Russia’s Defense Ministry said a navy squadron has set off for the Mediterranean as an Egyptian official said that a U.S. nuclear submarine has passed through the Suez Canal earlier this week heading to the Mediterranean.
Russian news reports quoted the ministry as saying that the squadron was to make a call at the Syrian port of Tartus to replenish supplies. The ministry said the visit had been planned long ago and had no relation to the Syrian crisis, The Associated Press reported.
Russian television stations showed the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft cruiser sailing off Tuesday from Severomorsk, the Arctic base of Russia’s Northern Fleet. The carrier is being escorted by a destroyer and several supply ships and will be joined later by several other warships.
Moscow has strongly opposed the Western push for international sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government for its violent crackdown on protests.
Although the U.S. and the European Union imposed waves of sanctions against Syria in the past months, Washington and its allies have shown little appetite for intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil.
However, an Egyptian navigational source said that a U.S. nuclear submarine has set off from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal, according to Al Arabiya. The source said it might be heading to the Syrian coasts.
The news comes almost two weeks after the U.S. carrier George Bush crossed the Suez Canal on Nov. 20, heading to the Mediterranean and accompanied by five warships.
Syria’s state-run media said on Monday that the country’s military has held war games during which the army test-fired missiles and the air force and ground troops conducted operations “similar to a real battle.”
State TV said the exercise was meant to test “the capabilities and readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression.” It said the war games were held on Sunday.
In October, Assad warned the Middle East “would burn” if the West intervenes in Syria, according to The Associated Press.
Syria is known to have surface-to-surface missiles such as Scuds capable of hitting deep inside its archenemy Israel.
State TV said the exercise was meant to test “the capabilities and the readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression.”
The drill showed Syrian missiles and troops were “ready to defend the nation and deter anyone who dares to endanger its security” and that the missiles hit their test targets with precision, the TV said.
State-run news agency SANA quoted Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha as telling the forces that participated in the maneuvers “to be in full readiness to carry out any orders give to them.”
Meanwhile, there were reports of a move by a huge number of Syrian tanks from the Maaret al-Numan in Idlib to the borders with Turkey, Al Arabiya reported.
On Tuesday, the official Syrian news agency SANA reported that Syrian border guards blocked an infiltration attempt from Turkey by about 35 “armed terrorists”
It said some of those who came over the border were wounded and escaped back to Turkey, where they received aid from the Turkish army. The wounded were transported in Turkish military vehicles, SANA said.
“The border guards forces suffered no injuries or losses. They warned they would stop anyone who even thinks of touching Syria’s security or its citizens,” SANA said.
Relations between Syria and Turkey have disintegrated since Syria began using force to suppress the revolt. Turkey has said a buffer zone may be required on its 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria if the violence causes a mass exodus of Syrians.
Assad still has significant support in Syria despite nearly nine months of unrest in which more than 4,000 people have been killed, according to the United Nations. Many Syrians have not taken sides, fearing chaos or sectarian war.
On Tuesday, clashes erupted between army defectors and security forces in the town of Dael in southern Deraa province, the activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters.
“There were raids and arrests ... and random gunfire and stun grenades exploding to terrify the people,” it said. All telephone lines and mobile phone connections were cut off.
The Syrian news agency earlier reported the funerals of seven army and police members killed in fighting with armed rebels. Syria says the latter are “terrorists” organized and financed from abroad.
Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have stalled and Syria is now the target of international economic sanctions and a travel ban on senior officials.
Syria’s isolation to intensify?
Syria’s isolation will intensify if Damascus fails to stop killing protesters, the British Foreign Office’s minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, said on Wednesday.
“These killings must stop,” Burt told AFP in Tripoli, where he launched the British Council which had been closed during the armed revolt against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime.
Burt welcomed the Arab League’s decision to impose sanctions on the Syrian government.
“The sanctions on Syria by the Arab League are most important. Such sanctions will continue. The isolation of Syria will continue and intensify,” he warned.
The minister expressed hope that Russia, allied with Syria since the Soviet era, would also be “encouraged” to back such moves.