A flotilla of five Russian warships laden with hundreds of troops, which is headed toward Syria, is a show of force meant to deter Western armies from intervening in the war-torn nation, the London-based Sunday Times reported.
Previous reports cited Russian diplomats to the effect that the vessels were being put in place in order to evacuate thousands of Russians who still remain in Syria if the situation in the country called for it.
However, a Russian intelligence source was quoted on Sunday as saying that the presence of over 300 marines on the ships was meant as a deterrent to keep countries hostile to the Bashar Assad regime — a key ally of the Kremlin — from landing special forces in the country.
“Russia should be prepared for any developments, as it believes the situation in Syria might reach its peak before Easter,” a Russian diplomatic source was quoted as saying.
The ships are headed to the port of Tartus, where Russia has been operating a naval facility since signing an agreement with Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez, in 1971.
In a statement, the Russian Defense Ministry said the ships were preparing for a large naval maneuver whose aim was to “improve the management, maintenance and testing of the interaction of naval forces.”
The British newspaper on Sunday quoted an Israeli source who said that it was conceivable that a Russian ground force would step in “to defend the Alawite corridor stretched between the Lebanese border in the south and the Turkish border in the north.”
NATO’s recent deployment of Patriot anti-missile batteries in Turkey has raised concerns in Moscow about its ability to maintain a strategic foothold in the country, the report said, .
There has also been increasing indication that Israel and the US are mulling a military move in Syria to secure the country’s sizable stockpile of chemical weapons, which decision-makers fear could be turned against Israel, as well as on Syrian rebels, should Assad come to the conclusion that his days are numbered.
In late December it was revealed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had held clandestine talks in Jordan regarding possible methods for destroying the weapons, including airstrikes or a ground assault, but that Amman was reluctant to put its weight behind such action.
According to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, Israel had twice requested “permission” from Jordan to bomb Syria, but was denied the go-ahead. Mossad officials who traveled to Jordan to discuss the matter were reportedly told that Amman felt “the time was not right.”
The Times reported that the US, along with several key allies, was prepared to launch a military intervention in Syria should the Assad government turn its chemical weapons against the rebels.
A military source told the Times that US forces could be ready “rapidly, within days,” and implied that the necessary forces were already in the region.
“The Russians will not tolerate Western ground intervention and stay idle,” an Israeli defense source was quoted as saying. “Syria is too important for Russia.”