Various sensationalist media accounts yesterday and this morning have been reporting that Russia has sent some sort of anti-terror troops to Syria. The whole media frenzy seems to go back to this ABC News report, which in turn is based on what is almost certainly a misinterpretation of this report on the RIA-Novosti Arabic site. It seems pretty clear that this is a major exaggeration of what is actually happening in Tartus.
Obviously, I don’t have channel to the Russian MOD, so treat the following as well-informed speculation, rather than reporting. Nevertheless, what is actually happening seems pretty clear from the available information. The ship in question, called the Iman, is a tanker that as far as I know has been participating in Russia’s counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. Its mission in Tartus is to refill supplies. Given its previous mission off Somalia, it undoubtedly has a contingent of naval infantry on board for the protection of the ship’s crew. In fact, the original RIA-Novosti report seems to state that the troops in question are Marines, rather than “anti-terror troops,” whatever those may be. So it seems to me that this whole episode is nothing more than a small contingent of ship protection troops being mislabeled as Russian troops potentially coming to help Assad. (For a very similar interpretation of events from a Russian source, take a look at Konstantin Bogdanov’s article on the RIA-Novosti website.)
Now, one might argue that the presence of any Russian ship at Tartus at this point in time should be viewed as a show of support for Assad. There is certainly an aspect of that here, but one should note that the naval presence is not new. Russian ships have repeatedly docked at Tartus since the uprising began. The Iman in fact replaced the Ivan Bubnov, another tanker that had been docked in Tartus until recently. It may be that Russia has decided to keep a ship in Tartus in case evacuation of Russian citizens becomes necessary, though that seems to be a bit of a waste of resources. More likely, the ship presence is the result of a combination of factors, including the need to resupply, the desire to show support for Assad, and the potential need for evacuation.
But the key point is that Russian ship presence at Tartus is not a policy change, and the ship protection unit are almost certainly not “anti-terror troops” come to support Assad. The whole episode will become a “bomb certain to have serious repercussions” (as described by an unnamed UNSC source in the ABC News report) only if the Western media narrative turns it into something that it’s not.
Dmitry Gorenburg is a Senior Analyst at CNA blogging for PONARS Eurasia on military and security affairs in Russia and Eurasia. This comment is also available on Russian Military Reform.