Why Russia is sending its biggest fleet of warships to the Mediterranean

US and Moscow trade chemical attack warnings ahead of strike on Syria’s Idlib

Russia Warship
Russian warship
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Russia has deployed its largest naval contingent to the eastern Mediterranean since entering the Syrian conflict.

At least ten Russian warships and two submarines have been deployed in what Russian media is describing as the largest naval build-up since Moscow’s intervention in Syria began in 2015.

Observers said that “13 Russian vessels had passed from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean in the past ten days, most armed with Kalibr cruise missiles”, reports The Times.

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The reinforcement “comes as Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is believed to be considering a major assault on the last rebel-held enclave in northern Idlib province”, says news site Al Jazeera.

According to Russia’s Kommersant newspaper, Moscow has also mobilised two surface-to-air missile defence systems in Syria and air defences have been placed on high alert in anticipation of a potential US assault, which the Russian Defence Ministry has said will follow a “false flag” chemical weapons attack staged by West-backed militants.

The reports came as US National Security Adviser John Bolton said that US military had received indications that Assad “was planning to use chemical weapons in an upcoming campaign to retake the final Islamist-held province of Idlib”, says Newsweek. Bolton warned that the US would have a “strong response” if this proved true.

Capturing Idlib “would mark a crucial final stage” in Assad’s plans to put down the rebellion, which broke out against him in 2011, says The Daily Telegraph.

The province is home to around 2.5 million civilians, many of them displaced from other areas. The UN director of humanitarian operations, John Ging, warned that a major offensive in Idlib “has the potential to create a humanitarian emergency at a scale not yet seen” in the seven-year civil war.

Meanwhile, Russia is concerned about preserving its partnership with Turkey, which is deeply worried that an attack on Idlib will send millions of refugees heading towards its border.

A rebel commander told The Times that they were trusting the Turkish government not to abandon them. “It all depends on what Turkey and Russia agree upon and if there is a basic agreement,” he said. “I believe that there will be no battle in Idlib. Turkey won’t let it happen no matter what, even if it has to intervene militarily.”

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