Another phase in Russian President Vladimir Putin's imperialistic aspirations is being realized. It was just a matter of time before the Russian navy returned to the Mediterranean and resumed permanent command over the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia, which it abandoned with the fall of the Soviet Union.
A Russian flag on Syrian soil has significant strategic implications. Firstly, it challenges the US and the dominance of the Sixth Fleet stationed in the Mediterranean. Secondly, with its actual presence in Syria, Russia is announcing that it is actively participating in any process and conflict in the Middle East, that it has a stance of its own, and that it must be reckoned with.
From Israel's point of view, we can expect a change in the rules of the game in the Mediterranean in general, and more specifically along the Syrian-Lebanon coasts: We haven't seen Soviet spy ships in the Mediterranean for quite some time. A permanent port in Syria would significantly facilitate its operations in our arena.
Under such circumstances, the Israeli navy's freedom of action would inevitably change – and we may assume that Israel would have a problem striking at land-based facilities during wartime. The large-scale Syrian-Russian arms deal also includes systems for protecting coasts and ports and land-to-sea missiles of the most advanced type. Now we understand why.
Russia may play role of 'responsible adult'
Generally speaking, any possible Israeli military operation against Syria in the future would have to take the Russian presence into account. This presence would not necessarily be neutral. It is very reasonable to assume that Russia would take sides, at least diplomatically, in such a conflict.
But perhaps the situation is not so bleak. As a "responsible adult" residing in Syria, Russia can actually serve to restrain a violent conflict from erupting between Syria and Israel.
Even now we can see that the Russians refrained from selling the Syrians some problematic arms from our point of view, such as the missiles that followed the Scud missile generation or the Russian equivalent of the Patriot anti-aircraft missiles.
Although the Russians have agreed to upgrade Syria's MIG-29 aircraft, they have still not concluded the sale of new MIG-31A aircraft. There are still quite a few items the Syrians have asked for that the Russians are still weighing.
Moreover, Russia may have a very central role is restraining the Iranian bear hug embracing Syria. In an age where there is talk of American withdrawal from Iraq, such a restraining Russian influence is doubly important in impeding the fundamentalist wave that is threatening to immerse the region.