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War in Syria: How the Russian Navy helps Bashar Assad

The Syrian government forces have relatively successfully fought against several opponents (Syrian rebels, moderate Islamists, Syrian Kurds and ISIS) for five years already. The territory controlled by Bashar al-Assad decreases each year, but the regime still preserves the power thanks largely to the economic and military support of the Russian Federation. The InformNapalm team decided to demonstrate the traffic statistics of various Russian fleets’s warships in the Syrian port of Tartus. This article contains the results of the investigation of Anton Pavlushko, our OSINT-expert, who made an extensive analysis and prepared several tables with the times, periods, expeditions count and the list of the Russian Navy’s transport warships involved into military cargoes deployment to Syria (direct link – http://bit.ly/VovaHelpingBasharEN [1]).

One of the reasons of this long-running conflict is Assad’s regime’s “endless war reserves” which Russia constantly refills both by air and by sea. The air traffic is limited nowadays, but the sea traffic remains a robust life-line for Bashar.

The main role in the military cargoes transfer to Syria is played by Russia’s Black Sea Fleet (the home base is located in Sevastopol, occupied Crimea, Ukraine).

Theoretically, Russia could have established the military smuggling to Syria with the help of civil ships, but the first freight inspection would provoke an international scandal – that is why the Navy’s warships are used for the convoys. The traffic to the Syrian port goes through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits.

The warships cannot be revised and the passing of the straits is the subject to Montreux Convention [2] from 1936 and requires only a notification of the Turkish authorities about the coming event.

In this way, the Russian landing platform/docks [3] (LPDs) are used for military equipment and troops transfer to Syria. The Black Sea fleet has 7 LPDs as part of the 197th landing ship brigade.

It is worth noting that the Ukrainian LPD ‘Konstantin Olshansky’ (captured by the Russians during the annexation of Crimea) is located in Sevastopol, but Russia does not venture to use it for cargoes transferring to Syria.

As you can see from the table, they could use only 4-5 ships out of 7, so it was decided to take LPDs from other fleets to increase the traffic capacity.

North fleet — 4 Project 775 class LPDs:

Baltic fleet — 4 Project 775 class LPDs:

Pacific fleet — 3 Project 775 class LPDs and 1 Project 1171 class LPD:

*The ships that has not taken part in cargoes transferring to Syria through the Bosphorus are marked in red   

These are the two main types of the landing ships (Project 775 and 1171):

The Project 1171 (started in 2004) had to reinforce the outdated Russian fleet with the new landing ships, but none of the ships of this class has been put in service due to poor funding.

The Russian military authorities also planned to reinforce the fleet capacity by the latest Mistral-class multipurpose landing ships ordered in France. This kind of ships could transfer up to 70 military trucks OR 40 tanks and 450 troops and have the displacement of 32000 tons which is several times greater than the Project 775/1171 LPDs (up to 4400 tons). But the annexation of Crimea and the applied sanctions ruined the plan. Now Russia has to use the old vessels built in Soviet times.

We took the Turkish Bosphorus Naval News [4] site to analyze the traffic through the Bosphorus. It does not contain the full data, but the authors are sure they have processed 90-95% of the warships traffic through the strait. The InformNapalm volunteers combined the data from 2013-2015 and split it by the fleets, ship types and passages times.

More than 300 passings the Bosphorus in both directions by the Russian warships were registered in 3 years. More than 50 different ships from all the Russian Navy’s fleets participated in that, including at least 14 out of 18 LPDs in service – 5 (Black Sea fleet), 4 (Baltic fleet), 3 (North fleet), 2 (Pacific fleet).

The share of the landing ships among all the Russian warships passed the Bosphorus was more than 70% (229 of 303 passages). The Black sea fleet’s LPDs performed more than half of the passages, 20% is accounted for by LPDs of the Baltic fleet and around 10% by the North fleet’s LPDs.

The common route of the Russian LPDs: Sevastopol (if ship belongs to the Black sea fleet) — Novorossiysk — Bosphorus — Dardanelles — Latakia/Tartus.

The main cargo loading is done in Novorossiysk. Loading in Sevastopol requires cargo transferring to Crimea, which is rather difficult lately. So, the Russian ships have to make a detour from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk which extends an average expedition time to Tartus by 1 day. A typical expedition from Novorossiysk to Tartus takes 4 days.

One trip to Syria and back takes around 10 days – such trips can be tracked in the traffic through the Bosphorus. Often the Black sea fleet’s LPDs travel in pair, pass the straits and return back to the Black sea in 8-13 days.

Novorossiysk-Tartus trip takes around 4 days (1512 sea miles or 2433 km), the cargo is unloaded for several days and the ships sail home (the time spent is calculated with the SeaRates [5] service).

InformNapalm_Syria_02_ENG [6]

As you can see from the statistic information and info-graphic, the sea traffic increases each year. Presumably, there were more than 30 expeditions in 2013, and more than 45 in 2014. And they reached the level of 2014 already by September, 2015.

The landing ships of the Baltic and North fleets are used in rotation of Russia’s Mediterranean Fleet (in Russian [7]), but, in fact, ply between Novorossiysk and Tartus.

The most frequent travelers to the Mediterranean are the ‘Kaliningrad’ LPD (10 times in 2014) and ‘Novocherkassk’ LPD (9 trips in 2014 and 8 in 2015). The technical maintenance in Tartus is provided by 2 floating workshops of the Black Sea Fleet – PM-56 and PM-138 which swap each 6 months (in Russian [8]).

Thanks to the data of the Bosphorus Naval News project, we can speak about more than 100 trips of the Russian LPDs to Syria in 3 incomplete years.

The information about the warship trips can also be found in the open VKontakte groups where wives and servicemen share the actual coordinates of the ships. The ‘Syrian’ question arises there all the time.

Besides that, the Tartus port calls are covered in local media (in Kaliningrad, Sevastopol, Novorossiysk) and on the web sites of the Russian News Agency TASS, RIA Novosti, etc.

It is remarkable that the ships are fully loaded on the way to Tartus — the water-line is hardly seen on the pictures. But on the way to the Black sea it can easily be seen – the ships are empty.

We do not know much about the cargo, but starting from the summer of 2015 the Russian LPDs pass the Bosphorus with the military equipment on the upper deck. The tilt-covered or hidden under the camouflage net equipment has been pictured by many news agencies. This way the world got to know about ‘Nikolai Filchenkov’ LPD. In general, it is pretty dangerous maneuver for a LPD, since it is a long trip in the open sea.

'Nikolai Filchenkov' LPD passes the Bosphorus on September 10, 2015. The cargo on the deck is covered. Photo by: Yörük Işık [9]

‘Nikolai Filchenkov’ LPD passes the Bosphorus on September 10, 2015. The cargo on the deck is covered. Photo by: Yörük Işık

'Nikolai Filchenkov' LPD passes the Bosphorus on September 10, 2015. The cargo on the deck is covered. Photo by: Alper Böler [10]

‘Nikolai Filchenkov’ LPD passes the Bosphorus on September 10, 2015. The cargo on the deck is covered. Photo by: Alper Böler

The Project 1171 LPDs can take cargo on the upper deck [11], but it was weird when containers were placed on the upper deck of the Project 775 LPD, where is almost no free space [12]. It seems like Russians experience some kind of ‘logistics panic’ these days. The deployment of the military cargo to Syria is intensive now. It is likely that Bashar al-Assad’s army badly needs a reinforcement.

'Nikolai Filchenkov' LPD, Project 1171. Photo: turkishnavy.net [13]

‘Nikolai Filchenkov’ LPD, Project 1171. Photo: turkishnavy.net

'Korolev' LPD, Project 775, passes the Bosphorus on September 3, 2015. Photo: turkishnavy.net [14]

‘Korolev’ LPD, Project 775, passes the Bosphorus on September 3, 2015. Photo: turkishnavy.net

Eventually, in the plain sight of the whole world Russia almost openly provides Assad’s regime with the weaponry. And lately the number of shipments increased. In result, we have millions of refugees, hundreds of thousands of killed people and general unrest in this oil producing region. But the world community starts to see who pours gasoline on a blaze of this war only now, 4 years later.

Even the hasteless European bureaucracy has started to take actions. And gradually Russia looses the possibility to transfer the cargoes by air, so the expeditions of the Russian LPDs through the Bosphorus will increase.

This way, while Russia’s economy experiences the pressure of sanctions for the Crimea occupation and the war in Donbas, the Russian Federation authorities spend billions of rubles on the Bashar Assad’s regime support. Having stuck in one war, the Kremlin enters another one. So, the ‘cargo 200’ [dead bodies] will come not only from Donbas, but also from Syria.

Additional materials and statistical data.

The approximate number of the trips to Tartus:

The number of the Russian LPDs involved into the expeditions to Syria, by fleets:

The number of the expeditions to Syria, by ships (in one year):

The appraisal report of the expeditions from January, 2013 till September 2015 (criterion – leaving the Black Sea and returning in 4 weeks)

All the Russian LPDs movements through the Bosphorus from January, 2013 till September, 2015:

Original article [15] by Anton Pavlushko [16], translated by Oleksandr Klymenko