Russian military denies plan to send warships


NAVAL SUPPORT:THERE WERE conficting claims yesterday that Russia was to dispatch three warships to the Syrian port of Tartus in an apparent show of support for the regime of president Bashar al-Assad.

A Russian military source was quoted as saying Moscow was sending three ships and up to 360 marines, but a defence ministry spokesman later maintained there were no such plans.

Three Russian news agencies had quoted a source in the Russian general staff as saying the vessels, already in the Mediterranean, would arrive in Tartus this week or early next week with supplies for Russia’s only permanent warm-water port outside the former Soviet Union.

Russia is a strong ally of president Assad. Syria bought $1 billion worth of weapons from Russia last year, or about 8 per cent of total Russian arms exports.

Russia’s defence ministry later issued a statement denying the warships would go to Tartus but left open the possibility they would do so if they remained at sea longer than expected.

“The military vessels’ entry . . . to Tartus is not planned”, the ministry statement said, adding that the ships would have “every right” to enter Tartus if the length of their voyage increased and they were ordered to carry out new tasks.

A Syrian official visiting Moscow told reporters separately that Damascus had reached an agreement to send crude oil to Russia in return for shipments of refined oil products. “We will deliver our oil and receive gasoline and diesel; it will be a barter,” said Qadri Jamil, deputy prime minister for economic affairs.

He was visiting Moscow with other government and private sector officials looking for ways to alleviate the economic effects of sanctions on Syria.

The official said Syria was producing about 200,000 barrels per day and added: “We need oil, oil products. Shortages of these materials are making the situation in the country difficult.” He also said Syria had asked for credit from Russia and that the size and terms of any such loan would be decided “within weeks”.

The earlier assertion about Russian marines said their alleged deployment was precautionary in case they were needed to protect personnel and remove equipment from the naval maintenance facility at Tartus, which analysts say is staffed by fewer than 100 people.

The source in the Russian general staff said the three ships, each carrying up to 120 marines, would be joined by three other vessels from the Russian navy’s Black Sea and Northern Sea fleets.

The potential loss of Tartus would be a strategic blow to Russia, according to what the Interfax news agency described as a military-diplomatic source.

“Tartus is of extreme military-strategic importance for the Russian navy, as the back-up for the task forces in the Mediterranean. Therefore, its loss would entail deep negative consequences and the actual loss of influence in this key region,” Interfax quoted the source as saying.

The general staff source said the ships would head back to Russia after spending several days in Tartus. – (Reuters)