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Moscow sends warships to Syria: war games or evacuation?

Almost half the ships in a Russian flotilla headed to Syria are well suited for transporting large numbers of people. As many as 100,000 Russians may live in Syria.

By Correspondent / July 11, 2012

A Turkish Navy cost guard boat (l.) escorts the Russian Navy destroyer Smetlivy in the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey, Wednesday, July 11.

Murad Sezer/Reuters

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Moscow

A Russian flotilla of a dozen warships, drawn from three naval fleets, is headed for the eastern Mediterranean to hold maneuvers, and will put into the Syrian port of Tartus, where Russia operates a naval supply base.

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Russian officials insist these war games were scheduled long ago, and that they are designed for all the usual purposes of such exercises, primarily showing the flag in far-flung regions of the globe. But one striking detail tells a very different story: almost half the ships headed for the Mediterranean from Russia's Arctic, Baltic, and Black Sea fleets are giant amphibious assault craft.

That's a type of vessel that's good for transporting large numbers of people (and tanks), and getting them in and out of tight places. Experts say this is pretty conclusive evidence that the Kremlin is actively preparing for the grim but probably imminent necessity to evacuate tens of thousands of Russian citizens and their dependents from Syria as the regime of strongman Bashar al-Assad collapses.

IN PICTURES: Conflict in Syria 

"I am quite sure that Russia is thinking about how to handle the possibility that tens of thousands of our own citizens, and perhaps others, may have to be extracted from a dangerous and volatile situation in Syria," says Sergei Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Economic University in Moscow and a frequent adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"This was a scheduled exercise, and it has the purpose of demonstrating Russia's support for Assad and its important role in the region, but probably the mix of ships in the flotilla has been changed to reflect a potentially more practical purpose," he adds.

Syria has been a political and military partner of Moscow since 1971, and Russia has stubbornly refused to acquiesce to any international action that would license military intervention or tough sanctions against the regime of Mr. Assad.

Shift in tone?

But in recent weeks, Moscow, perhaps sensing the inevitable demise of Assad, has begun to shift its ground. This week, Russia announced that it will cancel new arms contracts with Syria.

On Tuesday, Russia hosted a delegation from the Syrian National Council, the main exiled Syrian opposition group, as part of its efforts to look more flexible.

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