Russia said on Tuesday that it had dispatched a flotilla of 11 warships to the eastern Mediterranean, some of which would dock in Syria. It would be the largest display of Russian military power in the region since the Syrian conflict began almost 17 months ago. Nearly half the ships were capable of carrying hundreds of marines.
The announcement appeared intended to punctuate Russia’s effort to position itself as an increasingly decisive broker in resolving the anti-government uprising in Syria, Russia’s last ally in the Middle East and home to Tartus, its only foreign military base outside the former Soviet Union.
The announcement also came a day after Russia said it was halting new shipments of weapons to the Syrian military until the conflict settled down.
Russia has occasionally sent naval vessels on maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean, and it dispatched an aircraft-carrying battleship, the Admiral Kuznetsov, there for maneuvers with a few other vessels from December last year to February. There were rumors in recent weeks that the Russians planned to deploy another naval force near Syria.
However, the unusually large size of the force announced on Tuesday was considered a message, not just to the region, but also to the US and other nations supporting the rebels now trying to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Tartus consists of little more than a floating refueling station and small barracks, but any strengthened Russian presence there could forestall Western military intervention in Syria.
The Russian announcement received a muted response in Washington.
“Russia maintains a naval supply and maintenance base in the Syrian port of Tartus,” US National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said. “We currently have no reason to believe this move is anything out of the ordinary, but we refer you to the Russian government for more details.”
A Russian official also reiterated yesterday that Moscow would fulfil a contract to deliver air defense systems to Syria and had no plans to impose an arms embargo on its Soviet-era ally despite growing pressure from the West.
“Russia has obligations before Syria relating to old contracts — contracts that were signed in 2008 and were later followed by new ones on air defense systems,” Russian Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation deputy chief Vyacheslav Dzirkaln said.