MOSCOW -- Russian warships are returning to the waters near Syria in a new demonstration of the Kremlin's interest in the outcome of the crisis there.
The Russian Defense Ministry told the RIA-Novosti news agency on Tuesday that four large landing vessels were on their way to the Mediterranean near Syria, three weeks after the Russian navy conducted its biggest maneuvers in the region since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
"Based on the results of the Navy exercises in the Black and Mediterranean seas from Jan. 19 through Jan. 29 ... the Ministry leadership has taken a decision to continue combat duty by Russian warships in the Mediterranean," the ministry said in its statement. “In the future the number of warships in the group and types of vessels acting in the said region will be defined in accordance with the given situation."
Russia has been a close ally of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad and has strategic and economic interests in the country.
Russia's only naval base in the Mediterranean region is in Syria, in the port of Tartus. Naturally, this means Russia sells an awful lot of materiel to Assad. Partly in retaliation for US interference in the Ossetia uprising, Russia negotiated an expansion of that base in exchange for debt forgiveness to the tune of $10 billion or so, as well as arms sales.
Not a bad deal, if you ask me. Add to that the fact that Syria is one of the nations Russia is routing a natural gas pipeline through to reach the Middle East, and you have a pretty firm relationship, one Putin will be eager to protect and possibly exploit.
If you've been wondering why Obama has been very reluctant to step on Assad's toes in this civil unrest, here's why.