The first statement said the warships were not planning to call on Tartus, a naval base Russia maintains in Syria. The second, issued several hours later, said it was possible that service boats from the group might call on Tartus to replenish supplies “if the time period of the trip is extended.”
Earlier in the day, Interfax quoted an unnamed Defense Ministry source as saying three landing assault ships, an anti-submarine ship and four smaller vessels might call on Tartus by Sunday. The ships are carrying a contingent of about 360 marines and amphibious armored personnel carriers.
PHOTOS: Syria conflict (graphic content)
The source didn’t specify whether the marines would remain in Tartus or leave with the warships. Tartus is a small port and won’t be able to dock more than two warships at a time, the source said.
Defense experts debated whether the naval group might be in the region to evacuate Russians based in Syria.
“I am absolutely confident that most likely their task will be to evacuate the personnel and equipment of the base,” Alexander Golts, a defense expert and deputy editor-in-chief of the popular liberal online publication Yezhednevny Zhurnal, said in an interview.
“However, this group is not sufficient enough to evacuate from 30,000 to 60,000 Russian citizens working and living in Syria,” Golts said, “unless the marines will be ordered to gain control of a landing strip at Damascus airport and help establish an air-bridge to take all Russians out.”
“Whatever their task, it is clear that given the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria the Kremlin wants to have some sort of military presence close to its shores,” Golts added.
Boris Dolgov, a senior researcher with the Center for Arabic Studies in Moscow, said he doubted that the naval group was sent to the Mediterranean to evacuate Russian citizens, which also include diplomats, mission employees and persons working in Syria on contracts.
“Tartus is not a proper navy base but just a repair port which can’t be used for such a large-scale evacuation,” said Dolgov, who traveled to Syria twice after the beginning of the conflict nearly 17 months ago. “It is too early to speak about such a serious step as an evacuation.”