Russia is amassing its naval forces in the Mediterranean ahead of an expected assault by the Assad regime on the last major rebel stronghold in Syria.
At least ten Russian warships and two submarines have been deployed to the eastern Mediterranean in the largest naval build up since Moscow’s intervention in Syria began in 2015, according to Russian media.
The gathering of Russian ships comes as Syrian regime forces turn their attention towards Idlib, a holdout rebel-held province on the border with Turkey.
Most of the Russian warships are armed with long-range Kalibr missiles, which could be used to attack ground targets in support of an Assad regime assault on Idlib.
The naval build up may also be intended to deter the US and its allies from intervening if Assad’s forces use chemical weapons in Idlib.
John Bolton, the US national security advisor, warned last week that the US would respond “very strongly” if the Syrian regime used chemical weapons again.
Days later, Russia’s defence ministry claimed it had evidence that jihadists in Idlib were planning to stage a chemical weapons attack in order to trick the Western into carrying out strikes against the regime.
The Russian build up in the Mediterranean comes as Russia announced plans to hold its biggest war games in four decades next month.
Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, said the East-2018 exercise will take place in central and eastern Russia in September and will involve almost 300,000 troops, over 1,000 military aircraft, two of Russia’s naval fleets, and all its airborne units.
The defence ministry said the exercise would be the biggest since the Soviet Union’s West-81 exercise in 1981. The Chinese and Mongolian militaries would also participate in the games, the ministry said.
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Capturing Idlib would mark a crucial final stage in Bashar al-Assad’s ambitions to put down the rebellion which broke out against him in 2011.
But attacking the province, which is now home to 2.5 million civilians, many of them displaced from other areas, is likely to be more complex than previous assaults.
Russia is concerned about preserving its partnership with Turkey, which is deeply worried that an attack on Idlib will send millions of refugees heading towards its border.
The Russian defence ministry said Tuesday it was in contact with rebel groups in Idlib to discuss the possibility of a negotiated surrender.