A recent development in the Eastern Mediterranean may have escaped notice in the U.S. media but is potentially important with respect to Western efforts to pressure Syrian President Assad into departing the scene and Russia’s intransigence in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
It is clear to all observers that the Russian reluctance to turn against Assad is related above all to the presence of a Russian naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus, the only such Russian facility in the Mediterranean and, therefore, of paramount importance to Moscow. Whether because of a change of heart in the Kremlin (not likely) or growing recognition that Assad simply cannot last forever, the Russians may be searching for an alternative. In any case, last week saw the docking at the Cypriot port of Limassol of two Russian Black Sea Fleet warships, the first such occurrence in more than a decade, setting off speculation that Moscow may be resigned to losing its base in Syria in the event of Assad’s downfall and determined to keep its naval presence in the area.
With two members of the UNSC also members of the European Union, it is more than intriguing to note that Cyprus began its first term in the rotating EU Presidency this month. One cannot say with certainty whether Cyprus sought and secured the concurrence of its EU partners, and, perhaps, the United States, before opening its major port to the Russian ships, but one can safely assume that Nicosia did not make the move without multiple consultations. Moreover, it would be foolish to ignore the possibility that substantial Russian financial assistance to Cyprus, as the latter struggles to remain in the EuroZone, is contingent upon Cypriot cooperation in the matter.
It must be added that Russian support for the UNSC action it has been opposing would still leave China’s objections to be dealt with but from a position of greater strength. Finally, one can only speculate on the reaction of Turkey, firmly opposed to Assad and the refuge of choice for Syrian freedom fighters and military defectors alike. Russian use of Limassol, in addition to the issues discussed above, underscores the Kremlin’s continuing refusal, along with the entire international community, to recognize the Turkish-created so-called “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” and, therefore, to use its port of Famagusta.