MOSCOW, June 2 (RIA Novosti) - Russia has started dredging at a Syrian port where it maintains a logistical supply point with a possible eye to turning it into a full-fledged naval base, a respected Russian business daily said Friday.
Tartus, the second most important Syrian port on the Mediterranean, could be transformed into a base for Black Sea Fleet warships when they are redeployed from the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, Kommersant daily said, quoting sources in Russia's diplomatic service and the Defense Ministry.
Vladimir Zimin, a senior economic advisor at the Russian Embassy to Syria, said Russia had simultaneously launched a modernization project at the port of Latakia, 90 km to the north of Tartus.
The paper quoted an anonymous source at the Defense Ministry as saying that Moscow was planning to form a squadron led by the Moskva missile cruiser within the next three years to operate in the Mediterranean Sea on a permanent basis, in particular for joint antiterrorist exercises with NATO forces.
Russia's Black Sea Fleet currently uses a range of naval facilities in the Crimea under a 1997 agreement that allowed Russia to continue its presence in its neighboring former Soviet republic for rent of $93 million per year.
The fleet is scheduled to withdraw in 2017, but Ukraine has recently voiced concerns that Russia is not paying enough for the facilities and also demanded that a new agreement be signed on inventorizing the bases. Russia has said it will make no concessions over rent or withdrawing the fleet and talks have stalled.
The Defense Ministry source told Kommersant that a Russian naval base in the Mediterranean would not only help Moscow strengthen its position in the Middle East - where it is currently also involved in negotiations on the Iranian nuclear crisis and the Israel/Palestinian issue - but also ensure Syria's security.
Moscow plans to deploy an S-300PMU-2 Favorit air-defense system to protect the base, the paper said, adding that the system will be operated by Russian servicemen and not be handed over to Syria.
At the same time, sources close to the matter said Moscow and Damascus had reached an agreement to modernize Syria's antiaircraft system using medium-range S-125 missile complexes that were deployed in the 1980s.