(MOSCOW) — Russia took another step to position itself as a broker in the ongoing Syrian crisis on Tuesday by sending a fleet of navy ships into the Mediterranean Sea for maneuvers. The naval group includes a contingent of marines and several landing craft.
Russia insists the maneuvers are unrelated to the conflict in Syria, but some Middle East observers believe the move is being made to send a message that Moscow wants plans to protect its interests in the country.
Syria is Russia’s most important relationship in the region, and the coastal city of Tartus is home to a Russian naval fueling station. Russia also has important pipeline and telecommunications interests in Syria.
The move comes one day after Russia announced it would halt new shipments of weapons to the Syrian government until the uprising calms down.
Russia is also making efforts on the diplomatic front by holding talks with members of the Syrian opposition in Moscow. The delegation from the Syrian National Council (SNC) says it wants Russia’s help in halting the violence, which, according to the opposition, has claimed more than 17,000 lives.
The SNC says it will not ask Russia to grant asylum to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a request that the Kremlin has already said it would not honor.
United Nations Special Envoy Kofi Annan met with officials in Iran and Iraq on Tuesday as part of his diplomatic efforts to get the Syrian government and the opposition to agree to his previously-announced peace plan.
On Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney criticized the notion that Tehran could help resolve the conflict.
“I don’t think anybody with a straight face could argue that Iran has had a positive impact on developments in Syria,” Carney said.
Carney did indicate that the U.S. backed the former U.N. secretary-general’s peace proposal, saying, “Broadly, on the Annan plan, we believe that it is essential that the international community come together behind the plan, that the plan be implemented.”
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Laura Smith-Spark and Jose Manuel Rodriguez, CNN
Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
Barbie Latza Nadeau, Margot Haddad, Livia Borghese and Angela Dewan, CNN