OK

Is my title hyperbole? Yes, it is, but then there is Tartus.

Tartus is a port city in Syria. It is also home to Russia's last remaining Soviet era naval base outside of Russia and in the most strategic region on the globe. While foreign military bases are generally not considered sovereign territory of the occupying military, military vessels themselves are. The naval base at Tartus is small, but viewed as critical by the Russians. Here is an overhead look.

Why do the Russians care about Tartus?
After all, Tartus is a small and limited facility that does not even have permanent repair capabilities.  However, there are compelling reasons why Russia may consider Tartus to be a critical facility.  Pier side maintenance and resupply are vital for deployed Russian naval ships.  The U.S. Navy has perfected the operational art of resupply at sea, and can keep ships underway almost indefinitely.

The Russian Navy simply does not have that level of deployed sustainability – they need secure ports to conduct repair and replenishment.  In fact, it appears that on twelve separate occasions Russian naval vessels have made port calls to Tartus over the last two years.

Why is any of this important?

It is important because Assad may be moving some of his most vital military assets into Tartus. If our real goal is to degrade the Syrian military's ability to launch offensive action against its population, we are going to have to bomb Tartus.

Syria’s military is preparing for a U.S. strike by dispersing its forces into apartment buildings, schools and mosques, and may be hiding its most valuable assets inside a Russian naval base, betting that U.S. missiles will avoid it.

“There is some evidence that the Syrian military is treating the Russian base at Tartus as a safe zone,” said Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

In fact, a recent newsflash has it that Assad's own personal escape plan includes Tartus.
Assad charts escape to Russian base at Tartus via Lebanon?

According to the Lebanese daily A-Nahar of Sunday, Syrian President Bashar Assad plans to flee from his current hideout at Yaafur to the Russian naval base at the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus, the moment the US attack on his country begins. A Gazelle helicopter stands ready to fly over Lebanon to Tartus at an estate in Yaafur, 12 minutes drive from central Damascus.

Currently, it seems most of the daily work at this small naval facility is performed by local contractors and much of the Russian population seems to have been evacuated, but the base's role remains important because it will be needed to service Russian naval surface ships and subs making more frequent trips to the Mediterranean.
Russia announced earlier this month that it will keep a fleet of about dozen navy ships in the Mediterranean, a move seen as an attempt to project power and protect its interests in the region. Russian navy ships have been making regular visits to the Mediterranean in recent months, but the latest announcements by President Vladimir Putin and other officials mark an attempt to revive a Soviet-era practice, when Moscow had a permanent navy presence in the area.
You can see above we are talking about a very small area for not just the little port, but the town as well. If Assad indeed places critical assets in Tartus, it will do so the in the Russian naval area to provide cover. Assad knows the geopolitical risks for the U.S. should it bomb targets that could potentially damage Russian facilities, and perhaps the Russian sovereign territory that is its military vessels that might be in port. Our "smart bombs" sometimes are not so smart. I've heard our cruise missiles miss about 15% of the time. We can't target anything in Tartus without damaging Russian assets.

Would Russia respond militarily? No, I don't think so (though I'm no expert), at least not directly. But indirectly Russia can complicate things for us all over the world. The risks are the sort of thing that foster proxy wars and could move us more firmly into a Cold War posture. Putin uses nationalism to entrench his power and this would be just the thing to ramp that up a few notches. (Expect thug attacks on Americans in Russia.)

I've always viewed the greatest risk of direct American military involvement being the potential for the action to widen into a broader regional conflict or otherwise Butterfly Effect global politics in a negative way that resonate for decades to come. Bombing a city encompassing Russia LAST foreign naval port (excepting a leased port in the Ukraine) is some serious tempting of fate.

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