Russia has beefed up its naval presence in the Mediterranean amid claims by Moscow that the United States is poised to launch a strike at Syrian forces preparing for a major offensive in Idlib.
Up to 11 Russian warships have crossed the Bosphorus as tensions between the US and Syria continue to rise.
“It included at least 10 vessels and two submarines – with more on the way,” the Russian daily newspaper Izvestia stated, adding that most of the flotilla is carrying Kalibr cruise missiles.
If the reports are correct, this would be the biggest task force sent by President Vladimir Putin’s government since Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict in 2015.
It also comes at a time when Moscow’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is believed to be on the brink of launching an assault on the last big rebel-held enclave of Idlib in the north of the country.
Russia has already accused the Washington administration of President Donald Trump of building up its own forces in the Middle East in preparation for a possible strike on Syrian government forces if they use chemical weapons.
On Aug. 25, the USS Ross entered the Mediterranean, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense. The guided-missile destroyer is armed with 28 Tomahawk cruise missiles capable of hitting any target in Syria.
“This suggests the US is about to launch military action in support of rebels fighting against Assad’s regime,” Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian MoD, said on Monday.
The deployment of the Russian fleet coincides with Trump’s threat to strike Assad’s army ahead of the Idlib offensive.
Last week, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said it would be disastrous to seek a military solution in the region as it has become a refuge for civilians and rebels displaced from other areas of Syria, as well as for powerful jihadist forces.
During the past month, Idlib has been hit by a wave of air strikes and shelling in what many observers believe is the prelude to a full-scale government assault on the city.
As the military build-up continues, Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have held telephone talks about the humanitarian situation, their offices confirmed on Monday.
“Both leaders called for international action to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Idlib Province,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
“Russia is called upon to act in a moderating manner on the Syrian government and prevent a further escalation,” Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, stressed in a statement.