Russia’s combat dolphins may have been used in Syria: report

Satellite imagery shows possible marine mammal pens at Russia's naval base in Syria during late 2018.

al-monitor Russian submarines are pictured at the Russian naval base in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus on Sept. 26, 2019.  Photo by MAXIME POPOV/AFP via Getty Images.

Jul 20, 2020

Russia may have deployed combat dolphins to help its war effort in Syria, new open-source research suggests.

Satellite imagery appears to show marine mammal pens were at the Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria, for a period in late 2018. Writing in Forbes, open-source researcher H I Sutton says the dolphins probably came from a Black Sea unit near Sevastopol, Crimea. They may have been deployed to "counter enemy divers who might try to sabotage ships in the port" or to retrieve objects from the sea, he wrote.

The pens appeared only from September to December 2018, leading Sutton to speculate the dolphins “may have been a test. Or it may not have ended well.”

Russia has a history of training marine mammals for military tasks. During the Cold War, the Soviet navy is believed to have taught dolphins to use their echolocation to search for underwater mines and detect submarines. A retired Russian colonel told The Guardian the cetaceans were even trained to plant explosive devices on enemy ships.

After annexing the Crimea region, Russia took control of the Ukrainian navy’s dolphin facility in 2014. The Russian Defense Ministry in 2016 said it would pay $26,000 for three male and two female bottlenose dolphins to be delivered to Sevastopol. In April 2019, a fisherman discovered a tame beluga whale off Norway's coast wearing a harness that suggested it came from a Russian naval facility.

Russia has fought in Syria alongside government forces since September 2015, when it intervened militarily and turned the tide of the war in the regime’s favor. A Russian-backed offensive on the last rebel stronghold of Idlib in December forced roughly 1 million people, a majority of them women and children, to flee their homes.

Tartus is home to Russia’s sole naval base outside the former USSR. In 2017, Moscow inked a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to lease the Mediterranean naval facility for another 49 years.

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