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Report: Russia sending naval ships to Syria in case of evacuation

Russia plans to dispatch two ships carrying marines to its naval base in Tartous, reportedly to protect Russian citizens and evacuate them if needed. 

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Russia plans to send two naval ships carrying a “large” number of marines to the Syrian port of Tartous where it maintains a naval base, according to a new report. The ships will reportedly protect Russian citizens and evacuate them, along with military supplies, if needed.

One of the ships can carry up to 150 landing troops and tanks, reports Agence France-Presse. Russians security officials have yet to confirm the report, which was originally published by Russia’s Interfax news.

“The crews of The Nikolai Filchenkov and The Tsezar Kunikov and SB-15 rescue tug together with marines on board are able to ensure security of Russian nationals and evacuate part of the property of the logistical support base if need be,” said a Russian official in the Interfax article, cited in an AFP article.

Russia has maintained a controversial, supportive relationship with the embattled Syrian regime, blocking international efforts to sanction the country and providing arms. In the past, Russian military advisers in Syria have trained the military how to use Russian weapons. Syria has traditionally served as Russia's main foothold in the Middle East, and Moscow is concerned about Islamist takeovers wiping away their longstanding relationships with leaders in Syria and the region.

If the ships deploy to Syria, it may raise suspicions among Western nations who’ve sought to reduce Russian support for Syria. At the UN, Russia has stymied efforts to pass tougher resolutions against the Syrian regime. 

Officially Russia says its longstanding support of Syria stems from its desire to avoid regime change, especially one supported by a Western military intervention as happened in Libya, writes an editorial in South Africa's Independent Online. Its concern is most likely that regime change could introduce a new, Islamist government that would be less stable and less warm to Moscow. This fear is likely to be magnified now that Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is the apparent victor in the country’s presidential election.

“Russia is obviously concerned about Islamic regimes and perhaps most important of all it is terrified of chaos,” said Mark Galeotti, who chairs the Center for Global Affairs at New York University in an article by the Independent Online. “Russia feels that the West doesn't know how to handle regime change and that the outcome is almost invariably the kind of chaos from which Islamic extremist movements arise.”

On Friday, Russia announced plans to send an advanced missile defense system to Syria, reported the New York Times.

“I would like to say these mechanisms are really a good means of defense, a reliable defense against attacks from the air or sea,” Anatoly P. Isaykin, the general director of the company, Rosoboronexport, said in an interview. “This is not a threat, but whoever is planning an attack should think about this.”

As for the ships, it remains uncertain when or if the ship will leave port for Syria, with Russia’s RT news channel saying the ship remains docked and unloaded. The Nikolai Filchenkov is presently docked in Sevastopol, where witnesses say that it is apparent because of the ship's draft that there is no cargo on board.

“The ship is ready for deployment just as any warship of the Navy on duty. There are no marines on board and we received no orders to set sail to Syria. The crews are engaged in their normal routines,” RT quoted a Russian naval officer as saying.

Meanwhile, inside Syria, opposition activists say that the government has intensified its shelling of rebel neighborhoods in Homs. The continued bombardment of Homs, comes just one day after the UN suspended its observer patrols due to worsening security conditions.

“They are shelling us all the time. There's very little food and water, and we're running out of medication,” Syrian activist Abu Bilal told Al Jazeera on Sunday. 

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