The declaration earlier this month by Admiral Vladimir Masorin, commander of the Russian navy, that Moscow intends to re-establish a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean is under close scrutiny from Washington to Tel Aviv. While more an aspiration than established fact, the move carries myriad, challenging implications, ranging from the US Sixth Fleet's regional monopoly on naval power to the security of trans-Caucasian and North African energy supply routes.
Yet it is the prospect of Russia reactivating its cold war naval bases in Syria's Tartus and Latakia ports which could have the most dramatic impact. By raising Syria's stock in the region, analysts say such a move could further complicate western attempts to achieve settlements in Lebanon and Palestine. Defensive missile and surveillance systems around any Russian installations might also shift the military balance to Israel's disadvantage.
A brief by Stratfor.com, a private US intelligence firm, said: "A Russian naval presence off the Syrian coast could allow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's regime to better inoculate itself against a potential attack by the US or Israel ... The Russians would be offering an attractive insurance policy."
The Russian Black Sea fleet's 720th Logistics Support Point at Tartus has been in disuse since 1991, when the Soviet Union imploded. Yet it remains the only Russian military base outside the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States territory. Last year Russia reportedly dredged Tartus and began building a new dock at Latakia.
Kommersant newspaper said the plans were far from implementation. But as the Kiev Post noted, the Black Sea fleet's lease on its Sevastopol base is hostage to Ukraine's volatile relations with Moscow - and will in any case expire in 2017, necessitating a renegotiation or a move.
Wary of Israel's possible reaction (and Russian domination), Syria denies any intention to host a new military presence. But in the double-dealing world of Middle East politics, such statements by a regime with long-standing political and commercial links to Russia are not taken at face value.
Syria could threaten a Russian go-ahead if its recent, limited cooperation with the US over Iraq fails to win concessions on Lebanon or guarantees that Washington will not pursue regime change.
President Vladimir Putin, involved in a bare-chested global game of military and diplomatic one-upmanship with the US, may also be using the Syrian bases as pawns. They could equally be used to increase Russian leverage over the US-led peace process or to control Syria's future behavior, depending on where Moscow's perceived interests lie.
Dmitri Trenin, of the Carnegie Endowment, says Moscow's pragmatic - and by implication, unprincipled - foreign policymakers are "looking for opportunities wherever they may be". That meant building influence in the Middle East in particular.
For this reason, said Pavel Baev, of Eurasia Daily Monitor, Mr Putin was hedging his bets while he waited to see how the twin crises with Iraq and Iran play out. One example: now that panicky Arab states are pursuing nuclear programs to match Iran's, Russia wants its share of the resulting business in the Gulf. Yet at the same time, Moscow is helping Iran complete its Bushehr nuclear facility. Mr Baev said Russia was manoeuvring to profit from an irresistible window of opportunity: the power shift that would follow a US defeat in Iraq. "In the envisaged no-holds-barred power play, Russia would not have any allies but could enjoy perfect freedom of manoeuvre and exploit the advantage of not being afraid of any oil crisis.
"Declaring its adherence to pragmatism, Moscow is increasingly adopting anti-Americanism as its guiding political idea," he said. Toying with military bases in Syria was just part of a bigger, bolder bid to challenge US regional and global leadership. ( Buzzle )