Twenty-five Russian warships and 30 aircraft are massing in the Mediterranean Sea ahead of “large-scale” military drills, due to start on Saturday, Russia’s Tass news agency has reported.
The drills, scheduled to last a full week, will involve warships from Russia’s Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets, the Caspian Flotilla, as well as Tu-160 missile-carrying bombers and Su-33 fighter jets, Tass said, quoting the defense ministry.
The ministry said areas covered by the drills “will be declared dangerous for navigation and flights in advance.” Lebanon has previously been forced to shut its airspace to accommodate Russian drills.
Russia’s Mediterranean base
Russian naval vessels have been massing off the coast of Syria for the past week, ahead of an expected assault by Moscow’s ally Damascus on the country’s last major opposition stronghold, Idlib.
Syria’s foreign minister warned from Moscow on Thursday that “the decision of the Syrian leadership is to combat Jabhat al-Nusra in Idlib, whatever the sacrifices.”
Russia remains in discussions with its Astana Process partner Turkey — the guarantor of a de-escalation zone in Idlib — on how to avert a full-scale battle.
Cem Devrim Yalalı, who monitors military navigation along the Turkish Straits, says Russia has in recent days sent 11 new vessels into the Mediterranean, nearly doubling its naval presence.
“The Russians deployed these ships because the Idlib question is going to be solved somehow. And from my point of view, the Russians have increased their presence in the Mediterranean to pressure their own view to be accepted,” Yaylalı told the Asia Times.
The Syrian port of Tartous is critical for that Russian deployment.
“This military base and port is essential for the Russians because it’s the only way they can deploy warships for an extended period of time. I can’t estimate how long all the Russian units can stay, but I have witnessed some smaller ships like minesweepers deployed in the Mediterranean for long periods like three months or even six months,” he said.
In Idlib, armed opposition factions blew up two bridges spanning the Orontes River on Friday in a bid to slow an advance by forces loyal to Assad, the Britain-based monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Idlib has in recent years absorbed hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, many who refused settlements with the government elsewhere in the country. Any major military operation would send a new wave of refugees to Turkey’s border.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed to the Syrian government and its allies on Thursday “to exercise restraint and to prioritize the protection of civilians.”
He said a full-scale military operation in Idlib could lead to a “humanitarian catastrophe.”
The UN’s Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs has said that 800,000 people in Idlib are in a dire situation and could be displaced if conflict erupts.