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Russia to launch major naval drills in Mediterranean as Syria tensions rise

The Soviet Slava Class Guided Missile Cruiser MARSHAL USTINOV begins a five-day goodwill visit to Naval Base, Norfolk, Virginia, marking the first time that ships of the Russian Navy visited an American military port. (PH1 Jeff Elliot/Department of Defense)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Russia says it will launch major naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean Sea later this week, amid growing tensions between Moscow and the West over Syria.

The drills will be carried out from September 1-8 and will involve 25 warships, including a missile cruiser, and 30 aircraft, the Defense Ministry said on August 31.

The ministry said the maneuvers will focus on antiaircraft, antisubmarine, and demining exercises.

The announcement comes as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s ally, appears to be preparing a major assault to regain control of Idlib Province, the last major stronghold of Syrian Sunni rebels.

The United States, Britain, and France at a meeting of the UN Security Council on August 28 repeated their warning to Syria, whose army has been backed by Russian air power, not to use chemical weapons in an assault on Idlib, and said any use of such illegal weapons would result in Western retaliation.

Russia has cited the warning from Western powers in accusing the United States of building up its own forces in the Middle East in preparation for a possible strike on Syrian government forces — something the Pentagon has denied.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on August 30 said the difficult situation in Syria justified the planned Russian naval drills in the Mediterranean.

Peskov called Idlib a hotbed of terrorists and said not tackling the problem was not a good option. Russia often refers to any armed opponent of the Syrian government as a “terrorist.”

Russia has given Assad crucial support throughout the seven-year war in Syria, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and uprooted millions since it began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011.

The UN estimates that a major Syrian government offensive in the Idlib area risks forcing another 700,000 Syrians from their homes.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on August 29 repeated the UN’s warning “about the growing risks of a humanitarian catastrophe in the event of a full-scale military operation” in Idlib.

Guterres appealed to the Syrian government, Russia, and all other parties “to exercise restraint and to prioritize the protection of civilians.”