Russia prepares to send warships to Syria
By Charles Clover in Moscow and Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut
Russia has announced it is readying two warships to sail to Syria to protect Russian citizens, in a sign that it is taking precautions against a worsening of the security situation there.
A spokesman for Russia’s Black Sea fleet, Vyacheslav Trukhachev, told Russia’s Interfax news agency the mission would be undertaken “in case of necessity” and his comments appeared designed to clarify speculation that warships had already set sail for Syria. Interfax had earlier quoted an anonymous official as saying this on Monday morning.
One of the warships, said Mr Trukhachev, carries a 150-strong contingent of marines, in addition to 25 tanks, but he did not give details about the other ship. He made clear that the purpose of the mission would be only to evacuate Russian personnel and property from Syria.
Russia’s precautions came as Barack Obama, US president, and Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, called for an end to violence in Syria and moves towards “political transition to a democratic, pluralistic political system” after talks on Monday at the G20 summit in Mexico.
After days of diplomatic sniping between Washington and Moscow, the two sides were able to issue a joint statement on Syria after talks on the first day of the summit at Los Cabos.
Although the meeting spawned a joint communiqué, there was no suggestion that Moscow is prepared to back tougher UN sanctions in Syria to help force Bashar al-Assad out of office. The joint statement gave support to Kofi Annan’s peace drive and calls for the “Syrians themselves” to undertake the transition to democracy while retaining the country’s current boundaries.
“We are united in the belief that the Syrian people should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future,” the two leaders said.
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David Cameron, the British prime minister, also met Mr Putin in Los Cabos and told him that he did not support the involvement of Iran in a conference to discuss a solution to the crisis in Syria. “The key is to work on that bit of the Annan plan which could help to deliver political change at the top of Syria,” Mr Cameron said before the meeting.
Mr Putin warned Mr Cameron that the removal of the Syrian regime could lead to the rise of radical Islamic parties or terrorist organisations – drawing comparisons with Somalia – according to officials at the summit. The British premier countered that authoritarian regimes were not always an insurance against terrorism.
Fresh fighting across Syria killed 56 people on Monday. Activists said government forces were continuing to pound opposition strongholds in different parts of the country.
“We are under siege,” said one activist in Homs, who said some neighbourhoods had been cut off for 10 days amid intense bombardment.
“We have not enough medical equipment and medical crew, most are volunteers,” the activist said. “We have a lot of wounded people and we don’t know what to do with them.”
Heavy violence was also reported in Damascus province. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-affiliated monitoring group based in the UK, the regime on Monday launched mortars on the Damascus suburb of Douma, where rebels have been clashing with government forces.
Russia’s security relationship with Syria has come under scrutiny as Damascus becomes ever more dependent on Moscow following EU and US sanctions. The port of Tartous in Syria is a key Russian naval base, which experts estimate has about 50 Russian staff working there.
Meanwhile, Russian technicians continue to work in Syria under contracts to maintain Russian arms purchased by the regime.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has denied that Russia is selling arms to Syria which can be used against civilians, and Russia says it is not violating any UN sanctions or treaty obligations in doing so. Last year, Russia sold anti-aircraft missiles to Syria as well as missile batteries designed to fend off seaborne attacks, and signed a contract to supply 36 Yak-130 trainer aircraft for $550m. Recently it signed a contract to supply 24 MiG-29 advanced fighter bombers.
Russia has admitted it is repairing a number of helicopter gunships for the Syrian army which were originally sold in Soviet times. According to news reports, these helicopters are en route to Syria from the Russian port of Kaliningrad, although Russia’s defence minister declined to comment on the story on Monday.
In addition, on May 26, a Russian cargo ship called the Professor Katsman docked in Tartous harbour amid allegations by human rights agencies that it was carrying a cargo of arms for Syria.