Op-Ed: Russia Ups Military Presence in the Mediterranean Sea
Sunday, March 23, was a lovely, warm day in Istanbul, the air lit with a bright, late-March sun. Thousands of people enjoyed the day on the boardwalk along the shore of the Bosporus, on the western side of the city.
This writer was there as well, sitting in a fish restaurant teeming with families. The atmosphere was pastoral, seagulls hovered overhead and the crowding cars that normally pack the area seemed less numerous than usual. A feeling of warm-weather vacationing was in the afternoon air and the parts of the boardwalk that met the water line were filled with families.
All of a sudden the pastoral atmosphere was disturbed by the loud sound of super-powerful motors. The restaurant's windows overlooking the Bosporus shook as a gigantic rusty gray ship, with artillery and a Russian name, came into view, hiding the opposite shore. The vessel was sailing rapidly southward, leaving a trail of foam in its wake. It was a Ropucha-1 large landing craft named Minsk and numbered 127. Its companion, the Olenegorsky Goniak, numbered 012, came into view three minutes later and Kalingrad, numbered 102, followed three minutes after that. Some of the people at the shore gazed at the ships with astonishment, sensing that something special was happening before their eyes, while others paid it no attention.
According to the facts that are known about these landing craft, they can carry a 450 ton cargo which may, in addition to soldiers and their personal weapons, include tanks, personnel carriers or any other equipment, armaments and spare parts. The most important detail for us to know is that the cargo can be in the ship's hold, not visible to observers stationed on the mountains overlooking the Bosporus or to flight cameras trying to detect its content. Each ship has two 2.244 inch diameter cannon, one in the bow and one in the stern, where there are also two doors for loading and unloading. The Soviet navy purchased 28 of these ships between the years 1975 and 1991.
It should be noted that in August 2012, three landing craft of this type reached the Syrian port of Tartus, apparently bringing armaments to Assad's forces, which, a year and a half earlier, in March 2011, had begun shooting at anti-Assad demonstrators and kept losing ground from then on.
Are the three landing craft that passed through the Bosporus Straits to reach the Mediterranean Sea connected to the war in Syria? Are these ships intended to improve the Syrian Air Force's ability to defend itself on the same Sunday that a Syrian plane strafing rebels north of Latakia was downed by Turkey? Or is the Russian navy's deployment from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean connected to what is going on in Ukraine and to the battleship that the US moved into the Black Sea? Could it just be ordinary maneuvers unconnected to specific events?
I leave the final judgment to my readers on the basis of the photos I took of the three ships. In my opinion, they are in dire need of immediate maintenance. But who am I to teach the Russians what to do?
Sliding Down a Slippery Legal Slope
This week 529 Egyptians were sentenced to death because a policeman was killed during a demonstration in which they took part. This death sentence appears extreme and not for real. Even if someone was murdered in some event, did everyone in the vicinity hold a deadly weapon? Did they all pull the trigger together? It seems as though the Egyptian courts hold anyone nearby, who demonstrated and who in his heart supported the act, responsible. This puts the courts in a suspicious position, sentencing someone to death because he identifies with a murder.
A sneaking suspicion is that the courts do not act according to legal criteria based on facts and proofs, but according to political and public considerations in which people are judged by their appearance and especially by their beards, by their mode of dress and by the demonstration in which they participate.
If there is one system in Egypt that has kept its integrity intact during the past three years, it is the judicial system, the one system that most of Egypt trusts is fair, serious, professional, businesslike and guided by objective and non-political criteria. This judgment – and it seems that more are to come for similar reasons – undermines the integrity of the Egyptian judicial system, even in the eyes of those who are against the "Muslim Brotherhood."
Defining the defendants as terrorists was meant to declare open season on their lives and feed them to the jaws of the regime that is using the judicial system in the same way Mubarak did, but with greater cruelty due to the conditions prevailing today. Defense Minister Sisi seems to be the winning candidate in the soon-to-be-held elections for president and he wants to close the "Muslim Brotherhood" file before he begins to rule, before what is being done becomes officially "his". Today he can pull the strings from backstage, and he wants to make it as clear as possible that he will not renege on defining the Brothers as terrorists, who deserve – all according to law, of course – the stiffest sentence there is.
Except that over 300 of those sentenced to death are not even imprisoned and are held to be evading the law. Will they give themselves up to be thrown into jail and possibly led to the gallows as well, or will they adopt more radical, extreme and dangerous forms of action that might justify labeling them "terrorists". In that event, open war will be declared between the government and the Brothers, bringing the Bagdad and Damascus tragedies to Cairo. Consider yourselves warned.