I was back on bloggingheads.tv Foreign Entanglements with Robert Farley (from Lawyers, Guns and Money) again this week, talking about US-Russian relations. We talked about the causes of the cancellation of the Putin-Obama summit, and discussed the two countries’ unproductive paradigm with respect to Syria. We also talked about how the Russian public has responded to Snowden. Inevitably, the topic of a potential Olympic boycott in response to Russia’s “gay propaganda” law came up. And we concluded with a short discussion of recent changes in how the Russian military conducts readiness exercises. The links will take you to the specific segments, or you can click here to watch the whole thing.
The Russian Navy has just concluded its largest exercise in the Mediterranean in many years. The ships involved represented all three of Russia’s European fleets and included the missile cruiser Moskva, the Udaloy-class destroyers Marshal Shaposhnikov and Severomorsk, the Yaroslav Mudriy and Smetliviy frigates, six large landing craft (the Kaliningrad, Novocherkassk, Alexandr Shabalin, Saratov, Nikolai Filchenkov, Azov), two submarines (one nuclear and one diesel-powered) and various support vessels. The total number of ships involved was over 20. In addition to the ships, the exercise included at least 20 aircraft. The exercise is being overseen by two senior MOD officials, deputy chief of the General Staff Aleksandr Postnikov and deputy Chief of the Navy Staff Leonid Sukhanov.
The timing and location of the exercise, as well as the heavy representation of amphibious ships, have raised questions about the Russian Navy’s goals in the Mediterranean. To my mind, this is another case of the Russian military trying to kill many birds with one stone. During the second half of the Cold War, the Soviet Navy had a virtually constant presence in the Mediterranean. Its squadron had a number of simultaneous tasks — ensuring the security of critical sea lanes to the Black Sea, deterring the United States Navy, ensuring continued access to the Suez canal for Soviet shipping, and engaging existing and potential allies in North Africa and the Middle East were probably the most significant of these. The Russian military has long sought to restore its presence in the region and has in the last 5-6 years taken numerous opportunities to send ships to the region to engage in exercises and conduct port visits. This exercise, first and foremost, is simply an expansion of this effort.
Second, the exercise is designed to prepare the navy for possible future operations in Syria. Discussions about the possibility of the Russian fleet seeking to have a deterrent effect on potential US or NATO intervention efforts in the Syrian civil war seem to me rather misguided. The assembled Russian forces are no match for the NATO forces that would be assembled in the region in the event of an intervention. The Soviet navy was always exceedingly cautious to only get involved in conflicts (even just with show of force operations) only in circumstances where the balance of forces was favorable. While those days were a long time ago, the current leaders of the navy were trained in that tradition and are unlikely to get involved in adventures of this type. Furthermore, the composition of the task force indicates that the navy wants to be prepared for a potential evacuation scenario. Such an evacuation may be focused on Russian citizens living in Syria, or (less likely) it may be part of a bid to rescue defeated Alawite leaders from their coastal stronghold down the road. The presence of a large number of surface combatants may be an indication that the navy wants to be prepared to undertake such an evacuation even in circumstances where its ships may come under fire from hostile forces (presumably the victorious Syrian rebels).
The final goal, for the navy, is just to increase preparedness. The Northern Fleet likes to send its ships to exercise in the Med during the winter months. The weather is nicer, allowing for more complicated maneuvers. Official reports indicate that the exercise covers a wide range of naval operations, including counter-piracy and convoy operations, ship defense from small boat attacks, coordination with both naval and long-range aviation, ASW, opposed amphibious landing, and search and rescue. The navy has conducted exercises in the Med pretty much annually since 2008. The fact that this is the largest is in part a reaction to the geopolitical circumstances in the region and in part an indication that the Russian navy is gradually gaining confidence and increasing its capabilities.
I was on bloggingheads.tv Foreign Entanglements with Robert Farley (from Lawyers, Guns and Money) this week, talking about Russian foreign policy. Unfortunately, much of the show was lost due to some kind of technical problem, but the portion where we discuss Russian interests in Syria survived and can be found here.
The Russian Navy recently announced that it is sending a number of warships to conduct exercises in the Mediterranean. What’s more, these ships are expected to stop in Tartus, the Russian refueling facility in Syria, and several of the ships are carrying naval infantry. This deployment has obviously raised concern in the West, much as a previous (false) report of Russian marines being sent to Syria did. The New York Times and Forbes.com’s Mark Adomanis both provide a lot of useful information without excessive hype, but I’m not sure either has the whole context. So let me spell out exactly what the deployment involves and provide some of that context.
This is far from the first time in recent years that Russia has sent ships to the Med. What’s more, when Russian ships go to the Med, either for exercises or in transit, they virtually always stop at Tartus. So there’s no cause for alarm there. The Times is right in noting that this current deployment is much larger than previous ones, but (as Ilya Kramnik notes) the West is just going to have to get used to the return of Russian naval presence in the Med and elsewhere.
So what exactly is included in this deployment? From the Northern Fleet, we have the Udaloy class destroyer Admiral Chabanenko and three Ropucha class large amphibious ships (Kondopoga, Georgii Pobedonosets and Aleksandr Otrakovskii). From the Baltic Fleet, there is the Neustrashimyy-class frigate Yaroslav Mudry. Once they reach the Med, they will be joined by several ships from the Black Sea Fleet, including the ancient but eminently seaworthy Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivyi and two more LSTs: the Alligator-class Nikolai Filchenkov and the Ropucha-class Tsezar Kunikov. These ships are being supported by a total of three tugboats and two oilers. Furthermore, they may be joined for part of the journey by the Black Sea Fleet’s Neustrashimyy frigate, on its way to participate in the regular counterpiracy operation in the Gulf of Aden.
(One note — Mark Adomanis argues that the ships will not arrive in Tartus for several months. This is clearly an error, as the Russian reporting on the deployment indicates that the ships will return to their home ports by early October. I would guess that it will take a couple of weeks for the ships from the Northern Fleet to get to the Med, with the exact timing depending on whether they do any exercises along the way or head directly for Tartus. Smetlivy is supposed to be in Tartus by early next week.)
So that’s a total of eight warships, which more or less matches some of the past big exercises Russia has done in the Med in recent years. The main difference is that this set of exercises seems to be aimed at amphibious landings, given the large number of LSTs and the lack of the really big combat ships such as the Moskva or Peter the Great cruisers that often go on these exercises. This is undoubtedly a signal to various parties that Russia continues to view the region as a strategic priority and will continue to seek to play a role in the Med regardless of its specific position on supporting Bashar al-Assad at any particular moment.
But at the same time, we should keep in mind that although there is a political aspect to this, it is primarily a regular large-scale naval exercise, of the type that Russia has conducted just about every year since 2007 or so. So there’s no reason to read more into this than there is there. These troops will not be used to prop up the Assad regime. They could be used to protect Tartus if necessary, but I think that is highly unlikely, in part because Tartus does not have the facilities to house them for any length of time. Furthermore, as Mark Katz recently pointed out, their presence at Tartus would make the base a more inviting target for anti-regime forces in Syria. They definitely could be used to help evacuate Russian citizens from Syria, should that become necessary. And having LSTs around may be helpful in an evacuation even beyond the troops, as the evacuees could be housed temporarily on the ships.
I’ve covered Russian arms exports to Syria on this blog before, but the CAST report has some useful new information on this topic. Barabanov and Aliev note that Russian arms exports to Syria were very limited until the restructuring of Soviet-era Syrian debt to Russia in 2005. Shortly after that, the two countries signed a series of arms contracts with a total value of 4.5 billion dollars. While these contracts were not publicized, available information indicates that they included the following:
- 8 MiG-31E interceptors. This contract was annulled in 2009, most likely because of Israeli objections. No aircraft were ever transferred.
- 12 MiG-29M/M2 fighter jets, with an option for an additional 12. The first set of aircraft, and possibly all 12, are to be transferred towards the end of this year. No information is available on the option for an additional 12 aircraft.
- 8 battalions of Buk-M2E missile systems (total value $1 billion). Four were shipped in 2010-11, with the rest to be transferred by 2013.
- 12 battalions of S-125-2M Pechora-2M SAMs ($200 million). Four were shipped in 2011, and another four were shipped on the MV Alaed, which was recently forced to return to Russia after its insurance was cancelled.
- 36 Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile systems ($700 million). According to the CAST report, only 12 have been delivered so far. SIPRI, on the other hand, believes that all 36 have been delivered.
- 2 K-300-P Bastion coastal defense systems, armed with 36 Yakhont anti-ship missiles ($250 million). Contract completed in 2011.
- an unknown number of 9M123 Chrystanthemum self-propelled anti-tank missile systems. Most likely, none have been delivered to date.
- an unstated number of Igla-S surface to air missiles (200 according to SIPRI). Contract completed in 2010.
- modernization of 1000 T-72 tanks to T-72M1M level ($1 billion). Little work completed to date.
There was another set of contracts completed in 2007-08 to modernize Syria’s air force. This included the following:
- 15 Su-24MK bombers. Work began in 2010. These are to be armed with Kh-31A anti-ship missiles, 87 of which were produced through 2010.
- unknown number of MiG-29 fighters to SM level. (24 according to a previous CAST report). First four completed in 2011.
- unknown number of MiG-23 fighters to MLD level. Seven completed through 2011.
- 20 Mi-25 combat helicopters. 17 delivered so far. Last three were supposed to be delivered on the MV Alaed earlier this month.
- 2 Ka-28 anti-submarine helicopters. Contract completed.
The most recent contract was completed in December 2011, for 36 Yak-130 trainer aircraft ($550 million). However, this contract has not yet been approved by the Russian government.
To summarize, Russia has completed about $5.5 billion worth of military contracts with Syria since 2006, primarily for air force and air defense modernization. The report notes that despite prompt payment by the Syrian side, fulfillment of many of the contracts was dragged out (and in the case of the MiG-31s, cancelled) by the Russian government. So far, Syria has received only $1 billion worth of equipment from these contracts.
The authors argue that Russia has been very cautious in selling arms to Syria, making sure that Western powers and especially Israel did not object to the equipment being provided. In particular, Russia has refused to sell Iskander ballistic missile systems and S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Syria. In other words, the report argues that Russia has valued its relationship with Western states and Israel more than the financial and political gains from selling more weapons to Syria. Furthermore, even if Assad’s government survives, it will not be able to afford to pay for more Russian weapons for the foreseeable future, limiting its role as a customer for the Russian defense industry.
The Russian defense think tank CAST has produced a new report on Russian interests in Syria, by Mikhail Barabanov and Ruslan Aliev. This report largely supports my recent contention that while Russia has significant material interests in Syria, they are not the main reason for its support of the Assad regime. Let me first address what the report says about Russian motivations. Tomorrow, I’ll address the part of the report that spells out Russian material interests in Syria, since CAST provides some interesting new information on this topic.
One thing that the report notes at the outset is that there is a widespread consensus in Russia on support for the Assad regime. This includes not just political leaders, but also most experts and the public as well. The authors describe the Russian position as a strong consensus to defend Russian interests and limit Western willfulness. Of course, this just begs the question of what are Russian interests in this case.
The authors mention that Putin may have some sympathy for Assad as a fellow authoritarian leader facing internal protests that have Western support. But they judge that Putin is too pragmatic and opportunistic to allow such considerations to affect Russian policy.
They argue instead that the greatest role in determining Russian policy is played by the elite and expert consensus that Syria must not be lost, as Assad’s defeat would mean the loss of Russia’s last client and ally in the Middle East. Syria is seen in some quarters as one of the last symbolic remnants of Russia’s superpower status. For supporters of this view, Western intervention in Syria would be seen as the destruction of one of the few remaining symbols of Russia’s great power status.
Barabanov and Aliev then argue that this view is support by skepticism about the results of the Arab spring in general and the possible outcome of the Syrian revolution in particular. Russian elites believe that the Arab spring has destabilized the Middle East and opened the door for Islamist forces to take power. As they see it, only secular authoritarian regimes such as that of Assad can counter the rise of Islamist forces. The strong support being given by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the Syrian rebels only deepens Russian suspicions in this regard, given Russian beliefs about past Saudi efforts to export “wahhabism” to the North Caucasus and Central Asia.
Finally, Russian dislike for unilateral Western interventionism plays a role as well, augmented by Russian views that Western powers used the potential of a humanitarian crisis in Benghazi to push through a UN Security Council resolution authorizing Western intervention in Libya that was then cynically interpreted in a way that allowed Western powers to overthrow the Gaddhafi regime.
The authors conclude by noting that the Syrian situation thus combines all the phobias and complexes of Russian politics and public opinion. What is actually happening in Syria thus plays second fiddle to Russian perceptions about Russia’s role in the international system and pathologies related to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s subsequent decline.
All of this is broadly in line with my recent memo on this topic, so I’m naturally quite sympathetic to the argument in the report. I put more emphasis in my analysis on Russia’s role in the international community versus concern about Islamism and regional stability, but these are relatively fine distinctions that don’t really change the overall point: Russia is not backing Assad because of its commercial relationship or desire to maintain a military outpost there. It is backing Assad because it perceives that Assad’s downfall would have serious and long-lasting negative repercussions for Russia’s position in the Middle East and in the world, as well as for regional stability in the Middle East. This makes it far less likely that Russia would be willing to change its position in exchange for concessions on other material issues.
The following post has just been published as a PONARS Eurasia policy memo. It was originally presented in early May at a PONARS workshop in Tartu, Estonia. Click here for more information and other memos from this conference.
In recent months, Russia (with Chinese support) has increasingly staked out a strong position in support of the Assad regime in Syria. As Syria’s allies dwindle, Russia has become its foremost protector in the international arena. In doing so, it has followed a policy consistent with previous statements in support of regimes facing popular uprisings throughout the Middle East. This is not a new policy, as similar statements were made by Russian leaders during the Green revolution in Iran in 2009. To explain this policy, many analysts have focused on the importance of Russian economic investments in countries such as Libya and Syria or on political connections dating back from the Soviet days.
Undoubtedly,economic factors play a role in determining Russian policy. But the threat of spreading political instability and concern about setting precedents are at least as important for Russian leaders, who see the potential for the spread of unrest to other states in the region and fear the demonstration effects of successful revolts on vulnerable regimes in Central Asia. This memo will discuss the balance between interest-based and ideological factors in determining Russia’s response to the Arab Spring.
I argue that although Russia’s economic and strategic interests in the Middle East have played a role in shaping its response to the Arab Spring, fear of demonstration effects and positioning in the international arena have arguably had a larger effect on Russia’s support for Middle Eastern dictators over the last year. Russian leaders’ primary goal has been to prevent the establishment of a norm that allows for international intervention in response to government repression of domestic protests or violent uprisings. Second, the Russian government has sought to counter what it perceives as U.S. strategic gains in the Middle East. Economic factors, including arms sales, are thus only the third most important reason for Russian support for Bashar al-Assad and other Middle Eastern authoritarian leaders facing popular revolts over the past year. Continue reading
Josh Tucker from The Monkey Cage asked me to comment on the Russian helicopters supposedly heading to Syria. Here’s what I wrote:
Yesterday’s statement by Hillary Clinton that Russia is supplying Syria with attack helicopters has stirred up a great deal of controversy, providing more ammunition (so to speak) to US domestic opponents of the Obama administration’s policy of normalization of relations with Russia. This policy has already been damaged by Russian actions against domestic political protests, by serious disagreements over missile defense, and by the two countries’ diametrically opposed positions on the ongoing conflict in Syria. In this post, I want to quickly address the specific question of Russian arms exports to Syria and then turn to the political impact of this most recent contretemps.
I have written before on Russian arms sales to Syria. Most of the recent contracts in this sphere have involved missiles of various kinds, as well as the modernization of tanks and fighter aircraft. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia has not sold any helicopters to Syria since the Soviet days. Although this is not evident from the SIPRI data, Russian sources indicate that a contract was concluded in 2005 for Russia to modernize Syria’s Soviet-made Mi-17 helicopters. Russian media is speculating that US intelligence confused the return shipment of Syria’s own (newly modernized) helicopters for brand new helicopters that have been sold to Syria.
While I don’t have the information to come down definitively on one side or another of this debate, I would just say that it is generally very difficult for Russian arms exporters to conclude a major contract of this type in complete secrecy. It also takes time to make the helicopters, so any such contract would have had to have been concluded at least a year or two ago, when there would have been no need for secrecy. There is I suppose some possibility that Russia is supplying Syria with helicopters from its own inventory, rather than newly built ones. But that seems relatively unlikely given the relative scarcity of good equipment in the Russian military after years of low procurement. So I would say that the most likely scenario is in fact that these helicopters are in fact modernized Syrian Mi-17s, rather than new ones secretly sold to Syria.
Regardless of the exact provenance of these helicopters, recent events and the rhetoric on both sides show that the conflict is rapidly heading in the direction of a civil war. Moreover, this would be a civil war with echoes of the proxy civil wars of the Cold War days, with Russia potentially arming the Assad regime while Western countries (and their Gulf State allies) arm the rebels. Such wars were fairly ubiquitous in the 1970s and 1980s, but have largely faded from our memory since the end of communism. At the time, both superpowers were able to compartmentalize their relations in such a way as to continue negotiations on critical issues like arms control while fighting these proxy wars and engaging in rhetorical battles over the relative virtues of communism, capitalism, Western democracy and people’s democracy. It may be that leaders on both sides will soon need to relearn those compartmentalization skills so they can continue to cooperate on issues that are important for both sides (Afghanistan, counter-terrorism, counter-piracy, dealing with the rise of China) even as they take opposite sides in a likely civil war in Syria and engage in increasingly heated rhetoric about repression of grassroots protests (or, from the Putin government’s point of view—Western efforts to foment regime change) in Russia.
UPDATE: Actually, the helicopters are modernized Mi-24s. Not sure whether the Russian media reports were mistaken and the mid-2000s modernization contract was for Mi-24s rather than Mi-17s or if there were two separate contracts.
Here’s the full text of my Oxford Analytica brief from January. I posted an abbreviated version earlier, but now can post the whole thing.
As the uprising in Syria approaches its one-year anniversary, the stand-off between its government and the international community seems set to continue for the foreseeable future. Throughout this period, Russia has been Syria’s foremost protector in the international arena. It has taken on this role because of Syria’s economic significance for the arms export industry, its role as the host of Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union — and concern that a successful mass uprising might have negative consequences for its own political stability.
Russian leaders will use the Syrian crisis as an opportunity to show that their country is still a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East. They will also press their case that overthrow of the current Syrian regime would lead to further instability in the region — which might even spread to parts of the former Soviet Union. As a result, Russia will continue to do its utmost to prevent the fall of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Syria is one of the five largest foreign buyers of Russian defence equipment, receiving 6% of all arms exports in 2010 (the most recent full year for which data are available). In recent years, Syria has received:
- 2,000 anti-tank missiles for modernised T-72 tanks (delivered between 1999-2005);
- 200 Igla (SA-18) portable surface-to-air missiles, delivered without portable launchers as a result of US and Israeli pressure — and therefore usable only on ships, helicopters or vehicles (delivered in 2006);
- 36 Pantsir-S1 mobile air defence systems, armed with 500 SA-19 surface-to-air missiles (delivered between 2008-10);
- 2 K-300 Bastion coastal defence batteries, armed with Yakhont (SS-N-26) anti-ship missiles (delivered in 2010).
Contracts for future deliveries include:
- 200 more SA-19s;
- additional Igla portable surface-to-air missiles;
- 2 MiG-31M interceptors, second-hand from the Russian air force;
- 8 Buk-M2E missile system batteries (worth 1 billion dollars); and
- an unknown number of 9M123 Chrysanthemum self-propelled anti-tank missile systems (status uncertain);
- 36 Yak-130 training aircraft (worth 550 million dollars, announced this month);
- modernisation of 24 Syrian MiG-29s to the SMT level;
- modernisation of S-125 Pechora-2 surface-to-air missiles; and
- modernisation of 200 T-72 tanks, as part of a 500 million dollar contract to upgrade 1,000 tanks, with 800 already completed by end-2010.
The total value of these contracts is around 4 billion dollars; the agreements are critical for some companies’ financial survival. Russian exporters fear that regime change in Syria would lead to the loss of contracts, as new rulers may pursue opportunities to purchase weapons from other countries. They point to Libya as an example of the economic impact of a government overthrow on Russian arms sales. Since the uprising began, Russia has continued to send weapons to Syria, including a shipment of various munitions that came to attention this month after the ship carrying the weapons made an unscheduled stop in Cyprus because of high seas.
Wider interests, higher stakes
In addition to military contracts, Russian companies have other investments in Syria, primarily in natural gas extraction. These are valued at approximately 20 billion dollars and include a pipeline and a liquefied natural gas production facility.
Based on their experience with the new government in Libya, Russian leaders believe that these contracts will be lost if the opposition comes to power in Syria. Even if Russia abandons Assad at this point, they assess that the opposition would not forgive their earlier strong support for his regime. The announcement of a new contract for training aircraft this month, with initial deliveries scheduled for 2013, shows that the Russian government has decided to bank on the survival of the Assad regime. If the regime falls, both this contract and the other unfulfilled contracts for Russian military equipment are almost certain to be cancelled. Russia’s economic interests in Syria can be maintained only if Assad defeats the opposition or there is a negotiated settlement.
The role of Tartus
In the years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia gave up all but one of its military facilities outside the territory of the former Soviet Union. The one remaining is the naval logistics facility in Tartus. This is not a true military base, since it does not permanently host any Russian military personnel other than the 50 sailors who staff it. It consists of two floating piers, a floating repair facility, and a supply depot. Its primary purpose is to repair and resupply Russian navy ships transiting the Mediterranean.
Russian leaders are concerned that the fall of the Assad regime may lead to the closure of this facility. While the Syrian opposition has not made any statements regarding the future of Tartus, Russia has long depended entirely on Assad and cannot expect to have good relations with his successors, especially if they come to power by force.
The recent visit to Syria by a Russian naval group that included the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier was designed to demonstrate the importance that Russia attaches to its relationship with Syria and its current leadership. While official Russian sources repeatedly stated that this was a routine resupply visit scheduled long ago and had no political connotations, it was almost certainly intended as a political signal. The arrival of the ships was interpreted at home and abroad as a sign that Russia would not tolerate a ‘Libya scenario’ — and was perceived as such by the Syrian government and official media, which trumpeted the arrival of the ships as an indication of Russian support for the Assad regime.
Russian leaders may have actually meant to signal something slightly different: they want to demonstrate that Russia remains a player in the Middle East, and that its positions have to be taken into account. They believe that Assad’s departure will result in Syria either becoming a Turkish ally or descending into long-term chaos and civil war. In either situation, Russia will lose a dependable ally.
Syrian demonstration effects
The authorities in Moscow are also concerned that further successful popular uprisings in the Middle East may lead to demonstration effects in its own neighbourhood — and perhaps even in Russia itself. Initially, the greatest fear was about the possibility of popular uprisings bringing down ‘friendly’ autocrats in Central Asia. However, the recent large demonstrations against the falsification of elections in Russia itself have only increased its leaders’ determination to ensure that no additional ‘dominoes’ fall under popular pressure.
While the ‘Arab awakenings’ have little direct connection to the emergence of protests against Vladimir Putin’s political order, Russian leaders feel that they are surrounded by a tide of anti-incumbent protests — and see each government toppled as potentially feeding the mood throughout the world. A related fear is that the overthrow of the Assad regime may feed a resurgence of anti-government protests in Iran, bringing the region’s political instability even closer to Russia’s borders.
Furthermore, Russian leaders are concerned about the gains made by Islamist forces in the region, and particularly in Egypt. The twin dangers of popular overthrow of local autocrats and the subsequent victory of Islamic parties in elections raise the danger of an Islamist takeover of parts of Central Asia. Such a scenario would likely lead to a significant increase in migration flows from the region to Russia, further destabilising the domestic political situation.
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.