Russian warships set out Tuesday, Dec. 18, for two Middle East flashpoint destinations: Naval sources in Moscow reported that two assault ships, a tanker and an escort vessel were detached from the Baltic Fleet and are sailing for the Syrian port of Tartus – possibly to evacuate Russian citizens. A second naval group led by Russia’s largest anti-submarine vessel, the Severomorsk, is on its way to the Gulfs of Aden and Oman close to the Persian Gulf and Iran.
The ships destined for Syria are the Russian fleet’s two largest amphibious assault vessels, the Kaliningrad and the Alexander Shabalin, which is a cruiser converted to a guided missile frigate renamed Yaroslav the Wise, the SB-921 rescue and tug ship, and the Lena military tanker.
Russian military sources say this flotilla will relieve the Black Sea Fleet’s task force vessels deployed off the Syrian coast since November.
The Severomorsk heading for waters near the Persian Gulf is escorted by ships which Russian sources have not named as well as a military tanker and a supply and rescue ship.
debkafile’s military and Moscow sources report that, while the Russians are undoubtedly concerned with the fate of the 20,000 Russian nationals remaining in war-torn Syria, the type of warships dispatched to Tartus do not fit the description of evacuation craft. They look more like a major Russian naval buildup opposite the Syrian coast.
For one thing, they are larger and more formidable than the Black Sea fleet ships they are relieving: the medium, amphibious assault ships, the Novocherkassk and Saratov, each of which carries 250 marines. The new arrivals each carry 520 marines and 25 amphibious tanks.
For another, if it becomes necessary to evacuate large numbers of Russian refugees in a hurry, they are likely to be lifted out by air rather than by sea. Large transports are already on hand, touching down almost daily at Damascus and Aleppo airports with a continuous supply of weapons, ammunition and spare parts for replenishing the army loyal to Bashar Assad.
The Russian aircraft are practically the only foreign flights visiting the two beleaguered Syrian airports. While keeping Assad’s army in essential supplies, Moscow is also maintaining a constant presence there against the contingency of having to fly large numbers of Russian civilians out of the country.
debkafile’s sources add that, while some Western quarters depict Russia’s military steps as actuated by the expectation of Assad’s imminent fall, Middle East military and Western intelligence sources see them rather as preparation for the international commotion and fallout arising from the introduction of chemical warfare to the Syrian conflict by the Syrian army or the insurgents.
Both Washington and Moscow calculate that Assad may be in a race against certain rebel units, which are making a dash to lay hands on some of Syria’s biggest chemical and biological weapons stores.
One high-placed Western military source told debkafile Tuesday: “We can no longer be certain which side will use chemical weapons first – the Syrian army or the rebels – or even against whom: targets inside Syria or across its borders.”
According to this source, the countries abutting on Syria are deep in discreet though comprehensive military preparations in anticipation of three potential perils:
1. A chemical weapons attack on Turkey, Jordan or Israel and US military facilities present in those countries;
2. The outbreak of chemical warfare between the Syrian army and rebels – both armed with poisonsous substances;
3. Either of those contingencies if close would trigger rapid military action – both by combined Western-Arab forces and Israel – to get hold of Syria’s chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction and put them out of reach of Assad’s army and rebel units alike.