From Defense News:
MOSCOW — Russia is preparing to send two warships to the Syrian port of Tartus, where Moscow operates a strategic naval base, to ensure the safety of its nationals, the Interfax news agency reported June 18.
The report comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin was set to meet his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 summit in the Mexican resort of Los Cabos later June 18 amid tensions over Syria clouding bilateral ties.
"Two major amphibious ships — The Nikolai Filchenkov and The Tsezar Kunikov — are preparing to be dispatched to Tartus outside of their schedule," the Russian news agency quoted an unidentified officer from the Russian naval headquarters as saying.
The two ships will carry a "large" group of Marines, Interfax added. There was no official confirmation of the report from the navy or the defense ministry.
The Tsezar Kunikov can carry 150 landing troops and various armaments including tanks, while The Nikolai Filchenkov can carry up to 1,500 tons of cargo and equipment, the report said.
Interfax said the ships could be used to evacuate Russian nationals.
"The crews of The Nikolai Filchenkov and The Tsezar Kunikov and SB-15 rescue tug together with Marines onboard are able to ensure security of Russian nationals and evacuate part of the property of the logistical support base if need be," Interfax quoted a source as saying.
The protracted conflict between the ruling regime and the opposition in Syria shows no signs of easing.
The opposition has demanded the deployment of armed peacekeepers after U.N. observers halted their work because of bloodshed.
Russia and its ally China have previously blocked earlier attempts at the U.N. Security Council to condemn Damascus and have shielded Assad's regime from further pressure amid accusations that Moscow has been sending weapons to Damascus.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has accused Russia of fueling the violence by sending attack helicopters to Syria, which she said were "on the way" and would "escalate the conflict quite dramatically."
Russia angrily retorted that it was not making any new deliveries and had only carried out repairs of helicopters sent there many years ago.
Syria, one of the few countries to back Russia in its war with Georgia in 2008, is Moscow's close ally from the Soviet era and a major purchaser of its arms.
Putin's predecessor at the Kremlin, Dmitry Medvedev, traveled to Damascus in 2010 in the first ever visit to the country by a Russian or Soviet head of state.
During talks with Assad, he promised Russian assistance to Syria in reconstructing its oil and gas infrastructure and even in building a nuclear power station.
Over the past months, the Kremlin has distanced itself from Assad but is sticking to its hard line, ruling out foreign intervention and insisting Assad's fate should be decided by Syrians themselves.
This isn't the first time Russia has sent ships to Syria during the upheaval, as they sent the Admiral Kuznetsov to Tarus last December. However, with the prospect of amphibs going to Syria, they will almost certainly be carrying munitions and maybe even soldiers. Assad owes Russia 6 billion dollars, and the Russians need hard cash, and they will not allow Assad to fall before he pays them.
Frankly, I think that bit about evacuating civilians and their support base are just a cover story for shipping supplies to Assad.