Russian Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean — snapshot of activity

May 06, 2021

A snapshot of the Russian Navy escorting Iranian shipping from the Suez Canal to Syria.

By Nat South for the Saker Blog

Back in April there was uncorroborated information circulated on social media, announcing that Russia was to protect the Iranian ships — in particular the tankers carrying vital oil supplies to Syria.  Yet, it wasn’t readily known whether this would be a regular mission for the Russian Navy.   For a while now, tankers and cargo ships heading to Syria would go “dark” on AIS after transiting the Suez Canal. Hardly any Russian warship regularly uses AIS, so any information on escorts is sketchy to say the least.

The following article provides some details on an escort carried out by the Russian Nav back in October 2020.  Very little information is available on other escorts undertaken since then, until now. This is how the escort was framed by the UK tabloid newspaper, the Daily Express: with its lurid far-fetched clickbait headline,  — WW3 stuff, hardly.

A picture containing text, indoor, screenshot Description automatically generated

The reality is more mundane, with all likelihood elements of NATO SNMG2 keeping tabs on both the Russian Navy in the region and also Iranian shipping, but it is Israel that has more at stake in this matter, (more on this later).  The UK sent a patrol ship to the region recently as part of the NATO ‘Operation Sea Guardian’.  HMS Trent was last in Cyprus after having been off the coast of Port Said and also the Levant coast too. Add this, NATO SNMG2 ships were in the Syrian channel (between Cyprus and the Levant).

The Russian Navy had dropped a hint about escorting merchant ships back in October 2020, about ensuring “smooth passage of civilian ships.” The timing fits in with the article previously mentioned above.  In fact, the VMF carried out an exercise off Tartus “to monitor the situation at depth and on the surface, and to create a safe area for the passage of merchant ships.”  Certainly, it suggests that Russia was aware of ships being targeted by Israel back even.

Fast forward 6 months, the WSJ ran an article in March 2021, alleging a dozen of Israeli attacks on merchant shipping, (which I wrote an article about).

On 17 April Arabic Sputnik reported that a “tripartite joint operations room” would be established in the Mediterranean to ensure the safe arrival in Syria of oil and flour shipments as well as other goods to the Syrian ports.  This news came on the back of recent incidents with Iranian ships.  Several days later, there was a reported attack on an Iranian tanker moored off Baniyas.  Claims were made by officials that it was attacked by a drone, causing a large fire in which a Russian helicopter had to drop water to extinguish the fire.

This would have ruffled a few military feathers in Russia and Damascus, given the proximity to the Russian naval base at Tartus.  What with the deployment of air defense ashore and the deployment of the designated anti-saboteur ‘Grachanok’ class and the fast Raptor boats for port protection.  Even more, the Russian Navy has conducted exercises repelling an attack by saboteurs, (undersea and afloat), hinting at concern over covert operations. Similarly, the naval exercise in October 2020 was also about responding to a potential threat of SOF “group of swimmers” that could have been deployed from a submarine.

The Baniyas’ attack’ took place after another Iranian cargo ship off Yemen, the ‘Saviz’, was reportedly attacked by Israel in the Red Sea on 6 April. The ‘Saviz’ has been stationed in the southern Red Sea for several years and is reported to be an Iranian intelligence ship.  Reports of an Israeli submarine operating in the Red Sea were noted on social media and also featured in an article by H.I. Sutton.

Israel had once more stepped up its tit-for-tat attacks against Iran.

Snapshot of an escort

Image 1 Ivan Antonov. Source: author

Image 1 Ivan Antonov. Source: author

A Russian ship was seen on AIS, about 25nm to the north of Port Said in the evening of the 4th of May, waiting.

AIS screenshot: Source: vessel finder.com

AIS screenshot: Source: vessel finder.com

At the same time, a 231 m long Aframax Iranian tanker, ‘Sirvan Sabou’ was leaving the Suez Canal, entering the Mediterranean.

AIS screenshot

AIS screenshot

The AIS specifications matches to the  ‘Ivan Antonov’,  a Black Sea Fleet minesweeper forward deployed as part of the permanent naval squadron in the Mediterranean is based in Tartus, Syria.  Marine Traffic clearly shows the naval ship:

AIS screenshot: Marine Traffic

AIS screenshot: Marine Traffic

Interesting to note that it is a minesweeper that is providing an escort, but I doubt it is on its own though.  Until recently, the Russian Navy had a Project 22160 class large patrol ship ‘Dmitry Rogachev’ but it returned to the Black Sea at the beginning of April. There is the ‘Admiral Grigorovich’ frigate and also a Buyan-M missile ship part of the squadron.

[NB: HMS Trent which had been visible on AIS until its Cyprus port call has gone AIS dark since then].

Russian Navy escorts will help in circumventing the repugnant US and EU sanctions, since Syria is reliant on Iranian oil and wheat imports, thus effectively breaking the sanctions siege.   This is largely due to the fact the majority of Syria’s oil and gas resources as well the traditional breadbasket is located in the northeast, the area being under US-backed Kurdish control and out of reach of Damascus. To note that the US not only guards the oil infrastructure but also facilities the transfer of oil and wheat out of Syria via Iraq.

Middle East media reported that a convoy of three Iranian vessels has already arrived at Syria’s Baniyas under Russian naval escort in late April.  This was particularly noteworthy as the Suez Canal was temporarily blocked by the mega containership “Ever Given’, which caused a backlog of shipping, including much-needed oil imports for Syria. The Suez Canal blockage only serves to highlight even more the vulnerability and severe shortage of Syrian imports, and it stands to reason why the Russian Navy is escorting ships, to allow “smooth passage of civilian ships”.

According to social media information, Israeli defense sources claiming that the Russian Navy is also helping with the smuggling of weapons to Syria.  Israel has for a long time been monitoring and carrying out airstrikes to deny Syria armaments, that have been either flown in or transferred by land from Iraq.  Now it seems according to Israeli experts that there is a shift to the transportation on ships. Consequently, Israel is apparently vexed about this recent arrangement because targeting a ship under Russian Navy escort would incur hefty risks.  (Not that I see Israel unable to find another way or location to hamper such voyages, as hinted by the attack on the ‘Saviz’ in the Red Sea, or indeed infrastructure on land). Russian Navy presence in the Red Sea is limited to an intelligence (AGI) and a floating maintenance ship, (both called into Port Sudan recently), not something likely to undertake an escort role.

I think that there is a lot more behind the scenes to this, escorting Iranian ships is just one facet, barely visible, given the complicated and overall geopolitical context.  Although, it has become clear that a line has been drawn in not accepting the US and EU sanctions or Israeli actions in the Mediterranean.

The Russian naval escorts are another spanner thrown into the works by Russia as far the US and its allies in enforcing sanctions intended to deprive the Syrian state of a vital lifeline for the population.

Lebanon Confirms Its Rights To Confront ’Israel”… What Are Its Power Elements?

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Lebanon Confirms Its Rights To Confront ’Israel”… What Are Its Power Elements?

Charles Abi Nader

Apart from the political contending that preceded and accompanied the administrative-legal path of the Lebanese Maritime Borders Amendment Decree [6433], which also takes its constitutional and diplomatic path [as soon assumed] to the United Nations, it can be said that Lebanon – the government and the institutions – through its delicate and decisive decision to amend that decree, has imposed itself as a powerful player in the game of regional and international interests and conflicts.

The statement that Lebanon has imposed itself as a powerful player in the game of international interests and conflicts may be misplaced or inappropriate if we compare it to the crisis situation in Lebanon today, and what it is experiencing in terms of what looks like a financial, economic and social collapse, in addition to its fragmentation and political imbalance. But in reality, despite all the tragedies that have passed through Lebanon, its position has brought the highest level of challenge to many regional and international players.

First of all, the field of interest in which Lebanon has created itself by amending the decree defining its pure economic waters, is almost the entire eastern Mediterranean region, which is apparently very rich in gas and oil, between Syria and Turkey eastward and northward, between the occupied Palestine and Egypt southward and southwestward, and between Cyprus, Turkey and Greece westward. We are talking here about a maritime field, which is currently experiencing a delicate conflict and danger over the division and determination of the exclusive economic waters of the aforementioned countries, not far from the possibility that it will cause a military confrontation, such as between Greece and Turkey or between Cyprus and Turkey.

On the other hand, while ‘Israel’ is considered Lebanon’s fiercest opponent in this maritime border dispute, and due to its urgent need to exploit the huge wealth from the occupied Palestine’s coasts and to accelerate and advance its partnership with the Forum of Eastern Mediterranean States [Egypt, Cyprus and Greece], which is based on the initiation of the extraction and supply of gas and since it has completed the completion and preparation of the administrative, technical and legal structure for the initiation of the exploration in the Karish border field with Lebanon, which was affected by the aforementioned Lebanese amendment in more than half of its area, it will consider the Lebanese position regarding the amendment of its maritime rights in the south as a declaration of war against it, which would call for a non-simple reaction, not only as it threatened to stop indirect negotiations with Lebanon.

At a time where Lebanon is experiencing this almost complete collapse at all levels, and where most of the external parties involved in the conflict or the file contribute to deepening the collapse by exerting a lot of additional pressure on Lebanon to force it to surrender or submit to the maritime or other border file, and as these parties consider that the Lebanese position is supposed to be lenient and lax, in other words, disregarding what they see as their rights, so that they can make quick use of their needs before its inevitable collapse, Lebanon declares this strong position.

Therefore, the fundamental question remains: On what does Lebanon depend in this powerful position? And what are Lebanon’s power elements in the delicate game of defiance that it got itself involved in?

Of course, the consistent position of His Excellency the President of the Republic as a key official actor in guiding the negotiation process has been instrumental in amending the decree and establishing Lebanese maritime rights by fully supporting and embracing the perspective of the experts in the Lebanese Armed Forces and the specialists of the negotiating delegation in the demarcation process, which highlighted in a scientific-legal manner the correct maritime borders, that must be at first: A valid document for deposit with the United Nations and relevant institutions of the international community, and secondly: a platform for indirect negotiation with the enemy and for the demarcation and precise determination of the border based on it.

On the other hand, the legal and technical point of view presented and proved by the Lebanese Army in scientific details, from which its position was clear and decisive, regarding the necessity of completing indirect negotiations with the enemy on its basis, and in terms of the futility of its completion without it, proves without any doubt that the military, as a matter of national responsibility and duty, will be an essential party in fixing, protecting and supporting the amendment decision, with all possible military or security implications, dangers or repercussions.

Also, it is absolutely impossible to overlook the important role of the unified internal Lebanese position on the amendment, which was finally demonstrated by all concerned, official, partisan and political parties, and despite some initial reservations, which were in good faith in order not to lose the opportunity of demarcation and to benefit from the wealth as soon as possible, due to the urgent need for it today, this united position in terms of cohesion and non-division was essential in confirming the Lebanese decision to amend against all external parties.

In the end, the decisive role remains for the resistance, with its deterrent capabilities and balance of force against the ‘Israeli’ enemy, which is the main foundation in stabilizing and protecting the delicate, sensitive and bold Lebanese position, in terms of modification in general, and in terms of its sensitivity to hit the center of the Karish field, which ‘Israel’ considers to be under its control [within the areas occupied in the Palestinian waters], which had completed all appropriate measures to initiate exploration and exploitation of its wealth, with possible implications and developments, that will produce a provision that the enemy will regard the official Lebanese amendment to the decree as war or targeting what it claims to be its rights. As the Resistance has always stated, it is behind the Lebanese government in supporting and protecting what the latter determines in terms of national rights, land or maritime borders or the borders of Lebanese sovereignty, thus it [the Resistance] will, with its qualitative capabilities, remain the most powerful and solid safety valve for the protection, maintenance and stabilization of these national rights.



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RUSSIAN-SYRIAN GAS CONTRACT HINTS AT SYRIA’S RECOVERY

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 09.04.2021

Russian-Syrian Gas Contract Hints At Syria’s Recovery

Submitted by Steven Sahiounie.

The Syrian government signed a 4-year contract in March with Capital Limited, a Russian firm, to conduct oil and gas exploration in the area known as block No. 1 in the Syrian exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of the Tartous province.

The disputed maritime area covers 2,250 square kilometers on the Syrian-Lebanese maritime borders in the Mediterranean Sea.

Large reservoirs of natural gas have been discovered under the seafloor of the eastern Mediterranean and the neighboring nations and energy exploration companies are eager to exploit these gas deposits.

The Levantine basin has proven reserves of more than 60 trillion cubic feet of gas. The US Geological Survey has estimated that 1.7 billion barrels of oil lie in the basin, and as much as 122 trillion cubic feet of gas. That amount of gas is equivalent to about 76 years of gas consumption in the European Union (EU).javascript:window[“$iceContent”]

Natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels and serves as a transition fuel towards more renewables, and to replace coal and nuclear electric generation across the EU.  Gas is the energy of demand for the EU, which is the biggest emerging gas market in the world.

In December 2013, Damascus entered into a major agreement with Moscow to explore oil and gas in the offshore territorial waters for 25 years.  Drilling and exploration costs were estimated at $100 million.  Russia would finance these activities with expenditures recovered from eventual production.

The 2013 deal for gas exploration involved Russia’s SoyuzNefteGaz; however, the current contract involves two Russian companies, Capital Limited and East Med Amrit.

The area in which Russian companies are being allowed to operate is disputed by the Lebanese, with the maritime borders drawn by the Syrians, especially in Block No. 1, overlapping significantly with Block No. 1 and Block No. 2 on the Lebanese side, and encroaching approximately 750 square kilometers within Lebanon’s maritime border.

Lebanon was busy demarcating its southern maritime and land borders with Israel for years, without making any progress.

On April 6, Lebanese caretaker Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe said that Lebanese President Michel Aoun held a phone conversation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to discuss the demarcation of maritime borders between the two countries. Wehbe said Aoun confirmed in his call with Assad that “Lebanon won’t accept to diminish from its sovereignty over its waters”, and confirmed that his country sticks to demarcating the maritime borders via negotiations, and not court disputes.

The majority of the land borders between the two countries have been demarcated in 1971, while the maritime borders between Syria and Lebanon have not been delineated. Lebanon had previously demarcated its maritime borders in 2011, and in 2014 launched a round of primary licenses and invited bids for Block No. 1 in the north, but Syria did not recognize the Lebanese demarcation. Damascus objected to the unilateral Lebanese demarcation of its exclusive economic zone in the north, by sending a protest letter to the United Nations in 2014.

Wehbe said that Beirut must negotiate with Damascus about the demarcation of maritime borders.

“This is not an act of aggression but every state demands its rights according to its perspective,” Wehbe said, adding that negotiations must take place within the framework of international laws and the brotherly relations between the two countries.

In late 2010, a dramatic discovery was made in the eastern Mediterranean of a huge natural gas field offshore, in what geologists call the Levant or Levantine Basin. The discovery set into motion a geopolitical plan devised in Washington and Tel Aviv back in 1996.  By March 2011 Syria was immersed into a revolution instigated and fueled by the CIA on orders from President Obama.

In August 2011 findings were revealed by Syrian exploration companies of an immense gas field in Qara near the border with Lebanon and near the port of Tartus, which was leased to the Russian navy. The gas reserves are believed to be equal to or exceed those of Qatar.  The US-backed rebels kept the fighting focused in the area to prevent the recovery of the gas.

Trump ordered the US troops illegally occupying Syria to stay and steal the oil.  The US military prevents the Syrian government from using the oil in the northeast to rebuild or recover from 10 years of war.

The US, NATO, and the EU all worked in coordination to destroy Syria and keep it from reaching its potential as an energy-sufficient nation.

Washington’s ‘regime-change’ strategy was based on instigating internal chaos in Syria through the use of CIA training and weapons of armed fighters following Radical Islam, which they thought would end with an Islamic State as opposed to the existing secular government in Damascus, and supported through the coffers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both nations state sponsors of Radical Islam.

The US lost the war in Syria. But, Washington will continue to isolate Russia and try to prevent the unchanged government in Damascus from the gas reserves off-shore.

Turkey began the US-NATO war against Syria as a team player. Turkey was used as a transit point for all the hundreds of thousands of foreign terrorists from the four corners of the globe who flocked to Syria on Team-USA to oust the Syrian government, in favor of Radical Islam. However, Turkey feels left out of the lucrative gas deals, and envious of its neighbors in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey is trying to disrupt energy exploration. Meanwhile, it is the babysitter of the Al Qaeda terrorists in control of Idlib and determined to maintain the status quo in Idlib.

While Russia has been in the Syrian port of Tartus for decades, it was in 2015 that they were invited to Syria militarily in the darkest days of terrorist expansion.  The Russians have a long and bloody experience with Radical Islamic terrorists on Russian soil. With Syria laying on the southern front of Russia, it was seen as a national security threat to allow an Islamic state to be proclaimed in Damascus, even if it was only the Muslim Brotherhood politicians supported by the US and housed in hotels in Istanbul.

The Russians felt they could either defeat the terrorists in Syria or wait and fight them on the streets of Moscow. Radical Islam is neither a religion, nor a sect, but a political ideology that is very difficult to deal with once US weapons are placed in their hands.

In 2012, F. William Engdahl wrote a prophetic article Syria, Turkey, Israel and a Greater Middle East Energy War. He wrote, “The battle for the future control of Syria is at the heart of this enormous geopolitical war and tug of war. Its resolution will have enormous consequences for either world peace or endless war and conflict and slaughter.”

Engdahl theorized that Syria would ultimately be a major source for Russian-managed gas flows to the EU.

In late 2015, Pepe Escobar, a journalist with Asia Times, wrote a groundbreaking article Syria: Ultimate Pipelineistan War”.

Escobar wrote, “Syria is an energy war. With the heart of the matter featuring a vicious geopolitical competition between two proposed gas pipelines, it is the ultimate Pipelinestan war.”

In the article, he takes you back to 2009 when Qatar proposed to Damascus the construction of a pipeline traversing Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria to Turkey, to supply the EU.

However, in 2010 Syria chose a competing project, the $10 billion Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline. That choice set into motion what the western media terms as the Syrian civil war, but in reality was never civil, and was a classic US ‘regime-change’ project which featured a cast of thousands, and among the supporters were the heads of state from most of the civilised world.

After 10 years of war, Syria may finally be approaching the endgame. President Assad’s government is looking to post-war recovery and reconstruction, which will need foreign and domestic investments. The energy sector is crucial. Syria’s oil exports accounted for 30% of pre-war revenue, and the prospect of gas output was revealed just as the war ramped up. US and EU sanctions will make foreign investment difficult, but the world is watching Russia in the waters off Syria.

Steven Sahiounie is an award-winning journalist and political commentator.

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