In an clearly demonstrating a lack of confidence in Syria's Assad regime, Russia is withdrawing all military personnel and left its strategic Tartus naval base unmanned. According to Russian Vedomosti daily, this is in response to the escalating threat to security in the country which has seen more than 100,000 dead in two years of battling between President Bashar Al-Assad and armed insurgents.
Vedomosti reported that a source in the Russian defense ministry said that no Russian defense ministry military or civilian personnel are to be found now in Syria, which has been an ally since the days of the Soviet Union. According to the source, Moscow pulled the plug because of the danger posed to Russians and to minimize any political damage resulting from the death of any Russians. Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov was understood to confirm the evacuation of military staff in an interview with the UK-based Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat published on June 20. He said then, "Today, the Russian defense ministry does not have a single person in Syria," according to AFP News. "In Tartus, we never had a base in the first place. It is a technical facility for maintaining ships sailing in the Mediterranean."
Russia's naval facility was located in the Mediterranean port of Tartus, within the Alawite Muslim heartland, and was Russia's only such asset outside of the former Soviet Union. Assad, an Alawite Muslim, has relied on fellow Alawites and the region they control as a durable power base.
The report in Vedomosti, however, said Russia's decision to remove defense ministry personnel did not cover technicians working for Syria who provide weapons training. Besides fixed-wing and helicopter airships, Russia supplies ground-to-surface anti-aircraft systems as well as heavy machinery meant for national defense. Syria's Russian-built anti-aircraft defenses are among the best in the world and is a military asset being weighed carefully by NATO should it decide to impose a no-fly zone over the country. Nonetheless, Israel is believed to have conducted at least two successful air raids this year, taking out an arms convoy in one raid.
Russia plans to provide President Assad with advanced S-300 missiles despite a request by Israel not to do so. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Russia will not rule out sending more arms to the Assad regime. Referring to Syrian insurgents as "cannibals," Putin said that the largely jihadi rebels should not be given arms after he cited a video that purportedly showed a rebel combatant eating the heart of dead Syrian government soldier. Russia has defended its sales of war materiel, arguing that it is merely fulfilling contracts signed before the current conflict broke out in March 2011.
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