Russia Denies Reports of Warships to Syria and Joint Exercises With Syria, Iran and China
(CNSNews.com) – Amid a flurry of sometimes conflicting reports on Russian military cooperation with the Assad regime, Moscow has denied dispatching Navy warships to Syria and says talk of upcoming joint Russia-Syria-Iran-China war-games is nonsense.
Russia has not, however, commented on reports that a commercial ship, carrying refurbished Russian-built military helicopters to Syria, had to turn back after its British insurer withdrew coverage.
The Curacao-flagged MV Alaed, traversing the North Sea, was informed it was violating a European Union arms embargo, Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed on Tuesday.
“We have in place a European Union arms embargo for Syria, and we discourage anyone else from supplying it with arms,” Foreign Secretary William Hague said in parliament in reply to questions.
“We have had specific discussions with Russia on that matter, and I am pleased that the ship that was reported to be carrying arms to Syria has now turned back, apparently towards Russia,” he added.
The shipping of Mil Mi-25 “flying tank” attack helicopters at a time when Syria’s civil war is worsening sparked a war of words between the U.S. and Russian governments this month, adding to existing tensions over the Kremlin’s continuing shielding of Damascus at the U.N.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the helicopters would “escalate the conflict quite dramatically,” but her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, angrily denied the claims.
The State Department later conceded that the helicopters were not new – they were already Syrian-owned and had been sent for servicing and repairs – but maintained that Russian- and Soviet-made helicopters have been used against Syrian civilians.
“We’re seeing gun mounts on these being used to fire on populations in Homs, in Hama, in Latakia, in Idlib,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last Wednesday. “We have seen the Russians resupply weapons that they sold to the Syrians as recently as January. So we stand by what the Secretary had to say.”
The MV Alaed was not the only Russia-linked ship whose movements are making headlines.
Some news reports this week said a large landing vessel attached to the Baltic Fleet, the Kaliningrad, was headed for the Syrian port of Tartus, where the Russian Navy in 2008 began upgrading Soviet-era facilities there. Kaliningrad-class ships are designed to carry 500 tons of cargo, including tanks and troops.
Meanwhile Russia’s Interfax news agency, quoting an unidentified Russian Navy official, said two amphibious assault ships from the Black Sea Fleet, the Nikolai Filchenkov and the Caesar Kunikov, were preparing to leave for Tartus, with a large contingent of Marines onboard. The Marines would defend Russian citizens and infrastructure in Tartus and evacuate equipment if necessary, it said.
Both reports drew denials.
The Russian defense ministry disputed the report about the Kaliningrad, saying the vessel was currently taking part in an annual sailing event on the north German coast, after which it would return to its homeport.
Black Sea Fleet officials told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency that the reports about the Filchenkov and the Kunikov were also false.
The most intriguing of the various reports relating to the Russia-Syria relationship emanated from news outlets in Syria and Iran.
Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency, in a report published Tuesday citing “informed sources,” said a total of 90,000 Russian, Syrian, Iranian and Chinese troops would take part in joint amphibious exercises along the Syrian coast in the coming weeks, aimed at testing Syrian coastal and air defense missile systems.
The drills would involve air, sea and land forces, including missile and missile defense units, with 400 warplanes and 1,000 tanks being used, it said.
The Fars report also said a dozen Chinese warships headed for the exercise would transit the Suez Canal in the next two weeks.
A Syrian news service, Sham Life, also ran a report on the alleged exercises, which it said were designed as a response to last month’s Eager Lion 2012 exercise, an annual drill held in Jordan. This year it involved militaries from 19 mostly Islamic and European countries, as well as the United States and Australia.
But Russia’s defense ministry denied the reports, saying they amounted to “disinformation” aimed at worsening the situation in Syria.
An aide to Syrian President Bashar Assad, Bouthaina Shaaban – who was visiting Moscow this week – also denied the reports, which she said were “out of sync with reality.”
There was no official response from Iran or China, but China’s People’s Liberation Army Daily did run, without comment, a wire service report on the Russian defense ministry denial.
State Department spokeswoman Nuland said Tuesday she had not seen the reports about joint exercises involving Russia, Syria, Iran and China.