MOSCOW — Russia has withdrawn all its military personnel from Syria and left its strategic Tartus naval center unstaffed because of the escalating security threat in the war-torn country, the Vedomosti daily said Wednesday.
The respected business daily cited an unnamed source in the Russian defense ministry as saying that no Russian defense ministry military or civilian personnel were now present in Syria, a Soviet-era ally of Moscow.
The source said the decision was taken to limit the dangers posed to Russians amid a raging civil war and to reduce the threat of political damage that could result from Russians being killed by either side.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov had appeared to confirm the evacuation of military staff in an interview with the London-published Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat published on Friday.
“Today, the Russian defense ministry does not have a single person in Syria,” he said.
“In Tartus, we never had a base in the first place. It is a technical facility for maintaining ships sailing in the Mediterranean,” he added.
The facility in the Mediterranean port of Tartus, located in the Alawite Muslim heartland region of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, is Russia’s only such asset outside the former Soviet Union.
Created as the result of an agreement between Damascus and Moscow in 1971, the Tartus facility was believed in recent months to have been staffed by just a few dozen Russian defense ministry personnel.
Russia always insisted on calling it not a base but a “point of military-technical supply of the Russian Navy”. But analysts have always seen its sheer existence as a huge asset for Moscow.
The Vedomosti report said the decision to remove defence ministry personnel did not cover technical experts who are hired by the Syrian government to help train its army use Russian-issued weapons.
Russia supplies ground-to-surface interceptor missiles to Syria as well as warplanes and helicopters and other heavy machinery meant for national self-defence.
Moscow defends its military sales to Syria by arguing that it is only fulfilling contracts signed before the current conflict broke out in March 2011.
Syria represents Russia’s last strategic ally in the Middle East and the fall of Assad would deal a significant blow to Moscow’s geopolitical aspirations.
Russia now intends to keep between three and five warships permanently stationed in the region as a show of its strategic interest in the Middle East, the Vedomosti report said.