There is a certain sense of melancholy in watching the “Syrian Missile Crisis” unfold this month. For the first time in two decades, U.S. and Russian warships have conducted — during the crisis itself — what we might call competing port visits to the principal nations involved. The Russian port visit was not related to Syria’s deployment of Scud missiles with Hezbollah, but its timing was certainly emblematic of the trend in Russian policy in the region.
The Russian nuclear-powered cruiser RFS Pyotr Veliky, flagship of the Northern Fleet, pulled into Tartus, Syria, on April 13. Pyotr Veliky is the warship that visited Venezuela and operated in the Caribbean in late 2008. Russia’s navy continues to struggle in rebuilding its once-aggressive profile on the high seas; port visits like this one have yet to become routine again, although Russia still keeps the small logistic detachment in Tartus that has been there for decades. The Tartus port visit this month was attended by ceremony, high-level meetings, and pointed statements from Russia’s ambassador in Damascus.
The day of Pyotr Veliky’s arrival, Shimon Peres announced Israel’s information on the transfer of Syrian Scuds to Hezbollah. The warship’s presence is not, of course, evidence of Russian involvement in that joint action by Syria and Iran, but it unquestionably symbolizes Russia’s regional links at an informative time. The media furor over the Scud transfer has produced very little reaction from Russia; it apparently interfered in no way with the fraternal amity of the port visit, which Russian media covered extensively. Pyotr Veliky left Tartus and headed south through the Suez Canal on April 16.
The visit to Haifa of USS Ramage (DDG-61), an Aegis destroyer, has presented an interesting contrast. The lack of even the usual low-level fanfare about the port visit may be due to Ramage’s peculiar capabilities: the destroyer is one of the U.S. Navy’s few Atlantic-based warships outfitted with the ballistic-missile defense (BMD) package. Ramage deployed to the Mediterranean in January specifically to provide a BMD contingency presence, a relatively new mission. The ship arrived in Haifa on the 18th, five days after the Peres disclosure was picked up by U.S. media.
Ramage’s quiet dispatch to Israel is thought-provoking, in light of Russia’s lack of embarrassment at favoring Syria with a flagship port call just when word was getting out about Syrian missiles being proliferated to the terrorist group Hezbollah. It reminds me that the Obama administration has not affirmed a commitment to Israel’s national integrity in the wake of the Scud story. Its spokesmen have emphasized instead that giving Scuds to Hezbollah could “destabilize the region” and “put Lebanon at risk.”
Perhaps Ramage has been sent to Israel’s coast solely as a counter to “regional” destabilization — and making a stop in Haifa is a mere convenience given Israel’s long history of logistic accommodation in that regard. But to make such disingenuous assertions, the Obama administration would have to be talking deliberately about defense commitments in the first place. It does not do so, however, nor does it occur to today’s U.S. media to ask it to. Russia, Iran, and Syria, by contrast, suffer from no such reticence.