MOSCOW, June 27 (RIA Novosti) – Russia currently has no military personnel at its resupply facility in the Syrian port of Tartus, a senior diplomat said, though an expert affiliated with the Ministry of Defense downplayed it as a possible temporary measure.
“Currently, there is no one in Syria from the Russian Defense Ministry,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the Al-Hayat international pan-Arabic newspaper.
“We never, at any time, had a real military base in Tartus… That center has no military or strategic significance. It never did and it doesn't now,” Bogdanov added, speaking in an interview that was first published last Friday in Arabic.
The naval maintenance center in Tartus, established in Soviet times, remains Russia’s last military foothold outside the former Soviet Union. The facility, used for the maintenance and resupply of Russian warships in the Mediterranean, had a staff of “several dozen,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in February.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement Thursday that the center has been serviced exclusively by civilian staff “for a long time,” but stressed it had no plans to abandon the facility.
An unnamed military official was cited by Vedomosti business daily Wednesday as saying that the Russian leadership was worried about the safety of the facility’s personnel, given the ongoing civil war in Syria. More than 90,000 people have been killed in the country since fighting broke out between government forces and rebels in March 2011, according to the latest UN figures.
Any incident involving Russian servicemen in Syria could also have unwanted political repercussions, the source said. Moscow has been providing diplomatic backing to embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad against pressure from Western powers and Gulf kingdoms.
The Russian Navy currently has a flotilla of 16 warships and auxiliary ships in the Mediterranean, but no Russian ships have called at Tartus in recent months, according to Russia’s General Staff.
The facility in Tartus only sees use on rare occasions when Russian warships call there, said Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of the National Defense monthly Russian-language magazine and head of the Defense Ministry’s public council.
“[The pullout of military personnel] probably means that there are simply no current plans to use the base in Tartus,” he told RIA Novosti on Thursday.
“They’ll likely redeploy when it’s needed. It’s just a technicality,” Korotchenko said.
(The story was updated with Ministry of Defense comment.)