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Moscow sends warships to Syria: war games or evacuation?

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"I am quite sure that Russia is thinking about how to handle the possibility that tens of thousands of our own citizens, and perhaps others, may have to be extracted from a dangerous and volatile situation in Syria," says Sergei Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Economic University in Moscow and a frequent adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"This was a scheduled exercise, and it has the purpose of demonstrating Russia's support for Assad and its important role in the region, but probably the mix of ships in the flotilla has been changed to reflect a potentially more practical purpose," he adds.

Syria has been a political and military partner of Moscow since 1971, and Russia has stubbornly refused to acquiesce to any international action that would license military intervention or tough sanctions against the regime of Mr. Assad.

Shift in tone?

But in recent weeks, Moscow, perhaps sensing the inevitable demise of Assad, has begun to shift its ground. This week, Russia announced that it will cancel new arms contracts with Syria.

On Tuesday, Russia hosted a delegation from the Syrian National Council, the main exiled Syrian opposition group, as part of its efforts to look more flexible.

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