President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Russia will permanently keep a navy presence in the Mediterranean Sea to protect its interests.
Speaking at a meeting with military brass, Putin said the move should not be interpreted as saber-rattling. He said the Mediterranean is a “strategically important region, where we have interests connected with ensuring Russia’s national security.”
Gen. Valery Gerasimov said the Russian squadron currently deployed to the area consists of 16 navy ships. The Russian Defense Ministry said it would regularly rotate them to keep a constant presence of about a dozen ships.
Russia has a navy base in the Syrian port of Tartus, the only such post outside the former Soviet Union, and its ships have been making regular visits to the Mediterranean in a show of support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Russian’s continued naval presence might well have implications for conflicts in the region. CNN reported Wednesday that, according to an unnamed Pentagon official, American intelligence sources believe that three Russian warships spotted in the eastern Mediterranean were carrying arms to the Syrian military.
The intelligence officials believe that ships might be carrying parts of the S-300 long-range anti-aircraft system that Russia has promised to the Assad regime.
Even if the shipment was on the way, it would likely not mean an immediate game-changer. The sophisticated S-300 air defense system, considered one of the most advanced in the world, takes about four months to become operational and would require intensive training, including calibration that can only be carried out on-site in Syria, experts say.
Israel sees the S-300 as a major threat, placing planes landing or taking off from Ben Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv within the 200-kilometer (125-mile) range of the system. It would also make it much tougher for Israel’s air force to target sites within Syria, as it did against missile storage sites and military bases.
Jerusalem also fears that the system could fall into the hands of terror groups likes Hezbollah, which has become increasingly involved in fighting the Syrian rebels.
Assad had told the Lebanese TV station Al-Manar that Russia has fulfilled some of its weapons contracts, but he was vague on whether this included advanced S-300 air defense systems.
American officials and Israeli officials said they had no evidence that the Assad regime had received a shipment of S-300s. Two senior US officials also told Fox News that Assad doesn’t yet have the advanced Russian surface-to-air missiles.
The Israeli sources also said that Syria has only paid for a third of the S-300 contract.
“It is not clear to me that the Russians are interested in transferring the weapons. Right now, it’s more of a threat,” said Ehud Ya’ari, Channel 2′s veteran commentator.
Israeli officials have stated repeatedly over the past few weeks that Israel is not interested in a war with Syria, but will do whatever it takes to prevent the transfer of game-changing and non-conventional weapons from the Assad regime, or from Iran via Syria, to Hezbollah.
“The Israeli government has acted responsibly and prudently to ensure the security of Israeli citizens and to prevent advanced weapons from reaching Hezbollah and [other] terrorist organizations… and we will do so in the future,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem last month.
“The Middle East is in one of its most sensitive periods in decades, primarily Syria,” the prime minister added. “We are monitoring the changes there closely and are prepared for any scenario.”
During a visit to the Atlit naval base on May 21, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that Israel’s policy on Syria was clear: “We do not interfere in the civil war, but we will not allow it to enter our territory.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.