow's Center for Strategic and Technical Analysis. "All that Russia could maintain in Syria is a ship or two. That's only a symbolic presence."
Second, Moscow, even with the windfall of high oil prices in 2006-2008, has other military priorities in its much-reduced military budget, such as its nuclear deterrent, the revival of its missile forces and strategic aviation.
Third, while deploying a naval force in the eastern Mediterranean would provide some political leverage for President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, it would have little real military value.
The Russian flotilla would be heavily outgunned by U.S., NATO and Israeli forces and would be beyond the effective reach of Russian air cover, a suicidal proposition.
Nonetheless, the Russians appear to be up to something. In August 2007 Adm. Vladimir Masorin, commander of the Russian navy, declared at Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimea:
"The Mediterranean Sea is very important strategically. I propose that, with the involvement of the Northern and Baltic Fleets, the Russian navy should restore its permanent presence there."
In June 2006 the Russians were reported to be dredging Tartus to deepen the harbor to handle large Russian warships and had begun constructing a new dock at Latakia.
The plan, according to Moscow newspaper Kommersant, was to base a four-ship squadron of the badly depleted Black Sea Fleet, led by the missile cruiser Moskva, the fleet's flagship, in the eastern Mediterranean.
Russia initially denied these reports, as did Damascus. But Masorin's remarks cast some doubt on those denials. In 2005 Putin, then president, appointed Masorin as naval commander with orders to revive the vastly reduced post-Cold War navy.
The Israeli media has speculated that a Russian presence in Syria would handcuff the Israeli militarily in any future conflict over the Golan Heights or Lebanon.
If the Russians do rebuild their base at Tartus, it would likely be protected by state-of-the-art S-300PMU-2 Favorit surface-to-air missile batteries manned by Russians.
These long-range systems, far superior to Syria's air-defense system, could provide cover for much of Syria and become a major obstacle for the Israeli air force.
The S-300s would certainly make recent Israeli air force operations, such as the provocative 2006 low-level buzzing of President Bashar Assad's palace in Latakia and the September 2007 airstrike on a nuclear facility near the Turkish border, far more risky.
According to various reports, Moscow has been selling Syria a wide range of weaponry, including highly effective SS-26 Iskander-E missiles and advanced anti-tank systems.
The Syrians, always hard up for cash, may well be prepared to provide Moscow with naval bases as partial payment for its arms purchases, past, present and future.