A flotilla of Russian warships is now in the eastern Mediterranean off the Syrian coast after being sent to reinforce Russia’s military in the area, a naval commander said on state television.
The commander of Russia’s flagship Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, Sergei Artamonov, said via videolink that the ships were now in the “designated zone… in the eastern Mediterranean” and “are now jointly carrying out tasks, maneuvering to the west of the Syrian coast,” according to AFP.
The battle group has travelled to Syria from the North Sea through the English Channel in the biggest such naval deployment in recent years as part of Russia’s military intervention in Syria.
Russia has been flying a bombing campaign in Syria for the past year in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has deployed a naval contingent to back up its operation.
The naval task force has been monitored closely by NATO, whose chief Jens Stoltenberg voiced concern the ships would be used to support the Russian military operation in Syria and “increase human and civilian suffering.”
He confirmed that aircraft are already taking off from the ship’s deck to view the conflict zone.
“Flights are being carried out from the deck… they are working on coordination with the shore port,” he said.
“The flights have been going on practically every day for the last four days,” he added.
Russia’s Interfax news agency on Nov. 11 had cited a Russian military and diplomatic source as saying that Russian MiG and Sukhoi jets have been regularly flying into Syrian airspace from the Kuznetsov to “determine combat missions.”
The Russian television channel also spoke to the commander of the Pyotr Veliky nuclear-powered battle cruiser, which is part of the same flotilla.
Asked whether foreign aircraft were flying over the ships, the commander, Vladislav Malakhovsky, said “they are afraid to come closer than 50 kilometers away, realizing very well how powerful the nuclear cruiser is.”
Russia says it has ceased strikes on rebel-held east Aleppo since Oct. 18 and has also held brief unilateral ceasefires on the ground it calls “humanitarian pauses.”
In Aleppo, Syrian government forces have recaptured all of the areas taken by rebel fighters in a recent assault intended to break the regime siege on the eastern banks of the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Nov. 12.
The Observatory said the army had recaptured key areas including the western district of Dahiyet al-Assad and the village of Minyan outside the city.
Regime forces also advanced south of the city, seizing two areas from the rebels.
The reversals undo all of the progress made during a recent push by opposition fighters, including former al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham front, as they tried to end a government siege on the east of Aleppo city.
Government forces surrounded the city’s rebel-held east in July, severing the last supply line into opposition neighborhoods and imposing a blockade that has led to food and fuel shortages.
Rebels have tried several times to break the siege, succeeding briefly in August, but no aid has entered east Aleppo since July.