Russia's threats to send two war ships to its longtime port in Syria is nothing more than "gunboat diplomacy," with the Obama administration remaining mum Monday even as critics are calling for American military intervention.
Russian media reported Monday that Moscow would send two war ships capable of carrying 300 troops to Syria as intense fighting between President Bashir al-Assad's military and opposition forces continues. One two-star Russian general was quoted as saying the coming deployment is intended to "protect our citizens" inside the war-torn nation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly worried about the fall of Assad, Russia's longtime and last remaining ally in the Middle East, experts say.
But would Putin actually order whatever number of troops are aboard the assault ships to engage in fighting against rebel forces?
"This is just a signal in the form of old-style gunboat diplomacy," says Boston University international relations professor William Keylor. "This is just muscle flexing."
"This is two ships. It's not an aircraft carrier strike group," says Keylor. "That kind of large deployment would be cause for alarm."
Still, Putin is sending a signal to the U.S. and other nations—especially to proponents of using military intervention to stop Assad's military from killing more civilians. Keylor says Putin's message to any nation mulling military action is: "Don't mess with us. U.S., you send ships all over the world to protect your interests. And we're going to do the same thing."
The Obama administration had nothing direct to say Monday about the planned Russian deployment. After a one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of a G20 meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, President Obama and Putin signalled they had made some progress on how to handle the Syrian civil unrest.
"From my perspective we've been able to find many commonalities pertaining to all of those issues," Putin told reporters there, according to a pool report.
"We agreed that we need to see a cessation of the violence, [and] that a political process has to be created to prevent civil war," Obama said during a joint session with reporters.
That is likely because "it appears the U.S. and others are taking what the Russians are saying—that this is to protect their people and their military base—at face value," says Olga Oliker, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp. "It's reasonable that the Russians are concerned about these things."
Losing control of its Syrian military facility "would be a big moral hit for Moscow," says Oliker. "It's their only warm-water port in the region. And they have few international ports left."
In recent days, Russian officials have also revealed they are sending missile defense systems to Assad. Experts say that shipment is intended to help the Syrian strongman repel any attempt by the U.S., Washington's regional allies or NATO from attacking Syrian military forces from the skies with missiles or aircraft.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, ranking member of the Senate's Armed Services Committee, panned the Obama administration Monday for doing nothing while Moscow sends Assad "heavy weapons."
The Obama administration seems hopeful that Russia will eventually answer the call to escalate pressure on Assad to the point that the Syrian leader will step aside and call off his forces, who opposition groups claim have killed 14,000 people.
"The problem is the administration already tried this strategy, and Moscow rejected it and shut down the United Nations Security Council," McCain said Monday during a forum in Washington.
McCain called for the U.S. to act "outside the Security Council" to establish "safe havens" inside Syria for use by rebel elements. Under McCain's thinking, opposition forces could use these areas to receive weaponry from America and its allies, review intelligence, plan operations, and hand out humanitarian aid to citizens.
McCain said Obama fails to understand that a political solution is not possible until the military situation has been resolved. "This is not a civil war," McCain says, "because all the military power is on one side and not the other."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.
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