DEBKAfile Exclusive Report August 29, 2012, 4:44 PM (GMT+02:00)
Russian naval vessels have unexpectedly departed the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus and Russian arms shipments to Syria have been suddenly discontinued. DEBKAfile’s military sources reveal that those and other steps indicate that the Russians are rapidly drawing away from the Syrian arena to avoid getting caught up in the escalating hostilities expected to arise from military intervention by the US, Europe and a number of Arab states. Russian intelligence appears to have decided that this outside intervention is imminent and Moscow looks anxious to keep its distance for now.
According to our military and Russian sources, these drastic steps must have been personally ordered by President Vladimir Putin. He is believed to have acted over the objections of some of his army and naval chiefs. This would explain the mixed statements issuing from Moscow in recent days about the disposition of Russian personnel at the naval base in Tartus and Russian military personnel in Syria.
Wednesday, Aug. 22, Commander of the Russian Navy Vice Adm. Viktor Chirkov said that if the fighting in Syria reached Tartus, Moscow may decide to evacuate the base. He stressed that this decision would have to be taken on the authority of President Putin. He was the first Russian official to suggest the possibility of an evacuation.
A week later, Aug. 28, Russian chief of staff Gen. Nikolai Makarov denied anything had changed in the working procedures of Russian military personnel in Syria or that there were any plans to evacuate the Russian naval base in Tartus:
“I think it’s too early to draw conclusions [from the situation in Syria],” said the general. “No one is running away from there.”
When a Russian journalist pressed the general and ventured to ask whether Moscow was terminating its military involvement in Syria, Marakov retorted, “Why are you so worried about Syria?”
But he didn’t answer the question.
DEBKAfile’s military sources disclose that the Russians have taken five significant military steps with regard to Syria in the last two weeks:
1. They cancelled a large-scale naval exercise dubbed “Caucasus 2012” scheduled to start mid-August in the eastern Mediterranean opposite the Syrian coast;
2. Warships from three fleets – the Northern, Baltic and Black Sea – concentrated opposite Syria have dispersed and returned to their bases;
3. Syrian President Bashar Assad was notified that Moscow was halting military aid to his army – except for intelligence updates and advice on logistics from Russian military advisers;
4. Moscow has not clearly announced a freeze on arms shipments, including replacement parts for Russian weapons, which make up the bulk of the Syrian army’s weaponry. Officials have only said, “There are no large Russian weapons shipments planned in the near future to Syria.”
5. The only Russian naval ship left in Tartus – a floating Russian Navy PM-138 shipyard – is also under orders to depart Tartus and return to the Black Sea in September.
A Russian source disclosed that all the remaining Russian personnel in Tartus have gathered on the floating shipyard, except for two officers on shore. This vessel and the remaining personnel are evidently packed up and ready to sail at any moment out of the Syrian port.