The Voyage of the Nikolai Filchenkov

Even as Saudi Arabia dispatched death row inmates to fight in Syria, the media reported that Russia was sending a large landing ship to Syria with a "special cargo". The reinforcements from the Kingdom consisted of individuals who had nothing to lose.

Saudi Arabia has sent death-row inmates from several nations to fight against the Syrian government in exchange for commuting their sentences, the Assyrian International News Agency reports. ...

According to an English translation of the memo, besides Saudis, the prisoners included Afghans, Egyptians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Kuwaitis, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Somalis, Sudanese, Syrians and Yemenis. All faced "execution by sword" for murder, rape or drug smuggling.

Although this can hardly improve the moral tone of the rebels the Saudi recruits will undoubtedly not have many inhibitions to lose. Which cast the nature of the Russian ship's cargo, the Nikolai Filchenkov's into focus. Are these also reinforcements to counter the Saudi's Legion of the Lost? The Business Insider reports: "A Russian warship carrying 'special cargo' will be dispatched toward Syria, a navy source said on Friday, as the Kremlin beefs up its presence in the region ahead of possible US strikes against the Damascus regime."

From Russia with love From Russia with love

The large landing ship Nikolai Filchenkov will on Friday leave the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol for the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, from where it will head to Syria’s coast, the Interfax news agency quoted a source from the Saint Petersburg-based central naval command as saying.

“The ship will make call in Novorossiisk, where it will take on board special cargo and set off for the designated area of its combat duty in the eastern Mediterranean,” the source said.

The source did not specify the nature of the cargo.

Defense Updates, however, has further to say on the Filchenkov's secret mission.

The arrival of the Nikolai Filchenkov in Tartus is not the first that Russian landing ships made to this port. Only recently the Russian Interfax news agency reported the LST Novocherkassk, (carrying 150 marine special forces) and Minsk (with 300 troops), were sent to the Syrian port, although their mission was not specified. According to the website of the Russian Black Sea Fleet the Filchenkov can carry 300 troops + 1,700 tons of cargo, including about 20 tanks and trucks or 40 AFV’s.

The recent mission coincided with an unplanned US-Russian summit at St. Petersburg. Although no such meeting was priori arranged between President Barak Obama and Vladimir Putin at the G20 conference in St Petersburg, the meeting between the two leaders (just them, no staff) lasted 30 minutes. Following the meeting no announcements were given to the media, which seems strange under the present Syrian crisis, that has already dominated the Summit.

The suggestion is that the ship has come in connection with whatever understanding was reached in St Petersburg.

The exact size of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is not known with any precision, though the French government has estimated it to be more than 1,000 tons. This is believed to be one of the largest stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) existing in the Middle East today. ...

But if any one, the Russians should know the exact inventory. The weapons were stored originally in five major locations – near the cities of Latakia, Palmyra, Homs and Hama, all in the north and central part of the country, and at al-Safir, near the Turkish border. However, weapons have been moved around the country over the last year for operational reasons, a process that has recently accelerated as the threat of a retaliatory strike by the U.S. has increased. The obvious target for storing these safely for the regime would be the coastal mountains in which Bashar Assad’s Alawite minority still dominates the scene.

Moreover, it seems logical that under the mentioned circumstances, Russian special forces based at Tartus, could have been directing these critical movements. In fact, western intelligence monitoring the chemical weapons hideouts, indicate that underground storage depots, which may include chemical weapons have been sighted in the coastal mountain region of Latakia, the Alawite stronghold. These locations are conveniently accessible to the Russian Naval Port of Tartus, where the LST Nikolai Filchenkov is likely heading.

So what could be more natural to solve the Syrian crisis, which is already nearing a political, if not military disaster? It would be to remove the fuse from this ‘time bomb’, remove the critical parts of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal, especially its delivery systems and most vulnerable and dangerous agents, before the entire Middle East enters into another highly dangerous quagmire, which no one really wants. Such means could include specific warheads, sarin and VX binari agents (which can be carried safely to a temporary storage area in Russia)

The speculation in other words is that Russia is going to pull a "Saddam" on Syria. If and when American or international coalition inspectors arrive on the ground there will be ... no ... WMDs. Or maybe the sequence was for the strikes to take place and for Russia to defuse the situation and pull out the chemical weapons.

Of course that is only one of several possibilities. However, the voyage of the Nikolai Filchenkov underscores the indistinctness of all the Red Lines in the region. We don't know the ending of the script as written. Maybe even the players do not know how the story ends.

All About A VideoThe Forgotten Red Lines

The fight in Syria is as much a battle of narratives as it is of weapons and tactics among armies of the night. We are getting a glimpse into the face of modern proxy warfare in which the press -- and the public -- are often the last to know.

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