Two Russian navy ships are completing preparations to sail to Syria each with a unit of marines on a mission to protect Russian citizens and the nation’s base in the country.
The deployment appears to reflect Moscow’s growing concern about Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s future.
The Interfax news agency yesterday quoted an unidentified Russian navy official as saying that the two amphibious landing vessels, Nikolai Filchenkov and Caesar Kunikov, will be heading shortly to the Syrian port of Tartus, but did not give a precise date.
Each ship is capable of carrying up to 300 marines and a dozen tanks, according to Russian media reports. That would make it the largest known Russian troop deployment to Syria, signalling that Moscow is becoming increasingly uneasy about Syria’s slide toward civil war.
Tartus is Russia’s only naval base outside the former Soviet Union, serving Russian navy ships on missions to the Mediterranean and hosting an unspecified number of military personnel.
Russian officials have said that other ships that have called at Tartus this year also had marines on board, but it has remained unclear whether they rotated the troops at Tartus or simply protected the ships during their mission and returned home.
Russia also has an unspecified number of military advisers teaching Syrians how to use Russian weapons.
Syria is Russia’s last remaining ally in the Middle East, and has been a major customer of Soviet and Russian weapons industries for the last four decades.
Russia has shielded Assad’s regime from sanctions over its violent crackdown on protests. Moscow has continued to provide Syria with arms, despite Western calls for a halt in supplies.