A Russian vessel transporting military helicopters meant for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's military has reversed course and appears headed back to its home nation, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
As that shipment of attack copters is returning to Russia, the Pentagon said Moscow is preparing to send three warships to Syria--one more than initially revealed.
It was not immediately clear why the Russian ship had reversed course, but U.S. officials have been pressing their Russian counterparts to stop arming Syrian rebel fighters. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that U.S. officials have pressed their Russian counterparts to stop sending the attack helicopters, which human rights activists say aid in "crimes against humanity."
Moscow is a longtime ally of Damascus and has for years provided Syria heavy combat weapons. But western pressure to cease those shipments has become increasingly intense as Assad's forces have continued fighting opposition elements in civil battle that opposition forces say have killed 14,000 people.
"Any external support given to the Assad regime of a lethal nature...is intolerable and unacceptable," Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby told reporters Tuesday. "We continue to be concerned with any support ... from outside sources."
As that fighting rages, Moscow announced on Monday it would send two war ships to its military port and base in Syria, its last such facility in the Middle East.
Kirby said U.S. officials have "no indication those vessels are being sent for any other purpose" than what Russia has stated: to resupply the base and to protect Russian military personnel and civilians who are inside Syria.
"Russian citizens have been threatened there in Syria," Kirby said.
But Kirby did reveal the Pentagon believes three Russian ships are being prepared to sail with "equipment and some personnel," though the Defense Department is unsure just how many Russian troops will be on board each vessel.
"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."
"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 by sending the ships. Keylor says that message is simply: "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."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.