Russia’s Defense Ministry denied on Friday that it plans to send naval vessels to the Syrian port of Tartus, the state-owned RIA news agency said, as Moscow called for Kofi Annan to be urgently replaced as envoy for Syria.
It dismissed reports, attributed by Russian news agencies to a source in the general staff, that Moscow was sending three large landing ships with marines aboard, according to Reuters.
Earlier Friday, Russian news agencies, quoting an unnamed defense source, said Moscow was planning in the coming days to send three assault ships with hundreds of marines aboard to the Syrian port of Tartus to pick up water and food supplies.
Syria is Moscow’s firmest foothold in the Middle East and bought $1 billion worth of weapons from Russia last year, or about 8 percent of total Russian arms exports.
Tartus is the Russian navy’s only permanent warm water port outside the former Soviet Union.
The potential loss of Tartus would be a strategic blow to Russia, according to what the Interfax news agency described as a military-diplomatic source.
“Tartus is of extreme military-strategic importance for the Russian Navy, as the backup for the task forces in the Mediterranean. Therefore, its loss would entail deep negative consequences and the actual loss of influence in this key region,” Interfax quoted the source as saying.
Meanwhile, Russia said Friday that Kofi Annan should be urgently replaced as envoy for Syria, appearing to pin the blame for his sudden resignation on the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad and the West.
Annan, the United Nations’ and the Arab League’s Syria envoy since February, resigned his post on Thursday blaming world powers for not giving him enough backing to his peace drive.
He bemoaned the “continuous finger-pointing and name-calling” in the U.N. Security Council.
“A worthy candidate to succeed Kofi Annan should be urgently found,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement, AFP reported.
“In the developing situation, keeping a U.N. presence in the country acquires special significance,” it said.
Annan’s dramatic resignation dealt a major blow to hopes for a political solution in Syria, whose government has been locked in a bloody conflict with the opposition since March 2011.
Russia, which has vowed to block all attempts to legitimize the use of force against its Soviet-era ally through the United Nations, said a continued U.N. presence in the conflict-torn country was key to finding a peaceful solution.
“At this stage, what is most important is not to allow the slackening of international efforts to solve the crisis in Syria,” the foreign ministry said.
It called the U.N. mission in Syria “an important factor in securing international support for the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people to themselves determine ways for their country's independent democratic development.”
Annan, who took the post in February, has since been to Damascus to meet Assad three times. The Syrian leader accepted Annan’s six-point peace plan, including a ceasefire and moves toward political talks, but never carried it out.
The Kremlin had endorsed Annan’s plan and also backed his initiative at a June meeting in Geneva that called for a political transition in Syria while making no explicit call for Assad to step down.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called Annan’s resignation “a great shame.”
Moscow indicated that the Syrian rebels and the Western and Arab states that support them were at least partially responsible for Annan's decision to quit.
“Unfortunately, the Syrian opposition has consistently rejected all proposals to establish political dialogue.”
“Our Western partners (and) some regional states which could have influenced the opposition have done nothing,” the foreign ministry said.
“Moreover, counter to U.N. Security Council and Geneva decisions all this time they have continued to render political, moral, technical and financial assistance to Syria’s opposition groups essentially encouraging the intransigence of the anti-government forces.”