MOSCOW - Two Russian Navy ships are completing preparations to sail to Syria with a unit of marines on a mission to protect Russian citizens and the nation’s base there, a news report said Monday.
The deployment appears to reflect Moscow’s growing concern about Syrian President Bashar Assad’s future.
Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified Russian Navy official as saying that the two amphibious landing vessels, Nikolai Filchenkov and Caesar Kunikov, will be heading shortly to the Syrian port of Tartus, but didn’t give a precise date.
The official said the ships will carry an unspecified number of marines to protect Russians in Syria and evacuate some equipment from Tartus, if necessary.
Each ship is capable of carrying up to 300 marines and a dozen tanks, according to Russian media reports. That would make it the largest known Russian troop deployment to Syria, signaling that Moscow is becoming increasingly uneasy about Syria’s slide toward civil war.
Syrian troops shelled the central city of Homs on Monday, continuing their fierce offensive to root out rebels with tanks, artillery, and helicopter gunships, activists said. Rebels have counterattacked Syrian forces, mostly trying to burn tanks.
“There is renewed shelling and shooting in the city of Homs,’’ said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, citing witnesses on the ground.
Nabil Elaraby, the secretary general of the Arab League, said Monday that the international community should deploy a peacekeeping force, instead of the UN’s existing, beleaguered observer mission, to help end the killing in Syria.
UN observers in Syria are charged with checking compliance with a cease-fire that was supposed to go into effect on April 12 but has not taken hold. On Sunday, mission head Major General Robert Mood demanded that the warring parties allow the evacuation of women, children, the elderly and those who are sick.
The Arab League chief argued that it was time for a change in the UN mandate and a new type of mission.
“And by that I mean a peacekeeping force and not a military force,’’ Elaraby said during a visit to Cyprus. “When there are two parties that have [resorted] to fighting, you cannot have someone just observing unless they both accept [a settlement]. So what you need is someone who can impose a cease-fire.’’
The Russia news agency quoted a deputy Russian air force chief as saying that Russia will give the necessary protection to its citizens in Syria. Major General Vladimir Gradusov said the air force would act on orders if it is necessary to provide air support for the navy squadron. The Defense Ministry had no immediate comment, and an official at the Black Sea fleet declined to comment.
Asked if the Pentagon is concerned about the plan, officials in Washington said it depends on the mission. They had no comment on the stated goal of protecting Russian citizens and the Russian military position there, something the United States would do in a foreign country if in a similar situation.