Russian defense minister arrives in Syria for naval exercises

The Russian exercises come less than a week after Russia called for Israel to refrain from conducting strikes in Syria.

 Permanent group of the Russian Navy in the Mediterranean Sea, 2016 (photo credit: Russian Ministry of Defence/Wikimedia Commons)
Permanent group of the Russian Navy in the Mediterranean Sea, 2016
(photo credit: Russian Ministry of Defence/Wikimedia Commons)

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu arrived in Syria on Tuesday amid exercises by Russia's Navy in the Mediterranean Sea, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.

Shoygu met with Syrian President Bashar Assad and inspected the naval drills and the Russian airbase in Khmeimim on Tuesday.

"Various issues of military-technical cooperation between the countries were discussed [during the meeting between Assad and Shoygu] in the framework of the joint fight against the remnants of international terrorists, as well as certain aspects of Russia's humanitarian assistance to the population of Syria, suffering from the prohibitive sanctions of the United States and Western countries," according to the Russian RIA Novosti news agency.

Shoygu received a report by the commander of the Russian troops in Syria on the current situation and measures taken jointly with the Syrian armed forces to combat rebel and terrorist groups, as well as providing humanitarian assistance to the local populations, according to the Russian TASS news agency.

 The Khmeimim airbase in Syria (credit: Press Service of the President of the Russian Federation/Wikimedia Commons) The Khmeimim airbase in Syria (credit: Press Service of the President of the Russian Federation/Wikimedia Commons)

More than 15 Russian warships and over 30 Russian aircraft are taking part in joint combat training exercises in the Mediterranean Sea. During the exercise, measures are being worked out to search for foreign submarines and establish control over navigation in the Mediterranean Sea and the flight of aircraft over it, according to the Defense Ministry.

Tu-22M3 bombers and MiG-31K fighters carrying Kinzhal hypersonic missiles were deployed to Khmeimim to participate in the drills, Russia's Defense Ministry announced on Tuesday.

The Russian exercises come amid heightened tensions between Russia and Ukraine, amid concerns that Russia could invade Ukraine.

The Russian exercises come less than a week after Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called for Israel to refrain from conducting strikes in Syria, saying such strikes "are a crude violation of Syria’s sovereignty and may trigger a sharp escalation of tensions.”

Alleged Israeli airstrikes on Latakia, located not far from the Khmeimim airbase, were reported twice in January. Earlier this month, KAN news reported that Russian forces were disrupting GPS signals in the area with advanced electronic systems.

In late January, Syrian and Russian military jets jointly patrolled the airspace along Syria's borders, with plans to make such flights regular, the Interfax news agency quoted Russia's defense ministry as saying.

The path of the group, which included fighter, fighter-bomber and early warning and control aircraft, included the Golan Heights, the armistice line with Israel that has seen regular Israeli airstrikes against suspected Iranian and Hezbollah positions.

Russian forces have been present in Syria since 2015 when they helped turn the tide in a civil war in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.

Reuters contributed to this report.