Russia announced Friday it was renovating a Syrian port for use by the Russian fleet in what could signal an effort for a better foothold in the Mediterranean amid the rift with the United States over Georgia.
Syria was Moscow's strongest Mideast ally during the Cold War. The alliance largely waned after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, though Russia has continued some weapons sales to Damascus. Syrian President Bashar Assad has increasingly reached out to Russia recently, including Seeking weapons and offering broader military cooperation.
Friday's announcement was the first tangible sign of any new cooperation. The Itar-Tass news agency said Friday that a vessel from Russia's Black Sea fleet had begun restoring facilities at Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus for use by the Russian military.
The two countries' naval chiefs also met in Moscow on Friday and discussed "further strengthening mutual trust and mutual understanding between the two states' fleets," A Russian naval official, Igor Dygalo, told Itar-Tass. The Tartus renovations could signal an intention to have a long-term Russian naval presence there.
In late August, Russia's ambassador to Damascus, Igor Belyev, said that Russian ships already patrol the area, but "a new development is that the Russian presence in the Mediterranean will become permanent."
Syrian media made no mention of the Russian announcement Friday, and Syrian officials could not be reached for comment.
Russian military experts said Tartus would be a considerable boost for operations in the Mediterranean. "It is much more advantageous to have such a facility than to return ships patrolling the Mediterranean to their home bases," Former Black Sea Fleet commander Adm. Eduard Baltin said, according to the Russian Interfax-AVN service. The former first deputy commander the Russian Navy, Adm. Igor Kasatonov, said Tartus "is of great geopolitical significance considering that it is the only such Russian facility abroad."