A group of Russian warships is en-route to Syria, their objective unknown. Russia’s Defense Ministry announced the mobilization of the ships on Tuesday, but did not mention their exact purpose. International speculation is that the ships will be used as evacuation support vessels, meant to assist with the removal of thousands of Russians currently living in the war-torn country to safety. Russia has remained one of the few allies of the Syrian government and President Bashar al-Assad throughout the conflict, and has blocked United Nations plans to remove Assad from power.
As Syrian rebels come closer to ousting Assad and the current government, Russia will be tasked with the protection of its own citizens living in the region. The Defense Ministry confirmed that five ships had been deployed: a destroyer, a tanker, a tugboat, and a pair of landing vessels. Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the Los Angeles Times that though only 5,300 Russian nationals are registered with Russian consulates in Syria; over 100,000 are believed to be living in the country.
“There are thousands of them … Russian women and children from mixed marriages,” Bogdanov told the LA Times. “Half of them support the opposition.”
Russian officials continue to maintain their support of Assad, even as international forces close in on the embattled president. Earlier this month NATO approved a plan to send Patriot antimissile batteries to Syria’s Turkish border. Rumors of a Russian evacuation have been in place since the summer, but government officials would not confirm or deny any plans. Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief for Russia’s National Defense monthly journal, believes that no evacuation will take place before Assad’s complete fall.
“There will be no evacuation while [Syrian President Bashar] Assad remains in power in Damascus,” Korotchenko said in an interview according to the LA Times. “And it is clear now that Moscow will support Assad to the last.”