Russia is increasing its naval presence in the Mediterranean in response to heightened tensions in Syria, according to a NATO spokesperson. The build-up comes as Syria’s government is expected to start an assault in northern Idlib province, the last stronghold of the rebels.
At least eight ships have joined Russia’s Mediterranean fleet, ABC reports. Oana Lungescu, NATO’s chief spokeswoman, said Wednesday that several of the ships have cruise missiles, but she refused to comment on the fleet’s intentions.
"We will not speculate on the intention of the Russian fleet, but it is important that all actors in the region exercise restraint and refrain from worsening an already disastrous humanitarian situation in Syria," Lungescu said.
Moscow claims Syrian rebels are preparing a chemical attack in Idlib to prompt a Western assault on Syrian government forces. The United States has said it would respond to a chemical attack by government forces in the Syrian province.
Earlier this year, the United States, Britain, and France struck Syrian military targets after an alleged chemical attack, although Russia and Syria deny the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.
President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have called on Russia to resist escalating the conflict in Syria. "Both leaders called for international action to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Idlib Province," White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated.
"Russia is called upon to act in a moderating manner on the Syrian government and prevent a further escalation," said Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s spokesman.
NATO has also expressed concern about Russia’s upcoming war games with China, saying next month’s exercises demonstrate "Russia's focus on exercising large-scale conflict."
Dylan White, NATO’s acting deputy spokesman, added the exercises fit "into a pattern we have seen over some time: a more assertive Russia, significantly increasing its defense budget and its military presence."
The exercises, named Vostok and scheduled for Sept. 11-15, will be Russia’s largest in almost four decades, including about 300,000 soldiers. Russia also invited 3,200 Chinese troops to participate.
"For Russia, it’s mostly about signaling to the U.S. that protracted tensions are pushing the Kremlin closer into the orbit of another geopolitical rival," said Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.