MOSCOW - Russia, which seems intent on positioning itself as an increasingly decisive broker in the Syrian crisis, announced on Tuesday that a flotilla of navy vessels had sailed to the Mediterranean Sea and that some would dock in the Syrian port of Tartus. The flotilla includes several landing craft with marines.
The naval maneuvers seemed designed to convey a message that Russian leaders would protect their interests in Syria, Russia's most important relationship in the Middle East, even as they restrict new shipments of weapons to President Bashar Assad's government until the conflict subsides.
Word of the navy's Mediterranean activities came a day before the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, was scheduled to meet with representatives of a delegation of the opposition Syrian National Council, which wants Assad to step down, adding further nuance to Russia's maneuvering.
The council members, already in Moscow, told journalists on Tuesday that they would appeal for the Kremlin's help in halting the violence that by some estimates has killed as many as 17,000 people in Syria since peaceful protests in March 2011 evolved into an armed conflict that some are calling a civil war.
Only remaining base
Russian military officials have repeatedly hinted at a possible role in Syria for their naval power, diminished but still floating two decades after the Soviet collapse. The ships have been presented as a means to evacuate Russian citizens or to secure the naval fueling station at Tartus.
Though little more than a floating pier and small barracks, the site is Russia's only remaining foreign military base outside the former Soviet Union. Any Russian presence on the coast would serve as a tripwire to prevent Western military intervention.
The statement by the Defense Ministry said ships had steamed from ports of the Northern and Black Sea fleets.
They would meet for training exercises in the Mediterranean and Black seas, it said. Taking part, the statement said, would be two Black Sea fleet landing craft that can carry marines.
Russia's Interfax news agency cited an unnamed military source as saying an escort ship would stop in Tartus, for resupplying in three days -- though it had presumably just recently left its home port of Sevastopol, in the Black Sea.
The other contingent, sailing from the Arctic Ocean base of Severomorsk, situated in the Murmansk Fjord, will take longer to arrive. That convoy includes three landing craft with marines escorted by an anti-submarine ship, Interfax reported, citing an anonymous military official.
The voyage to the Mediterranean was unrelated to the Syrian conflict, the official said, but the boats laden with marines would stop in Tartus to "stock up on fuel, water and food."
A Russian alternative
In the diplomacy underway in Moscow, a senior Russian diplomat offered an alternative to Western-supported talks under the format of a group called "Friends of Syria." That group, which includes the United States, European Union and Arab League members calling for Assad's resignation, leaves out Assad's only regional ally, Iran.
Russia's deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, said Russia would support regular meetings in Moscow of an "acting group" of states with more balance between pro- and anti-Assad governments.
Russia adds navy to Syria maneuvering | StarTribune.com