Russian warships are reportedly preparing for a mission to Syria, a move that could see hundreds of foreign troops making their first entry to the conflict since the uprising started 16 months ago.
The decision to send two amphibious assault ships to the port of Tartus was reported by the Russian news agency Interfax on Monday. It was seen by analysts as a display of power on the same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin met with U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 summit, and could also be viewed as a hedge to protect Russian military assets against the rising tumult in Syria – or even the first stage of an evacuation.
"They're not sending gigantic ships," said Eric Wertheim, a U.S. Naval Institute expert and author of Combat Fleets of the World. "This is really about self-defence."
The Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean would remain heavily outgunned by NATO's assets in the region, making the move symbolic of Moscow's position against direct action against the Syrian regime rather than a practical impediment to military intervention.
The Russian ships could carry more than 600 troops, but it's unclear whether they would arrive fully loaded; some experts speculated that the mission may be intended to give Moscow options for pulling out personnel and equipment.
The Russian military base at Tartus is believed to contain highly sensitive electronic eavesdropping devices, and rumours have been circulating in Arab media that Syrian rebels could attack the installation. Russia considers the base a strategic asset, as the country's only remaining military port outside of the former Soviet Union. Bolstering defences would allow Russia to prevent any embarrassing scenes of rebels overrunning the outpost, and allow for careful dismantling of the facility in extreme circumstances.
Reports indicated that the two Russian ships, Tsesar Kunikov and Nikolay Filchenkov, had not yet departed the Black Sea port of Sebastopol on Monday.
The Israeli news site Debkafile cited unnamed intelligence and military sources on Sunday saying the ships would be accompanied by Russian air transports carrying advanced anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles for the Syrian military, and interpreted the news as an escalation of Russia's efforts to support the embattled regime.
But the move may have little practical effect on the military balance inside Syria, said Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Moscow is trying to affect the discussions of Syria's future now happening at the G20 summit in Mexico, he said, but the small Russian naval contingent would not have the capacity to intercept NATO aircraft.
The listed armaments on the ships include manually aimed SA-N-5 "Grail" missiles and anti-aircraft guns. "It's not exactly an armada," Mr. Joshi said. "There is no prospect whatsoever of these craft taking on a combat role."
Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin issued a joint statement on Monday, repeating their earlier demands for an end to the violence in Syria. They also released a carefully worded call for political transition in Damascus "to a democratic, pluralistic political system that would be implemented by the Syrians themselves in the framework of Syria's sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity."
Mr. Putin told reporters that his first face-to-face discussion with the U.S. president since his return to the Russian presidency this spring allowed them to "find many commonalities pertaining to all of those issues" related to Syria, but he gave no details.
Russia's base at Tartus, on the Syrian coast, is officially named the 720th Logistics Support Point. Established in 1971, it was part of a Cold War strategy by the former Soviet Union to strengthen its presence on the Mediterranean with permanent facilities at three other locations in Egypt and Syria. The Egyptian bases closed in 1977 and the Syrian port of Tartus became the main outpost for the Russian navy in the region.
Like many Russian military facilities, Tartus fell into decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 but it has re-established itself during the Putin era. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated that the facility had 150 personnel in 2010, and Russia has continued to upgrade the port to make it equipped for bigger vessels.
Russia refers to the base as a logistics depot for tasks such as anti-piracy missions in co-operation with NATO, but experts say it also serves as a visible sign of Russia's presence in the Middle East and an important hub for intelligence gathering.
Speculation has focused on Russian vessels such as the PM-138, which had been deployed to Tartus and appeared to have more communications equipment that would be necessary for its stated purpose as a repair ship.
"Eavesdropping is a key function of the base," Mr. Joshi said. "The Russians would hate to lose it."