Russia despatched a flotilla of warships to its naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus on Tuesday, Al Arabia reports.
Two destroyers and three amphibious landing vessels carrying marines set sail from Russian bases in the Arctic and the Black Sea, according to Russian military sources.
The move would be the largest display of Russian military power in the region since the Syrian conflict began almost 17 months ago. Nearly half of the ships were capable of carrying hundreds of marines.
According to The Telegraph, Russia’s defence ministry insisted that the mission was part of a previously scheduled exercise in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Black Sea and at least one of the vessels in the flotilla has patrolled waters off Syria earlier this year.
The Admiral Chabanenko, an anti-submarine destroyer, and three landing craft have left their home port of Severomorsk in the Arctic Circle on their way to the Mediterranean where they will be joined by the Russian patrol ship Yaroslav Mudry as well as an assistance vessel.
The patrol ship Smetlivy from the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s base in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol is also on its way to Tartus.
Despite the demonstration of military strength, speculation has been mounting that Russia is realigning its once unquestioned support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, although its public position is unlikely to change.
Tartus consists of little more than a floating refueling station and some small barracks. But any strengthened Russian presence there could forestall Western military intervention in Syria, writes The New York Times. It is Moscow’s only naval base outside of the former Soviet Union and its navy regularly sends supplies there.
The move came as a delegation of Syrian opposition figures was visiting Moscow to gauge if Russia would accept a political transition in Syria that excludes Mr. Assad.
Earlier this week, Moscow announced that it would halt the delivery of new weapons to the Syrian armed forces, while some of Mr Assad’s leading opponents have been invited to the Kremlin for talks.
The White House said that the United States said it is aware of a Russian naval flotilla headed for a Syrian port but does not yet see cause for concern.
“We currently have no reason to believe this move is anything out of the ordinary but we refer you to the Russian government for more details,” Erin Pelton, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said.
Meanwhile, Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria, sought regional support for his faltering peace plan as he held talks with senior officials in both Iran and Iraq.
Mr Annan, who said this week that he was working on a new proposal to end the fighting in Syria, said he believed that Iran could play a “positive role” in ending the crisis, despite its close relationship with the Assad regime.
Mr. Annan added that Mr. Assad had proposed altering the peace proposal so that the most violent areas of the country would be pacified first. The current plan calls for an immediate cessation of all violence everywhere as a first step.
“He made a suggestion of building an approach from the ground up in some of the districts where we have extreme violence — to try and contain the violence in these districts and, step by step, build up and end the violence across the country,” Mr. Annan told reporters in Tehran.