The Russian military has amassed a fleet of at least 10 warships and two submarines off Syria’s northwest coast in preparation for a possible assault on militants in Idlib province, NATO and Syrian military officials said.
A statement from Russia’s Defense Ministry on Sunday said two frigates were heading to the Mediterranean Sea. NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu, meanwhile, told Haaretz on Tuesday that the navy “has dispatched substantial naval forces to the Mediterranean, including several ships equipped with modern cruise missiles.”
Britain’s The Independent, citing local Russian sources, said it was the largest naval buildup of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.
“We will not speculate on the intention of the Russian fleet, but it is important that all actors in the region exercise restraint and refrain from worsening an already disastrous humanitarian situation in Syria,” Lungescu said.
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Russia said the buildup was in response to possible airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition against Syrian government forces. Spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov told Sputnik, a Russian state-run news outlet, that rebels in Idlib province were preparing to stage chemical weapon attacks on civilians and blame the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
“This provocation with the active participation of the British special services will serve as another pretext for the U.S., U.K. and France to conduct a missile strike on the Syrian government and infrastructure,” Konashenkov said.
Last week, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton warned the United States will act “very strongly” if Syria uses chemical weapons to take the province.
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“We now see plans for the Syrian regime to resume offensive military activities in Idlib province,” Bolton said. “We are obviously concerned about the possibility that Assad may use chemical weapons again.
“Just so there’s no confusion here, if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons we will respond very strongly and they really ought to think about this a long time.”
A U.N. humanitarian official told the Security Council on Tuesday that growing military clashes in northwest Syria’s de-escalation zone — particularly in Idlib province — threaten about 3 million civilians.
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John Ging, director of Operations and Advocacy for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, warned of a deterioration of the humanitarian situation, citing airstrikes earlier this months that killed dozens of civilians.