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Russia has deployed upwards of a dozen ships to its naval base in Syria over the past three months, and recently sent advanced anti-ship missiles to the embattled Syrian government, highlighting the depth of Moscow’s commitment to the Assad regime and the challenges in finding an internationally palatable solution to the crisis.
Some believe Russia’s increased presence is meant to deter Western powers from getting involved militarily with the Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 70,000 people and displaced millions over the past three years. US officials, however, told The Wall Street Journal they do not fear a direct conflict with Russia.
"It is a show of force. It's muscle flexing," a senior U.S. defense official said of the Russian deployments. "It is about demonstrating their commitment to their interests."
Russia supports Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whereas the US recently stated that a political solution to the crisis would have to exclude the president from the transitional government.
The US and Russia last week announced a peace conference on Syria, but a date has not been set. The idea of the conference was met with high hopes from the international community, which has been stymied over how to help draw the Syrian civil war to a close. Today, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the joint conference must be held as soon as possible so that the international community does “not lose momentum.”
But Russia’s recent actions around Syria could potentially complicate that goal. Moscow insisted yesterday on the attendance of Iran at any peace conference, another controversial player in the Syrian conflict and on the international stage, reports Reuters.
Iran has long been believed to be moving weapons to Hezbollah via Syria. Earlier this month, Israel conducted an airstrike in Syria, stating that “if there is activity, it is only against Hezbollah, not against the Syrian regime.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview posted on a government website yesterday, "Among some of our Western colleagues, there is a desire to narrow the circle of external participants and begin the process from a very small group of countries in a framework which, in essence, would predetermine the negotiating teams, agenda, and maybe even the outcome of talks."
Russia's recent delivery of sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria also has raised concerns, reports The New York Times. The weapons enable “the regime to deter foreign forces looking to supply the opposition from the sea, or from undertaking a more active role if a no-fly zone or shipping embargo were to be declared at some point,” Nick Brown, editor in chief of IHS Jane’s International Defense Review, told the Times. “It’s a real ship killer.”
The Wall Street Journal noted that the missiles appear to contradict earlier Russian reassurances about the kinds of weapons it would supply to Assad's forces.
Yakhont missiles are an offensive system. Moscow has told Western diplomats it will supply only defensive weaponry to the Syrian regime. But U.S. and Israeli officials have long been worried about Syria's existing stocks of the weapon. If transferred to Hezbollah or other militant groups, they could provide a serious threat to both Israeli and U.S. warships in the region.
Russian Navy and foreign ministry officials didn't respond to requests for comment about the deployments of the warships.
French President François Hollande said yesterday that Russia’s ongoing arms supply to the Assad regime was problematic in finding a diplomatic resolution to the civil war, and that rebels needed to be able to keep up military pressure on the Syrian Army.
"While the Russians are accepting the idea of this conference they continue to give weapons to Bashar al-Assad's regime, so we need to have an attitude that balances that out," Mr. Hollande said.
“This weapons transfer is obviously disappointing and will set back efforts to promote the political transition that is in the best interests of the Syrian people and the region,” Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement last night. “There is now greater urgency for the U.S. to step up assistance to the moderate opposition forces who can lead Syria after Assad.”
Which players will have a role in Syria’s political transition is believed, in part, to be at the crux of the international standstill on Syria. A UN resolution yesterday drew ire from the likes of Russia because it explicitly backed the Syrian National Commission, an opposition group, for future talks on the political transition, reports Agence France-Presse.
“An angry Russia said this would encourage opposition ‘armed actions’ against the Assad government,” AFP reports.