MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is preparing to send marines to Syria in the event that it needs to protect personnel and remove equipment from its naval facility in the Mediterranean port of Tartus, Interfax news agency reported on Monday.
Syria is Moscow’s firmest foothold in the Middle East, buys weapons from Russia worth billions of dollars, and hosts the Russian navy’s only permanent warm water port outside the former Soviet Union.
The report cited an unidentified officer in the naval command. The navy and Defence Ministry declined immediate comment.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama were due to meet later on Monday for talks on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Mexico.
The crisis in Syria – which has seen the government ignore international censure to push ahead with a bloody crackdown on its opponents – was likely to be on the agenda.
Russia has used its U.N. Security Council veto to dilute Western efforts to condemn Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and secure his exit from power, arguing that pushing the government from power using external pressure is unacceptable.
Only a dialogue between the government and the opposition can resolve the crisis, Moscow says.
Interfax said two large landing ships were preparing to depart for Syria – if necessary – with marines on board.
The ships, crews and marines “are capable, in case of need, to provide security for Russian citizens and remove property from the logistics facility (in Tartus),” Interfax quoted the unnamed officer as saying.
Russia says it uses the facility to service its ships in the region, including those on anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden, where it cooperates with NATO.
Russian warships call at Tartus only occasionally, and an upsurge in naval activity near Syria this year has been seen as a show of support for the government, an ally of Moscow’s since the Soviet era.
(Editing by Andrew Osborn)