* Russian is Syria's main protector and arms supplier
* Ships due to participate in wargames off coast of Syria
(Adds Defence Ministry comment, paragraph 7)
By Thomas Grove
MOSCOW, Jan 17 Two Russian ships heading for a
naval exercise off Syria this month are picking up munitions on
their way to the Syrian port of Tartous, news agencies reported
Russia has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main
foreign protector during a 22-month uprising against his rule
and is its biggest arms supplier. It leases a naval maintenance
and supply facility at Tartous that is its only military base
outside the former Soviet Union.
A Russian General Staff source told the Itar-Tass news
agency that the landing ship Kaliningrad had docked at the
Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk to pick up munitions and
another landing ship, the Alexander Shabalin, was due there for
the same purpose.
It was not clear who the munitions were for, however.
"It's possible that the ships are delivering some kind of
munition for the Syrians, (or) it's possible that they are
carrying it to the Russian (naval base)," said Andrei Frolov, a
naval expert at the Moscow-based military think tank CAST.
"(If it's for the Syrians) it's unlikely to be something
new. But it could be some parts for weapons systems. Possibly
they are delivering munitions of some sort that were repaired in
The Defence Ministry declined to comment on the reports.
Itar-Tass cited an unnamed military source as saying that
the warships would join at least seven others off Syria for what
the Defence Ministry has said will be Russia's biggest naval
exercise in decades.
Frolov said the scale of the manoeuvres was probably
intended to underline Russia's interest in Syria, where it has
repeatedly argued against outside intervention.
Russia, which has blocked three U.N. Security Council
resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to end the violence from
forces loyal to him, delivered nearly $1 billion in arms to
Syria in 2011. CAST said it had been due to send half a billion
dollars' worth last year.
A source close to Rosoboronexport, Russia's arms export
monopoly, said Russia had signed no new contracts with Syria in
2012, but Moscow has defended its fulfilment of existing
Last summer, the United States criticised an attempted
Russian delivery of repaired helicopters, and Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton called Russia's claims that its deliveries were
unrelated to domestic violence "patently untrue".
The ship carrying the helicopters turned back when a British
insurer cancelled its cover after being informed that the ship
was carrying weapons. Russia promised to deliver the helicopters
after reflagging the vessel.
(Reporting by Thomas Grove; Editing by Kevin Liffey)