Russia sends ships, troops to Syria

Russia is preparing to send two amphibious assault ships to the Syrian port of Tartus where Moscow operates a strategic naval base, the Interfax news agency reported on Monday.

“Two major amphibious ships – The Nikolai Filchenkov and The Tsezar Kunikov – are preparing to be dispatched to Tartus outside of their schedule,” the Russian news agency quoted an unidentified officer from the Russian naval headquarters as saying.

The two ships will carry a “large” group of marines, Interfax added.
 Russia is reportedly concerned at the threat the violence in Syria is posing to its naval base in Tartus, its only base in the Mediterranean.

The confirmation by a Russian news agency comes as President Vladimir Putin is set to hold talks with US President Barack Obama after a week of Cold War-like recriminations between the two sides over Syria.

The talks at a Group of 20 summit in Mexico will test whether the two leaders can forge a working relationship and find common ground on Syria and other festering disputes.

Suspension of the UN monitoring mission in Syria over the weekend has put added pressure on Obama and Putin, meeting for the first time since the Russian president’s re-election, to act decisively to keep the conflict from spiraling into civil war.

But with relations frayed and expectations low on both sides for progress on breaking the deadlock, the stage is set for an uncomfortable meeting in the Pacific resort of Los Cabos.

With the violence in Syria continuing, Obama and Western allies want veto-wielding Moscow to stop shielding Syrian President Bashar Assad from further UN Security Council sanctions aimed at forcing him from power.

But Putin, a former KGB spymaster, is suspicious of US motives especially after the NATO-assisted ouster of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi last year, and has offered little sign of softening his stance on Syria.

The seriousness of the rift between Washington and Moscow was underscored last week when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia of supplying Assad with attack helicopters. This drew an angry retort from the Kremlin.

“Some people are trying to spoil the atmosphere of these talks,” said Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s adviser on foreign policy.

He cited not only the arms sale accusation but also a proposed new bill in the U.S. Congress, the so-called “Magnitsky” law, that would target Russian human rights violators, legislation he called “anti-Russian.”

Russia also accused the US of supplying arms to Syrian rebels.

Putin focused on another irritant in relations on Thursday, warning ominously of an “appropriate reaction” to US-backed missile defense plans for Europe that Moscow vehemently opposes.

Obama will urge Putin to use his influence with Assad to accept a transition modeled on Yemen’s, in which an autocratic president was pushed out, US officials say. Moscow has signaled its opposition to making Assad’s exit a pre-condition.

The White House also hopes to placate a key Russian concern. “It’s not our goal in Syria to eliminate Russian influence,” US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters. Moscow sees it otherwise.

Putin is likely to push for an international “contact group” that would include Iran, which counts Syria as its only real ally in the region. The United States opposes any Iranian role.


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