MOSCOW- Russia may send warships and troops to Syria to protect its logistics base in Tartous, according to a Russian military source.
“It is quite possible that warships of the [Russian] Black Sea Fleet may go to the Mediterranean Sea in case it is necessary to protect the Russian logistics base in Tartous, Syria, since is a zone of the Fleet’s responsibility,” a source in the Russian General Staff told the Itar-Tass government news agency.
“Several warships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, including large landing ships with marines aboard, are fully prepared to take to the sea,” the source added.
The Russian plan was announced shortly after France said the West mulled military interference in the Syrian crisis to unseat President Bashar Al-Assad.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Wednesday that his country would push for a U.N. Security Council resolution to enforce Syria’s compliance with special envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan under the threat of sanctions, legal action or even military intervention. He said the imposition of no-fly zones was being considered as “one of the options” to “stop this regime of death and blood.”
On Friday, the U.S. television network NBC quoted intelligence sources as saying that a Russian warship carrying a small contingent of troops was already en route to Tartous to provide security for the installation. However, the Russian General Staff source denied the report.
The Russian officials were speaking days after the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, raised diplomatic pressure on Russia by criticising the Kremlin for sending attack helicopters to Syria, and amid reports Moscow was sending an amphibious landing vessel and a small company of marines to the Syrian port of Tartous to provide security for military installations and infrastructure.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Russia was supplying attack helicopters to Syria, an allegation strongly denied by Russia’s Foreign Ministry. The State Department later backed away, saying that Clinton was speaking about helicopters being refurbished in Russia and returned to Syria.
Asked about Clinton’s statement Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “Russia is completing deliveries under contracts signed and paid for long ago. All these contracts involve only air defense systems… We don’t provide Syria or anyone else with systems that are used against peaceful demonstrators, unlike the United States, which regularly supplies such equipment to the region.”
A group of Russian warships led by the Admiral Kuznetsov heavy aircraft carrying cruiser had visited Tartous last January to replenish supplies and give maintenance to ship systems.
For his part, Anatoly Isaykin chief of Russia's state-controlled arms exporter (Rosoboronexport) has announced his company is shipping advanced defensive missile systems to Syria that could be used to shoot down planes or sink ships if the US or other Western nations intervene there.
''I would like to say these mechanisms are really a good means of defense, a reliable defense against attacks from the air or sea,'' said Isaykin.
''This is not a threat but whoever is planning an attack should think about this.'' he added.
As the weapons systems are not considered cutting-edge, Isaykin's disclosures carried greater symbolic import than military significance. They contributed to a Cold War-style chill that has been settling over relations between Washington and Moscow before the first meeting between the US President, Barack Obama, and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit meeting in Mexico this week.
As violence has increased in Syria, Russia has rotated its Navy ships through Tartous, reportedly in case they are needed for emergency evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria.
Last year and as Western concern grown about possible Russian military intervention in Syria, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov told reporters on December 2011 that "There is no special task force; there are no troops in Syria."
Since December 2011, press reports, four Russian cargo ships have unloaded arms and munitions at Syrian port, Tartous.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported last year that Russia has supplied 78 percent of Syria’s arms imports since 2007.
For its part, Moscow says that Russian military deliveries are simply fulfilling existing contracts.