Andrew E. Kramer – New York Times July 10, 2012
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 some would dock in the Syrian port of Tartus. The naval group includes several landing craft with marines.
The voyage and 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 al-Assad’s government until the conflict subsides, as military export officials had announced on Monday.
Word of the navy’s Mediterranean activities came a day before the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, was scheduled to meet with representatives of a visiting delegation of the opposition Syrian National Council, which wants Mr. Assad to step down, adding some 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 deadly 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.
Members said, though, that they would not ask that Russia grant President Bashar al-Assad asylum, something Russian officials have said they would not do in any case.
The opposition’s visit to Moscow coincided with a flurry of diplomacy by Kofi Annan, the special representative of the United Nations and Arab League to Syria. Mr. Annan visited with President Assad on Monday and with officials in Iran and Iraq on Tuesday as part of an attempt to salvage his peace plan, which was announced more than three months ago but has basically been ignored even though all sides in the conflict say they support it.
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 either to evacuate Russian citizens or to secure the naval fueling station at Tartus, on the Syrian coast.
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, the Nikolai Filchenkov and Tsezar Kunikov.
Russia’s Interfax news agency cited an unnamed military source as saying an escort ship, the Smetlivy, would stop in Tartus, in Syria, 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, the Admiral Chabanenko, 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.”
In the diplomacy under way 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 Mr. Assad’s resignation, leaves out Mr. Assad’s only regional ally, the Iranian government.
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.
Another senior Russian official, Mikhail Margelov, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the senate, suggested the opposition delegation’s visit was a breakthrough for Russian diplomacy.
“Until now the Russian authorities have not recognized the SNC,” Mr. Margelov said. “So this visit of the Syrian opposition marks the beginning of a dialogue with the real force which today is ready to start settling the conflict.”
Abdelbasset Sida, a senior member of the council, told a news conference the opposition would respect Russian interests in Syria, which range from the Tartus base to pipeline and telecoms businesses, if Mr. Assad were deposed.
A potential confrontation is looming here. Also see: NATO stages manoeuvre in Istanbul