MOSCOW (AP) — Russia has withdrawn all military personnel from its naval base in Syria and replaced them with civilian workers, the Defense Ministry said Thursday.
The ministry did not say when the switch at the base at Tartus took place or how many personnel were deployed there. The minor facility is Russia’s only naval outpost outside the former Soviet Union. It consists of several barracks and depots used to service Russian navy ships in the Mediterranean.
The ministry statement said that Tartus has continued to service the Russian navy ships.
“They are continuing to work in a regular mode, and there is no talk about their evacuation from Tartus,” the statement said. “Tartus remains the official base and repair facility for the Russian ships in the Mediterranean and is continuing to fulfill its mission.”
The ministry didn’t explain why it was replacing military personnel with civilians, but the move could be part of efforts by Moscow to pose as an objective mediator trying to broker Syria peace talks.
Moscow, however, also has an unknown number of military advisers in Syria who help its military operate and maintain Soviet- and Russian-built weapons that make up the core of its arsenals.
Russia has been the main ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, shielding his regime from the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions and continuing to provide it with weapons despite the two-year civil war that has killed more than 93,000 Syrians, according to the U.N. estimates.
The ministry’s statement followed reports Wednesday in the Al Hayat newspaper and Russia’s business daily Vedomosti, which claimed that Moscow had withdrawn all of its military and civilian personnel from Tartus along with all military advisers.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell refused conjecture about the Russian move, but pointed at the “deteriorating security situation.”
“I just can’t speculate if that’s their reasoning,” he added.
Russia announced earlier this month that it will keep a fleet of about dozen navy ships in the Mediterranean, a move seen as an attempt to project power and protect its interests in the region. Russian navy ships have been making regular visits to the Mediterranean in recent months, but the latest announcements by President Vladimir Putin and other officials mark an attempt to revive a Soviet-era practice, when Moscow had a permanent navy presence in the area.
But experts say the current plan will stretch the Russian fleet capability and note that the base in Tartus can’t provide a sufficient backup for a permanent navy presence in the region. The base is also too small for big ships.
Military officials have said in the past that Russian navy ships in the Mediterranean could be used to evacuate equipment and personnel from Tartus. Previous Russian deployments in the area have invariably included amphibious landing vessels, which could serve the purpose.
AP writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.