A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, September 28, 2015

No, I'm Pretty Sure China's Only Aircraft Carrier is Not in Tartus

A few days ago I noted some doubts about some of the alarmist reporting about the Russian military buildup in Syria, but the hysterical reactions have not only not abated, they've become more shrill. Something close to an apotheosis of paranoid reporting may have been reached. On Saturday, the Israeli "defense and intelligence" (note the quote marks) website DEBKAFile  reported "A Chinese aircraft carrier docks at Tartus to support Russian-Iranian military buildup."
As US President Barack Obama welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to the White House on Friday, Sept. 25, and spoke of the friendship between the two countries, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning-CV-16 docked at the Syrian port of Tartus, accompanied by a guided missile cruiser. This is revealed exclusively by DEBKAfile.
PLA Navy Liaoning CV-16
Now, anyone who has read it even sporadically knows that DEBKAFile has a solid track record of being sensationally wrong; I don't generally cite them here, though I did when they assured us in September 2011 that Qadhafi was still solidly in control in Libya the month before he died in a culvert by the side of a road. It's that kind of a track record. They like to imply they have access to Israeli intelligence, but if so they're being fed disinformation.

I have no access to any current classified intelligence, naval intelligence, or overhead image intelligence, so I must fall back on another form of intelligence: analyzing claims in the context of known facts. As John Adams put it, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

Let's start with some stubborn facts:
  1. Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) Liaoning (CV-16) is not "A Chinese aircraft carrier"; it is China's only aircraft carrier (though a second is being built).
  2. Laid down by the Soviet Navy as the Riga in 1988, renamed Varyag after Latvian independence and taken over by Ukraine with the fall of the Soviet Union, she was towed without operating engines to China and refitted.
  3. Its home port is Qingdao in eastern China, though there has been speculation she will be used to enforce Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
  4. To reach Tartus she would have to pass through the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Bab al-Mandab, and the Suez Canal (or take the long way through the Strait of Gibraltar). This cannot be done unnoticed, even by civilian observers.
  5. With the US expressing concern about four Russian Su-30 aircraft and 200 Russian Marines, it could neglect to note China's only carrier deployed to the Med?
  6. When China itself defines the South China Sea territorial dispute as its primary naval power projection issue?
Now it's true there have been other reports that China might join Russia in supporting Syria, and a website that seems pro-Syrian-regime has reported that a "Chinese warship" transited the Suez Canal and Chinese military advisers are en route to Syria, but a "Chinese warship" (some of which have been showing up in odd places like the Bering Strait) is not the same as "China's only aircraft carrier."

If only DEBKAFile alone had reported this I'd have ignored it completely. But other media, especially on the political right, are picking up on it. Maybe there is a Chinese ship at Tartus, but if it's the Liaoning, I'll believe in teleportation.  Cue Twilight Zone theme: the "Philadelphia Experiment," anyone?


K. Rove said...

Anyone with half a brain and some with even less know that a Chinese aircraft carrier docked this morning at saba'a bahrat which is a lot more threatening that Tartus.

This wouldn't have happened if (insert name of GOP candidate)were president!

Joseph Metcalf, USN (Ret) said...

In a related startling development, there are credible reports that the Hudson Austin Brigade (all ten of them!) deployed to Tartus.

I'm smelling a commie plot here!

Michael Collins Dunn said...

K.Rove: Getting it over the mountains shows you must be right !